Can agriculture be a career that young people aspire to, rather than one they’ll do anything to avoid? For us at Root Capital, the answer is a resounding "yes." Here's why.
In This Corner of Honduras, “Agriculture” Isn’t a Dirty Word
For young people in many farming communities, agriculture has become a dirty word. But in Ocotepeque, Honduras, ag is cool.
Many young people perceive agriculture as a career that’s difficult, unrewarding or devoid of pathways for career advancement. Often, their perceptions prove true. And in parts of Honduras, the challenges faced by young people in rural regions have risen to the level of a perfect storm.
The coffee crop disease known as la roya hit the country particularly hard, destroying a large percentage of the coffee trees cultivated by many Honduran farmers. As they recover, these farmers must reckon with drastic shifts in weather that make it difficult to predict where crops will thrive and where they will fail.
Seeing their parents grapple with these challenges, many young people choose to leave farming communities entirely. Whether to the cities of Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula or aboard the freight trains that hurtle northwards toward the United States, this journey is fraught with risk — and for those who make it, the opportunities they seek often fail to materialize.
The leaders of COCAFELOL — a coffee cooperative in Ocotepeque — recognized that this trend threatened the strength of their community, the safety of their young people and the long-term sustainability of their business. So they took action.
“To produce quality coffee, the producer needs to have a quality life,” says financial manager Delmy Regalado. Delmy and her team have thought hard about the best way to improve livelihoods for their producers. The solution they found? Teaching young people in their community why coffee matters.
Led by Delmy’s colleagues Yeny Yamilet Salazar Reyes and Rosely Hernández, COCAFELOL’s staff have designed a series of coffee-themed educational programs for their producers’ children — some as young as seven. Younger children can take part in after-school activities designed to “cultivate a love and passion for coffee” through coffee-themed games and art projects. Once the kids hit their teens, COCAFELOL starts offering general vocational training in everything from soil health and composting to cupping, tasting and quality control. When they complete this training, they can choose to specialize in agronomy and organic farming, coffee cupping and barista training, or financial management.
Throughout these programs, COCAFELOL’s staff help the children with their homework — if they succeed in school, they argue, they’ll succeed in their careers and their community. Last but not least, COCAFELOL regularly hires its members’ children right out of these programs, ensuring a steady supply of young talent while training young people for jobs that actually exist.
To run such a strong educational program, COCAFELOL needed a strong business foundation, which the cooperative’s leaders admit didn’t necessarily come naturally to them at first. After finding out about Root Capital at a coffee conference in 2011, Delmy approached us to learn what she would need to apply for a loan. “You needed a lot of information,” she reflects. “Honestly, at first it intimidated me!”
But after participating in a few of our advisory trainings, Delmy and her team realized that they already had all of the financial information they needed to complete their application. We worked with COCAFELOL to fill out their first credit inquiry in 2015, and approved a loan for $750,000 later that year. They paid the loan back in full, and are currently on track to repay a second $1 million line of credit next year. They’ve used this financing to purchase approximately 120,000 pounds of coffee from their 338 producer-members and pay them promptly for their hard work. In a country where 65 percent of the population lives in poverty, that’s no small feat.
When asked what she enjoys about her work, Rosely speaks about the importance of integrating the children’s schooling with educational programs relevant to the jobs they’ll likely end up doing. “And the parents are happy that their kids are continuing careers in agriculture!” she adds.
For Yeny, it all comes back to the fact that COCAFELOL isn’t just cultivating coffee. They’re cultivating a passion for a crop their community depends on and strengthening that community in the process. However, she adds, the work isn’t without its challenges. Breaking out into a grin, she says, “It’s sometimes hard to get these kids to look away from their phones.” It seems that some things truly are universal!