December 2003 - Steve Aronson
A gradual transition is taking place in Costa Rica toward a freer-trade-based, more complex economy that’s adding value not only to coffee and other agricultural products, but to people as well. It’s pretty exciting.
Thirty years ago, when the country produced and exported only unfinished commodities or raw materials, a coffee picker’s son or daughter probably couldn’t have hoped for much more than to continue in the family tradition and become lifetime coffee pickers, themselves. But a shift to freer trade encouraged grassroots companies to work hard to rewrite the trade rule books, add value to fine local products and do something really crazy – sell them to local consumers hungry for home-grown quality. It worked for us here at Café Britt.
Adding value and selling locally creates a demand for qualified workers at home to control quality, run the machines, fix the computers, serve the customers, and sell the product here and abroad. Today, the sons and daughters of coffee pickers are eagerly “adding value” to themselves to fill these positions. They’re getting educated, learning a language and honing their skills.
Café Britt has many examples on our staff. We have Alex, who was born on a coffee plantation, but who today speaks English and travels around the region teaching hotel and restaurant people how to set up and use espresso machines. Antonieta, the manager of our on-site coffee store, was formerly a coffee picker and cleaning woman. Several members of our sales staff are sons and daughters of small-scale farmers. They’re all success stories.
The opportunities of a more complex economy are making it happen here. Trade pacts like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), once approved, will help the opportunities spread throughout the region.
According to experts who attended last month’s edition of Costa Rica’s premier coffee trade show, Sintercafe, if each person in coffee-producing countries consumed an additional half-kilo of coffee each year, worldwide demand would increase some 50 percent.
Imagine the possibilities of Central America’s further shift from a region of producers to consumers. Imagine the opportunities we could create with enough “value-added” people to help us do it.