It is not easy for us foreigners to connect with coffee producers in chaotic environments like Bolivia. Politics, culture, power relations, human relations, and the harsh natural environment are all intertwined and drag us further and further into chaos. The most famous Bolivian producer is Agricafe and the rest of the producers remain in a black box.
Juan is a key person to unravel such a black box. He retired from Agricafe where he worked for many years and built a dry mill in La Paz last year. He started working with smallholders to process their coffee.
Juan’s ambition is to shine a light on smallholders in Bolivia who are still unknown to the world. Many smallholders come to Juan’s dry mill with their coffees. He can judge the quality correctly, process it properly, manage lots, and deliver them to coffee markets around the world. From a roasters’ point of view, Juan is the only point of contact for smallholders in Bolivia that no one knows yet.
Nayra Qata means “the desire to be first” in Quechua, the language spoken in South America.
We traveled together with Juan to the Caranavi area. I’ll never forget the night we spent cupping at the hotel in Caranavi. We were all exhausted but Juan prepared for the cupping saying just a few words. The cupping continued until 11:00 pm.
Juan is a large man with a relaxed demeanor but when he talks about his work, his eyes sometimes become sharp. We listened to him as we walked through the dry mill.
Juan’s Encounter with Don Pedro
“Since my family was poor, I needed to start working at a young age, so when I was 16 years old, I started working at a factory carrying green coffee beans. It was a job of just carrying loads but I worked as hard as anyone. I had always liked to do my job perfectly. Eventually, I was promoted to the plant manager and was entrusted with the work of roasting and machine maintenance.”
A few years after I started working, a producer came to the factory to process his coffees. He looked at me and said, “Do you want to be a gatekeeper in a circus or do you want to be a lion trainer?” In other words, he asked me and said, “You should be doing something that comes with more responsibility.” He invited me to work with him. That was Don Pedro, the current president of Agricafe. I quit the factory and decided to work with Pedro in 1999 when I was 19 years old.
The first place I worked with Pedro was not a good environment. It was an old factory with a warehouse on the first floor and a mill on the second floor where we had to carry coffee beans between the two floors.
In the second year, the river near the factory overflowed and flooded the first-floor warehouse, putting the company in jeopardy. Pedro had to leave me and fire the other employees. Pedro said, “The next year is our last challenge. If I can’t turn the company around, I’ll find another job. You should look for a different job, too.”
Pedro and I found a new factory and started working. I asked Pedro to let me do more work so I started doing inventory control in the morning and office work in the afternoon. As a result of our desperate efforts, the company’s performance gradually recovered.
I think that Pedro and I had a deep understanding of each other. I was the one who understood his thoughts and actions the most. Pedro was a very detailed person but when he asked me to clean something, for example, I was able to handle it perfectly to his satisfaction.
There is an episode that illustrates Pedro’s humanity. One day, he gave me shaving cream, saying, “I won’t use it myself, so I’ll give it to you.” My appearance was a little unclean, so he casually warned me to shave. He is a very thoughtful man.
I have been thinking about becoming independent for about eight years. I was managing more than a thousand micro lots at the time. I began to think that I would like to use my experience to process coffee beans from smallholders that I had not yet seen and introduce them to the world. Another reason was that Pedro’s sons and daughters started to join the management of the company and the atmosphere of the company started to change.
I was asked by Pedro if I could sell the current machine to someone so that he could replace the processing machine, so I decided to buy it myself thinking that I would be independent from his company sometime soon.
When I quit Agricafe, Pedro did not accept my resignation letter. I was really sad to leave the company that I had worked for twenty-two years. There were times when I thought about staying at the company but I had already purchased the machine, so there was no turning back. They took over all the work, I organized all the work and then I started working on my new factory on April 1, 2019.
“The past year and a half have been very hard for me. There were times when I wanted to go back to Agricafe. Since I started the company by myself, even when I was repairing machines at a high place and when a screw fell off from where I am, no one would pick it up. I felt lonely thinking about such trivial things and there were times when I knelt alone in an empty warehouse and prayed to God. My wife and I encouraged each other and managed to keep it going. Oh, by the way, I spent the money, which we saved for buying a car, to lay the concrete for the place where I am being interviewed right now. I am very grateful to my wife.”
About the future
A lot of producers hear the rumors about us and bring their coffees to the mill. Some of them are so poor that they can barely afford to live and I buy their coffees with my money in such cases. For the producers who bring their coffees here, I want to do the best processing I can and provide excellent coffees to the roasters.”
Juan states, “When the Bolivian producers bring their coffee here, we will be able to process them wonderfully and sell them all over the world. We want to grow by having such a presence in this country.”