Thursday, December 13, 2012

Students learn about development through La Unión visit

This post was written by two Calvin College students, who spent two weeks in La Unión as part of an internship with their semester in Honduras program.

By Isaac DeGraaf and Eric Hollis

Our names are Eric and Isaac and we’ve been studying in Honduras for about three and half months through our school, Calvin College. We study international development, and as part of our class, we have a two week internship at an organization of our choice. We visited Unión MicroFinanza earlier this semester with our class, and we were very interested in how it is run and how it has found a home here in La Unión.

During our time in La Unión, we had the opportunity to stay in aldeas (villages) with coffee farmers and their families. The following is a picture of our experiences:

Eric's story: 

Noe Amaya works on a pila in Nueva Paz.
I stayed in Nueva Paz for two nights and three days with Noe Amaya and his family. Noe is one of the construction leaders for a Community Partnership pila project (pilas are concrete basins used for storing water and for washing). The first day, I got to help work on the pilas with him, and I asked him questions about the partnership groups that came to Honduras. We had some great conversations and I was quite impressed with my Spanish!

Staying with his family was awesome and it practically moves me to tears how loving the family was toward me. And he has three sons! As a guy that has grown up with two sisters, I was pumped. I got really close to all of them: their ages were three, twelve, and thirteen. Even as I was there hanging out with them, they kept telling me I had to come back and see them again.

The second and third days I worked with the two older boys in the coffee fields. The field was about a 30-minute hike away, and it was tough. It hurt my pride a little because I was walking the trail slowly and cautiously while they were running and jumping through it. The field was in the middle of the mountains and the view was gorgeous. For two days I cleaned the coffee fields, which is a fancy way of saying hacking away at long grass surrounding the coffee plants with a machete. These two kids work in the fields every day. If they’re in school, they go to the coffee fields after classes, and if they don’t have school then they work most of the day. 

The fact that coffee is so big in the area reflects UMF’s development method once again – by seeing what the people are doing and how they’re living. UMF’s microloan and education program, market access, and emphasis on quality reflect a perfect fit for the communities when it comes to development.

Through our discussions with UMF staff, we learned how the Community Partnership Program is different than other short-term programs. UMF, the partner organization, and the community work together to build relationships that help foster greater understanding of the needs and resources of the community. And the community is involved at every step through a community board of directors who help make decisions.

Isaac DeGraaf and Eric Hollis in La Unión.
Isaac's story: 

The aldea I went to is called El Águila. It is one of the smaller aldeas around La Unión and it consists of about 15 houses and 90 people. Like most of the area around La Unión, it is surrounded by fields of coffee. I stayed with Francis Castillo and his family, and they own a coffee field about a 20-minute walk from their house. They are currently in the process of picking coffee, and I was eager to get my hands dirty and involved in the process. So, 10 minutes after getting dropped off, I was picking coffee.

Picking coffee isn’t a particularly hard task and almost anyone could do it. I was surprised to see not only Francis picking coffee, but also his wife, sister, nephew, and father. It was truly a family effort, and as they picked they chatted to pass the time. At about noon on my first day, the rain started and we called it quits in the field. I then experienced the life of a rural Honduran by trying to pass the time with not too much to do. I practiced English with Francis, who is currently taking lessons, I played countless games of bingo with Francis’s niece and nephew, and I sat on the bench outside their home watching the clouds come and go.

Time seemed to go so slow, but before I knew it, dinner was ready and shortly after, bedtime. The next morning we were up at 6:30 to head to the field. We ate breakfast in the field before we started picking, and then the day repeated itself much like the first day. We finished picking at around noon and spent the rest of the day just trying to pass the time. I was so glad I was given the opportunity to live in El Águila and experience life in rural Honduras.

During this development semester we have taken in Honduras, we’ve had the great privilege to be able to travel all over the country and experience the culture of Honduras. But one thing we hadn’t done was stay with a family in a rural town. We’ve seen a lot of the city life, which makes up about half of Honduras’s population, but we’d never really stayed in the rural areas of Honduras. These two weeks in La Unión were the perfect opportunity to learn about life in the aldeas with Unión MicroFinanza. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Construction continues at beneficio

Our beneficio additions are progressing! We are very excited that the coffee processing center will soon have a roof over it, and the vermiculture is getting its drainage system to remove excess water while coffee pulp is decomposing into organic fertilizer.

Below, you can see the progress of the construction.

Martir constructs the walls of the biosand filter next to the upper water tank:

The roof is going up over the processing center. Teja (clay tiles) will provide the cover over the wood:

One of two new solar dryers has been constructed:

The water treatment trenches have been cleaned out and are ready to receive processing wastewater:

A road is being built to better enable vehicles carrying coffee to reach the beneficio:

The aisles of the vermiculture are getting a drainage system to prevent flooding:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Community Development: An Integrated Approach

By Patrick Hughes

Through my time working in development, I have come across many misguided concepts. One of the most common is the idea that there is a silver bullet that can achieve development, that there is one solution that will help people to live a dignified and fulfilling life. I see many organizations that have chosen their method and move forward unaware of or without acknowledging the intricate problems faced by the materially poor of the world. I have listened to people tell me that UMF’s integral approach to development is misguided and that we would be able to serve better if we focused just on microloans, or just market access, or just community development projects. However, my experience has continually reinforced my belief that integrated development efforts based on the specific needs of communities is the only way that sustainable development can be achieved.

One example of a silver bullet has been brought to the front of my mind recently, and I feel the need to talk about it: the idea that poor people don’t need financing, they need savings accounts—all they need is a way to save money, and they will be able to pull themselves out of poverty.

This idea assumes that poor people simply aren’t intelligent enough, aren’t hard-working enough, or lack the proper manner to save money to care for their families. It also assumes that they face the same issues that we do in the developed world.

It says that rules for poor people should be different than rules for rich people. While most people would like to look at their lives and claim, “I built that,” without outside help, it just isn’t the case. Most students who have graduated from college have had their education financed, whether through governmental, private, or family money. Most people who own a home have a mortgage spread over decades. Most people who own a car have a loan to pay for it. And it is rare to find a business that has been completely funded without loans for growth.

So where do we get the idea that poor people can grow their business, repair their home, purchase new land, or deal with major illness through the simple mechanism of savings? By the sheer nature of being poor, they have much less money to work with, and generally there is much greater demand on the resources they do have. A family that lives on $1/day does not face the same choices that we face in the developed world. A dollar can buy a school notebook, 3 lbs. of beans, or two cinder blocks. It cannot buy all of them at the same time. It cannot come close to buying an $8 pair of rubber boots to protect their feet, a $10 school uniform, or even one $9 sheet of aluminum roofing for a home.

And yet, we look at the developing world and say that they need to be better at saving their money. The fact of the matter is when a family needs food, a child needs a notebook to study, or a home needs a new piece of roofing material, I would consider it irresponsible to put extra money in savings rather than address those immediate needs.

A friend of mine recently brought me a proposal for a $6,000 home, made of cinder blocks, to replace his current mud-brick and wood home, which has deteriorated beyond repair. The home includes a kitchen, 2 bedrooms for him and his 10-person family, which includes children and grandchildren, and a bedroom to care for sick persons in his community (as he serves as the local doctor in his community). Altogether, the home is 29’ x 15’, or 435 square feet. A day laborer makes $6.50 per day in rural Honduras. This means he would have to work every day for three years without spending a penny if he wants to build this house. More realistically, if he works an average of 3.5 days a week—an amount that is still generous considering the many times when work is scarce—he would have to work five years straight without spending a penny. If he saves 25% of his income, it would take a full 20 years.

Why shouldn’t he have access to a 30-year mortgage to build his home? Why do we tell him that he needs to save his money to rebuild a house, as we make monthly payments on a mortgage or student loans? Why do we think that we should live by different rules than poor people?

Savings are important in the developing world, just as they are in the developed world. But, as they are used in the developed world, savings in the developing world should be used for smoothing out cash flow ups and downs. Savings should be available to purchase agricultural supplies for a field, medicine for basic illness, or schools supplies for children. We shouldn’t expect that savings be used to build homes, purchase land, or pay for higher education. Investments like these need innovative, long-term financial solutions that are tailored to the unique needs of low-income persons. These need to be available to people without formal collateral or credit histories, and they need to be tailored to the needs of clients.

But, microloans are not a silver bullet, either. The world’s poor face myriad issues, and they must have access to integrated services that reflect this. Development must include not just savings or microloans, but also access to insurance, markets for goods, proper health care, a good educational system, clean water, and basic sanitation and hygiene systems.

People in the developed world have access to health insurance, life insurance, vehicle insurance, and house insurance. Farmers in the developed world have access to agricultural insurance that protect them in the case of natural disasters or drought, and commodities markets to protect them against swings in the price of inputs and the sales price of their harvest. All of these must be made equally available to the world’s poor.

In the developed world, we often take for granted access to clean water, sanitation systems like black water treatment, and hospitals that are well staffed and stocked with new technology and medicines. However, the world’s poor often do not have access to some, if any, of these services. Giving access to financial instruments like savings and microloans is insufficient without guaranteeing access to drinkable water. The different issues that the world’s poor face are not independent of each other. A farmer who is sick from unclean water or contamination because of the lack of proper sanitation systems will be unable to work. If he also lacks access to doctors or medicine, simple illnesses may extend for weeks, months, or may incapacitate the farmer.

People in the developing world face great challenges, challenges of a complexity and magnitude that we do not face in the developed world. It is time that we abandon the idea that there is a single silver bullet that can help them overcome these challenges, and begin working to create the integrated financial, educational, and health services that are necessary.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thoughtful Consumerism: A Holiday Story

It’s simple, really. Six signatures on a piece of paper. Six signatures of the producers whose beans are included in our holiday roasts.

Alfredo Ponce. Sara Juarez. Raul Perdomo. Antonio Ponce. Jake Compaan. Eduin and Nely Valdez.

But these signatures change things. When each of these producers signed the contract to sell their coffee through UMF, they weren’t just writing down their names. They were rewriting the story of coffee. Coffee is often seen merely as a commodity, purchased for cheap and processed carelessly, roasted and flavored and resold again and again until the final product is as distant as possible (physically and philosophically) from the farmers who grew it. But these are not nameless, faraway farmers. And we are not thoughtless consumers.

We want to tell a story of thoughtful consumerism, a story of direct links to the people who produced the coffee in your cup or the food on your plate. The benefits of this type of direct consumerism range from tangibles like fair wages for producers to intangibles like a sense of global community and responsibility.

So in releasing our two holiday roasts for the season, we proudly display the signatures of the coffee producers who contributed to them. We highlight their signatures in an effort to highlight them, the individuals who carefully cultivated these beans over the last year. This is the story of coffee we want to tell.

The holidays are upon us. This means purchasing gifts for family and friends, brewing a hot pot of coffee on a cold morning, and hosting dinners or gatherings that end with cups of coffee around the table. We encourage you to use these opportunities to join us in telling this story of coffee - the story of thoughtful consumerism and, ultimately, the story of people.

Join us in telling this story. Buy a bag to brew or give as a gift. Get to know our farmers. Read about what makes this coffee so great. 

Our holiday blends:

Beneficio Blend

This blend features the coffees of Alfredo Ponce, Sara Juarez, and Antonio Ponce. Their coffees were processed at UMF’s beneficio, or coffee processing facility. It was our first year running the beneficio, so all three producers displayed trust in choosing us to process their coffee. All three producers are amazing members of their community. Alfredo Ponce lives and works in La Unión, at a facility across from our office. Sara, also from La Unión, is the matriarch of a family of coffee farmers. Her son is Fito Juarez, another producer we have purchased coffee from (read about him here). Antonio Ponce, or Toñito, is a leader in his community of San Carlos. His story was featured in a series of articles in Fresh Cup magazine and we’ve collaborated with him, his community, and the amazing organization METAD on a clean water project in San Carlos. Their coffees combined beautifully into a smooth, sweet cup with notes of berries and brown sugar.

Honey Processed Blend

This coffee comes from two fincas, or coffee farms. The first is that of Alfredo Ponce, the producer who also contributed to our Beneficio Blend. The second finca belongs to Raul Perdomo, Jake Compaan, and Eduin and Nely Valdez. All are teachers or administrators at the Vida Abundante Christian School in La Unión. These producers used a special technique to process their coffee called pulped natural processing. Coffee beans are usually washed after they’re removed from their fruit, but pulped natural beans forgo this washing and are dried with the sweet fruit pulp left on. This leads to a very fruity, bright flavor with strong notes of raspberries and champagne.

Interested in buying a bag? Contact us or purchase online here

by Morgan Fett

Friday, November 30, 2012

A new team member: Tsuyoshi Domoto

This post was written by Tsuyoshi Domoto, who is volunteering with Unión MicroFinanza and plans to join the team as an intern in Honduras in February.

I first came across microfinance when I picked up Muhammad Yunus’ book Banker to the Poor at a bookstore in Los Angeles. I can’t pinpoint what had drawn me to that book out of the thousands in that bookstore. Maybe it was the gold logo on the top right corner of the book, which stated that Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank were co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Or maybe it was my inner soul trying to reconnect with the outside so called “real world,” with which our college community was so out of touch. I was still a freshman in college at the time and I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what I was supposed to do for the upcoming summer break! Little did I know then that Yunus’ book would come to define the rest of my college career and potentially the rest of my life.

Fast forward several years to November 2011; a colleague and I were having lunch in the Marunouchi business district of downtown Tokyo. It was inside a traditional Japanese izakaya (Japanese style drinking house) located in the basement of an office building. It was because of the conversation that I had with my colleague there that I decided I had to fundamentally change the direction of my life.

We were discussing the Japanese virtue of gaman, which he said had two definitions; one was that of patience and endurance, but the other was that of persistence. He then put it in context and laid out a scenario where one would be working hard and enduring gaman all for the sake of gaman. The next scenario was one where he/she would be enduring gaman, except this time for a noble goal, a worthwhile cause.

It was a rude awakening for me that I had, until then, mindlessly endured my work just for the sake of it! I had worked in a 9-to-5, or at times a 9-to-9 (or even later), sort of job for the previous year and a half, which was unfulfilling, monotonous and to me, lacking in value. At the end of the day, creating confirmations or financial contracts for derivative transactions isn’t something that you can say is really “changing the world for the better.” I came to the realization that if I was going to endure hardships, face obstacles and surmount challenges, it would be for a cause that I cared deeply about.

Enter my grandmother. When people ask me, “Who is your hero?” I usually reply with an embarrassed smile on my face, “it’s my grandmother.” I personally do not know anyone else who has had to endure so much in one lifetime and yet have the spirit to say that she is blessed and that she has no regrets about her life.

However, there is one thing that she told me that she wished could have been different…and that was to complete her studies. However, due to the circumstances of the time she was yanked out of third grade so she could learn a trade (sewing) in a distant town to support her family. She was an intelligent woman who loved to learn, and if she had been given the opportunity to fulfill her potential, I wonder what she could have accomplished. Recently, when I was in Japan, I watched her as she studiously worked on a math Kumon worksheet. She had not given up her dream at the age of 90 and her passion for learning was still as strong as ever. I was moved to my core and with it, I came to the realization that it is for people like her for whom I must dedicate my life.

My father has always used a relay as a metaphor for life. One generation must pass on the baton to the next in this never-ending race of human civilization. My grandfather was only able to give my father just enough so he could complete his higher education. My father has taken a step further in allowing me to study in the United States as well as travel to countries he himself could only have dreamed of visiting.

It is now my turn to pass the baton. In the past, I had pondered if it was my responsibility to put my son or daughter on a space ship and take them to the corners of the universe. I now realize that the answer could be found not far in space, but in reality, right in front of my eyes.

The baton needs to be passed not only to my children, but also to children around the world; some, like my grandmother, are yearning to go to and finish school, yet do not have the resources or the opportunities to do so. My responsibility is to help them have an equal chance in this race, in this relay, so they can stand on the starting line just as my own children will one day.

This is where microfinance returns to the picture. Microfinance is a tool that is, despite its imperfections, the best we have in eliminating poverty. It allows people who have been deprived of an equal opportunity to stand side-by-side with others at the starting line. It is not a hand out, but a hand up. This firm belief in the power of microfinance and a strong sense of responsibility is what has led me to my decision to move to La Unión, Honduras, to work with UMF and its team. Uncle Ben from Spiderman summed it up best when he said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I am no Spiderman and I have a lot to learn, but I hope I will be able to make a positive difference in the lives of the Honduran people during my time there.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cooking with coffee

Celebrate Thanksgiving this year with a new recipe or two -- that involve coffee. Coffee enriches the taste of many foods, not only desserts. Below are a few recipe ideas to get you started; you can share your own favorite recipes in the comments, or let us know how these turned out for you. We recommend using some freshly roasted Honduran coffee, which also serves as a perfect follow-up to post-turkey-coma. You can support farmers in La Unión by purchasing coffee here, where you can find our beneficio blend, and coming soon, our new honey processed coffee.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Baked beans, flavored with coffee, molasses and brandy.

Add espresso to traditional pumpkin pie.

Serve turkey with a coffee barbecue sauce.

For a different meat, try lamb in coffee sauce.

It’s never too cold for coffee ice cream.

Need more ideas? This website has 14 coffee-based recipes for you to try. What is your favorite coffee recipe?

Monday, November 12, 2012

A cup of coffee with Noe Amaya

By Morgan Fett

The first time I saw Noe Amaya, I was a little distracted. I had just taken my first ride on the back of a motorcycle through the mountains of La Unión. Our Field Officer Gilberto brought me to the village of Nueva Paz to help examine pilas, large cement water cisterns, in various homes in the community. We were embarking on a community partnership project there, where a clean, fresh source of water was hours away.

Noe and his family.
A motorcycle ride through the mountains of western Honduras is the most breathtakingly beautiful experience. For a good hour or so afterwards it’s hard to snap out of the dreamy reverie it inspires. Noe, however, snapped me out of it right away. He was too expressive and too energetic to ignore. In many ways, Noe is the leader of Nueva Paz, a village that participates in our microloan program. He regularly lends his knowledge of construction, coffee, or various other skills to community members who need it. People stop by his house often, asking for advice or looking for a connection to some resource or person. Noe is the man to advise, to connect people, to lead. He had already built a pila in his own home, but he lent his knowledge to build pilas in other homes during the community partnership project. In typical Noe fashion, he offered his help in any way, and then ended up coordinating and leading most of the work.

Noe isn’t from La Unión. He’s from the state of Atlantida along the northern coast of the country, which makes his role as a leader in the insular community of Nueva Paz that much more impressive. He has a small coffee farm, or finca, that measures around 1.2 acres. His wife and three young sons help maintain and harvest his finca, making it truly a family affair. Noe cultivates his own field in addition to picking coffee on larger farms during the harvest, working on bean or corn farms, and taking on any construction job or odd job he can. Due to his unceasing energy, he turns this eclectic mix of exhausting work into a livelihood for himself and his entire family.

His passion, however, is his coffee field. From his small field he managed to grow a great coffee; his beans contribute to our Dark Roast. When you talk to Noe, you understand why he’s reaping great things from a tiny stretch of land. The word calidad - quality - threads through his conversation about coffee. “That’s my plan, growing a coffee of can’t grow coffee without caring about its calidad...the goal of utilizing UMF’s resources is to increase the calidad of my coffee.” Because of this, I love listening to Noe talk about his coffee. He thinks critically about his harvest. He has a vision for his coffee - one of a specialty-grade product, one where the bottom line isn’t necessarily the money he can make from his harvest but rather the name he can make for himself as a producer of coffee. This combination of energy and vision makes me excited to follow Noe’s future as a coffee producer.

Noe leads construction on a pila.
The last time I saw Noe Amaya, he was shouting over a thunderstorm pounding against his tin roof. It was about six months after first meeting the Amaya family, and I had come back to Nueva Paz with another UMF Field Officer, Martir. We were visiting friends in the community when the thunderstorm made any chance of driving our motorcycle down the muddy roads too dangerous to attempt. Noe, of course, offered to let us stay with his family until the storm cleared. His wife Mirna served us cups of coffee and plates of tamales, and we chatted about life. Noe talked about his plans for his field, for the success of his community, and the need to take ownership of the circumstances we’re born into. I sat there for a long time, soaking up his wisdom, nodding at Mirna’s clever interjections, and playing with their youngest son. I felt honored that UMF was connected to this family.

Eventually the storm cleared, and Martir went to grab the motorcycle. I should have been excited because the sun had set and we were going to drive through the Honduran mountains under the stars. But I wanted to stay, to keep talking about life and gleaning all the warmth and wisdom I could from Noe and Mirna. I realized that I had finally found something even more beautiful than a mountain moto ride under the stars, something I had thought impossible until meeting the Amaya family.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Beneficio improvements begin ahead of coffee harvest

Unión MicroFinanza has begun improvements on its beneficio in advance of this year’s coffee harvest. These additions will increase the quality of the coffee processed at the beneficio, which will give farmers a higher price for their coffee.

But these changes will not only improve coffee processed here; they will also serve as examples for farmers who process their own coffee, so they may see how to make improvements on their facilities. As with everything that we do at the beneficio, all of the changes are designed to be easily replicable by farmers in the area. We also want to constantly reduce the environmental impact of processing coffee, and many of these changes will help us reduce our environmental impact.

This is an introduction to the improvements we will be making this year, but watch this blog throughout the coming months as we explain each in more detail and provide photos of the construction.

Here’s what we’ll be working on:
·         Receiving tank improvements – We will be moving receiving tanks and redesigning them to make it possible to receive, sort, and move coffee with much less water usage.
·         Mechanisms to sort green and partially pulped cherries – These sorters will help ensure that any coffee that is damaged or not fully developed will be separated from good coffee.
·         A biosand water filter for water to be used in processing – This filter will ensure that all water used for fermenting, washing, and sorting coffee will be of the highest quality.
·         Construction of two additional solar dryers – These solar dryers will help increase the capacity of processing, since drying was our largest bottleneck last year.
solar dryer construction
We're building two more solar dryers so we can
process more coffee at a given time.
·         A roof over the beneficio – It’s no fun processing coffee without a roof over your head when it is 50 degrees and raining. The roof will also help keep direct sunlight or rain from falling on fermenting coffee, thereby increasing quality.
·         Tiles in the fermentation tanks – These tiles will make it easier to keep fermentation tanks cleaner, which will increase quality.
·         New drainage tubes in the fermentation tanks – These drainage tubes will facilitate easier and more complete washing of coffees after the fermentation process.
·         Improvements on the road leading to the beneficio – We want to ensure that any car/horse/person can get into the beneficio, and the road improvements will facilitate this access.
·         An overflow valve for the water tank to prevent flooding – Large amounts of rain previously caused our water storage tank to overflow. This valve will send excess water into our water treatment channels, where it can be recycled for future use.
·         A drainage system in the vermiculture – This will allow us to catch runoff from coffee pulp, which can be recycled as organic pesticide and fertilizer.
·         Paint for the correteo – This will help us keep the correteo sorting mechanism cleaner, and will protect the cement from sun damage.
·         Water treatment and water system improvements – These improvements will help us to effectively treat coffee processing water to avoid environmental contamination.

We are very excited to start receiving this year’s harvest at the beneficio, and we hope that through these coming blog posts, you will learn more about coffee production, the environment, and coffee farmers in Honduras.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Farmers use micro-organisms to recycle coffee pulp

Nelson Gamero talks to coffee farmers about micro-organisms.
On Oct. 25, UMF hosted a training session at its beneficio for coffee farmers to learn about micro-organisms and treating coffee pulp and coffee processing wastewater. The training, organized by the Honduran environmental organization UMA, was led by engineer Nelson Gamero of USAID-ACCESO.

UMF has been testing different ways to treat coffee pulp and turn it into organic fertilizer. Treating coffee pulp – the fruit that encases the bean and that is removed during processing – is an important way to reduce environmental impact in processing coffee. Untreated, this pulp is extremely contaminating to the environment. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of untreated coffee pulp contains contaminants equal to a day’s worth of human excrement. The water used in processing must also be treated: 1 liter of untreated processing water contains contaminants equal to 15 liters of urine. If all of the coffee pulp in Honduras were left untreated, it would be as if a 2.6-million person city had no form of waste treatment.

Coffee pulp and processing water can be recycled as fertilizer, but they must be treated first in order to keep from acidifying the soil, producing odor, and contaminating groundwater. Here are where micro-organisms come in. There are different ways to break down coffee pulp into fertilizer, which we outlined in a previous blog post. The least-expensive option, while it takes some work and time, can be done with local materials: home-made organic product composed of locally-grown micro-organisms.

Farmers prepare micro-organisms to treat coffee pulp.
“We must learn how to take advantage of the things that we throw away,” Gamero said. Farmers can find these micro-organisms simply by going up in the hills and looking under a pile of decomposing leaves, for example. Once gathering an initial collection of micro-organisms, farmers can grow more and keep them in an air-tight container. These micro-organisms could also potentially be used for black-water treatment, compost piles, and even as a digestive tea.

UMF will work with farmers in its microloan and training program to build on this training session during the coming harvest. We will be distributing micro-organisms, teaching how to properly use them to treat coffee pulp and wastewater, and working with farmers to implement this technology to decrease environmental impact of coffee processing in La Unión.

Friday, October 26, 2012

How to make organic fertilizer from coffee pulp

This past coffee harvest, UMF made its first steps toward producing an organic fertilizer from coffee pulp. Turning the fruit of the coffee cherry that encases the bean into an organic fertilizer helps us promote environmental and economic sustainability in coffee production. To give an idea of the importance of this, every kilogram of untreated coffee pulp contaminates the environment as much as a day’s worth of human excrement. It has been several months since we began treating coffee pulp from our processing plant, and we are excited to say that the fertilizer is ready to be applied.

There are several different ways to produce organic fertilizer from coffee pulp; the main two ways are through a vermiculture and through accelerated degradation by addition of micro-organisms. UMF did a trial of three different ways to break down toxic coffee pulp:

1) Vermiculture: 

We spread the pulp, gave it a few weeks for initial decomposition (when the temperature of the pulp and moisture content can be harmful to worms), and then added a bunch of California Red Worms, provided to us by IHCAFE. These worms eat and digest the coffee pulp, slowly breaking it down.

2) Commercial Organic Product: 

We sprayed the coffee pulp with BioAG, a commercially available, certified organic product of enzymes and micro-organisms. This product breaks down the pulp through a mixture of yeasts, sugars, and bacteria that digest the pulp.

3) Home-made Organic Product: 

With the same goal as commercial products, the home-made organic product is made using bacteria and micro-organisms found in coffee farms and then cultivated.

Gilberto and Martir take samples for soil analysis.
Each product has advantages and disadvantages. The vermiculture is relatively inexpensive (the only input is worms, which are readily available for free from a variety of sources) but requires close attention to maintain proper moisture levels. BioAG is the easiest of the three solutions, requiring only one application and no further care, but is relatively expensive. And the home-made organic product is very inexpensive, but requires a large amount of up-front work to prepare and replicate micro-organisms. It also requires a series of applications and works more slowly than BioAG or the vermiculture.

We took samples from each of the three trials and prepared them for soil analysis. These samples are on their way to the IHCAFE soil analysis lab where the three trials will be tested for macronutrients, micronutrients, and soil structure. Once we have these results, we will be able to compare ease of use, cost, and quality of organic fertilizer produced by each of the three methods.

Farmers learn about growing micro-organisms at a training
with UMF, USAID and UMA.
We are the first organization in the area to run a trial of a variety of forms of organic fertilizer production. This means that once we get soil samples back from the lab, we will be able to give informed advice to hundreds of farmers on how to best convert toxic coffee pulp into beneficial organic fertilizer.

We have already hosted a training session for farmers to show the different ways of producing organic fertilizer from coffee pulp.

We will post results from the soil analysis when they come back (generally 30-60 days), and we are excited to begin preparation for this year’s coffee harvest, when we plan to expand practical trials and research in coffee production. This will allow us to better assist farmers as they strive for better quality and environmental sustainability.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

San Carlos welcomes clean water into homes

The community of San Carlos celebrates the water system.
Strings of balloons hang from the dense branches of an old tree, shading the people of San Carlos as they listen to speeches by representatives of the community, municipality, schools and churches.

Down the road from the gathering, an electric pump pulls water from deep underground and sends it to a storage tank that sits on a hill overlooking the village. From this tank, clean water flows through a pipe system to serve each home in San Carlos, a village of La Unión. This is the reason for the balloons.

On Sept. 29, San Carlos inaugurated its water system, a project that was completed as a partnership among Unión MicroFinanza (UMF), Medical, Education, Training and Development, Inc. (METAD) and the community of San Carlos. The system gives consistent water access to the people of San Carlos, who previously used a hose to gather surface water that was often only available during rainy season. This was reason enough to celebrate. But this project will also improve health: the surface water on which the village previously relied was contaminated by sewage, coffee processing waste water, and chemical runoff from nearby farms. This is the first potable water system in the villages surrounding La Unión.
Tonito Ponce enjoys clean water from an underground well.

With training and financial resources from METAD, UMF helped direct the project from initial assessments by a water engineer to the finishing touches on the system. The village of San Carlos created a committee to ensure that the community was involved in decision-making from the start of the project, and they worked closely with UMF and METAD. The water committee is also responsible for system maintenance and continued education in the village about clean water use, hygiene and sanitation.

The speakers at the inauguration celebrated the benefits of a water system for the community, but one could see the benefits firsthand by walking to a nearby spout and filling up a glass of crystal-clear water.

Partners involved in the water project celebrate at the inauguration:
The community of San Carlos, METAD, UMF and the municipality of La Unión.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Villages celebrate new harvest after April’s hail damage

Youth from Chimizal attend the harvest celebration.
The floor of the church in Chimizal is covered with pine needles, and flowers decorate the walls. People from the village fill the benches and the aisles, joining a worship service of celebration for the recent harvest.

Months earlier, on April 2, a rare hail storm struck the villages of La Unión, hitting the villages of Chimizal, San Agustín and Lepagual especially hard. The hail, some of which was the size of baseballs, damaged hundreds of houses, contaminated water sources, and ravaged farmland. Coffee farms, which provide income for families, were heavily damaged, as were vegetable farms that provided food for families. As farm owners cut down on work in damaged fields, families who depend on this day labor were not able to earn money.

The roof of the church in Chimizal still bears signs of the hail.
Immediately after the storm, the president of Unión MicroFinanza (UMF) contacted the president of Medical, Education, Training and Development, Inc. (METAD) to discuss disaster assistance and relief for families whose sources of food and income had been destroyed. They became aware of severe food insecurity and starvation in the three villages, where 92 percent of the people usually live on less than $1 per day before the storm cut this income dramatically.

To address the immediate need caused by the storm, METAD sent funds to UMF to facilitate food purchase in Honduras, coordinate and train volunteers from local Catholic churches, and work with village leaders to distribute emergency food packets to families affected by the storm. The goal of the initiative was to serve as a bridge through the summer, providing necessary nutrition until the harvest of beans and corn in late August. 

In the church in Chimizal, we’re gathered with the community and Michelle Noordhof of METAD, who is visiting. Orlando, one of the village leaders, presents us with the fruit of the harvest that now sustains families in the village: beans, squash, yucca, and foods made from freshly-ground corn. Through the work of METAD, UMF and community leaders, 570 people received necessary food aid and are now celebrating the new crops and regrowth after the storm.

Orlando of Chimizal introduces Patrick of UMF and Michelle of METAD.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lessons from La Unión

The following post was written by intern Natalie Clark:

It was an amazing and thought-provoking ten weeks for me interning with Unión MicroFinanza in La Unión, Honduras. As I was preparing to head back to the States, I considered the many things I learned during my time in La Unión.

  1. Aid is a complex and delicate process. Dumping aid upon a community can be worse than providing no aid at all.
  2. Innovation, imagination, and entrepreneurial skill are everywhere. A college education is certainly not required.
  3. I live an incredibly fortunate life and have many reasons to be thankful.
  4. I can’t always have Jif peanut butter. Sometimes the off-brand will have to suffice, and sometimes there’s no peanut butter at all.
  5. One can get by, though certainly not eloquently, with a Spanish repertoire of present tense verbs, some nouns, and a lot of smiles.
  6. Running water and electricity are luxuries, not basics, for much of the world.
  7. Fair trade is not always fair. There is nothing like meeting a farmer and going to the source of a product to really know what you are buying.
  8. Microfinance, like any development tool, has its challenges, but it is an exciting strategy that provides clients with the means to help themselves.
  9. There are some serious coffee geeks out there. Coffee flavors can be described with words such as “roasted marshmallow,” “honey/citrus,” and “pumpkin pie.”
  10. Climate change is a very serious threat to the farming community of La Unión, and globally. When one’s personal harvest accounts for both food for the family and yearly income, a consistent climate is critical.
  11. Riding in the back of a pickup truck is great fun.
  12. The word “gringa” refers both to a white woman, and to an incredibly tasty meal of a flour tortilla filled with chicken, a creamy white sauce with jalapeños, and chimol (a salsa).
  13. Coffee processing is energy-intensive, but, with creative thinking and new techniques, can be sustainable and environmentally-sound.
  14. The drive to learn is precious, and education is an incredibly powerful means to open doors for a child who otherwise would not have had options.
  15. I can now drink coffee black, no sugar, no cream. Coffee from La Unión, that is.