I set off with Luisa Lombera and Gates Gooding, the founders of a company named Pixán, (which means happiness, soul or essence in Maya), joining them in their quest to find the raw material that had thus far eluded them. Fresh from Agora Partnerships’ Entrepreneur Retreat held in Granada, Nicaragua, we were infused with an invigorated sense of purpose.
Gates and Luisa applied to the Agora Accelerator with the aim of turning Pixán into a flourishing business that will double the income of coffee farmers in the Pixán supply chain. Searching for an opportunity to create impact in the coffee sector in Latin America, they were inspired by the Yemeni traditional practice of making a drink called kishr (or qishr), which is a kind of chai made with coffee fruit, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Luisa and Gates took to the idea and are now looking to produce a beverage made with an infusion of dried coffee fruit, also known as “cáscara” (skin or peel – in Spanish).
In the best of cases, coffee cáscara is used as a fertilizer, though it is too acidic to be effective unless it is altered via vermicomposting. Most producers just leave it to rot in piles, causing residues to wash into rivers and lakes. This acidifies soil, disrupts nutrients levels in waterways, and creates anoxic zones in bodies of water.
However, coffee fruit is very rich in antioxidants and when properly dried, the coffee cáscara can be transformed into a healthy product. By diverting coffee cáscara to productive uses, negative environmental impacts can be reduced and coffee farmers can earn incomes by selling something they previously threw away. This is exactly what Pixán aims to do and they plan to position their tea-like beverage as a healthy, moderately caffeinated option.
This plan sounds so simple, genius even, which should have told me something. It turns out that drying coffee fruit properly is rather difficult and can result in material that is not fit for consumption. It is also not widely practiced in Latin America, so the odds were against the Pixán team in their search for a supplier of raw material.
Meeting Alumni Along the Trail
Gates and Luisa had heard of someone who had successfully produced dried coffee cáscara in northern Nicaragua, near the border with Honduras. It took some resolve to hit the road after the exhausting Retreat, but we were determined to check out the potential source.
Heading north from Managua, we first stopped in Estelí to pay a visit to Rob Terenzi and Noushin Ketabi of Vega Coffee, 2014 Agora Accelerator Alumni. Just last year the Vega team was also facing the unknown. They had a mission to help coffee farmers earn a fair living, but did not yet have any revenues. Vega cuts out the many middlemen in the coffee value chain by selling “Farmer Roasted Coffee”, enabling farmers to garner the profits they deserve. Vega has built a roasting and processing center in the heart of Nicaragua coffee country that is run by the farmers themselves. Vega empowers farmers with the tools and trainings to roast and package their own beans. The final product is then shipped by Vega directly to customers.
As Vega had successfully raised capital through the Agora Accelerator, hearing their story was just the sort of reassurance Luisa & Gates needed to renew their confidence. The animated exchange between the two couples was heartwarming, and I got the feeling that things were heading in the right direction.
Reaching the Quarry
Continuing further north the next morning, we arrived at the Beneficio Santa Lucila. We were greeted by Rina Paguaga of Café Vidita, a company that grows and processes coffee from the surrounding highlands. A few years ago, Rina had caught wind of specialty coffee purveyors who occasionally served cáscara tea, somewhat as a novelty. As a result, Café Vidita recently began producing a limited supply of coffee cáscara for export.
An accredited coffee taster, Rina set up a proper cupping for us to evaluate the three vintages of cáscara that she had, two saved from previous years. We spent hours discussing the details of growing and processing good coffee, and I learned a lot about the precision and selectivity involved. It is difficult to obtain the best beans and sustain supply in a cutthroat global market. Characteristics of the coffee plants and growing season factors also affect the taste of tea made from coffee cáscara, adding another layer of complexity.
Rina shared a great deal of advice, and helped the Pixán team flag potential improvements in their plans to find coffee cáscara suppliers. Luisa and Gates hope to work with Rina in the future to extend the cáscara-processing competency to coffee farmers in other parts of Latin America.
Meeting the Patriarch of Nicaraguan Coffee
After lunch we paid a visit to Rina’s father, Jose Rene Paguaga, a 90-year-old gentleman who is a noble figure in the Nicaraguan coffee industry. Still ebullient, he shared stories of how he built a coffee empire, lost it all, and built it back up again from almost nothing. We began to appreciate the strong-willed people behind Nicaragua’s proud coffee tradition and marveled at its recent ascension towards the top of international coffee rankings.
Looking to the Future
Luisa and Gates were excited to have met Rina, and to have tasted Café Vidita’s delicious cáscara tea, and were ready to return home to Mexico to start the next journey: launching Pixán.
In the past few months, Luisa and Gates have taken large strides towards helping coffee producers get more out of their harvests, and hope to for years to come. The Pixán beverage recently made it’s debut at farmer’s markets and retailers in Colorado.