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Bolivia: putting the ‘special’ in specialty coffee

IMG_0989-copy-minIt’s the Bolivia time of year again, and we could not be more excited! A new batch of beautiful Bolivian coffees, selected on the cupping table by Market Lane’s Director of Coffee Jason Scheltus, has arrived in Australia. Now it’s our job to roast, taste, roast and taste, and then serve these coffees and offer them as bagged beans to our wonderful customers.

We absolutely adore Bolivian coffees. There are a few reasons why. The first is the most obvious: the taste. Coffees from Bolivia are absolutely spectacular. They tend to be sweet and clean in the cup, and a number of special varieties, such as Geisha and Java, thrive in the Bolivian soil and climate in a way they don’t elsewhere.

One reason that Bolivian coffees taste so good is the country’s unique climate and altitude. The micro climates found in the Yungas region, from where we source a number of coffees, are well suited to high quality coffee production, with rich soil, very high altitudes (1,400 – 2,000 metres above sea level), and a wide daily temperature range.

The coffees we source from Bolivia come mostly from very dedicated producers, who own very small pockets of land – often only a couple of hectares each – and produce a handful of bags of coffee a year. Often, these farmers work with their neighbours, in order to produce enough specialty coffee for export and to ensure that their output is sustainable.

Bolivian coffee is somewhat endangered, and we can’t take it for granted. Coffee production in Bolivia has always been very low. When we first started sourcing from Bolivia eight years ago, annual exports were around 75,000 bags. (To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to the annual output of one large farm in Brazil.) Over the last few years, however, Bolivian production has halved to a devastating 30,000 bags.


There are several factors contributing to this decline. One is that coffee competes with the local coca industry, which is unregulated and dangerous, but is easier to pick, harvests all year round, and can yield higher short-term profits for farmers. Another reason is that there is no centralised support system for coffee production in Bolivia. Unlike in other producing countries, such as Guatemala and Brazil, coffee producers in Bolivia don’t receive any support from governmental or national agricultural bodies and, in fact, the current president (himself an ex-coca grower) stopped all USAID support for coffee producers a few years ago.

These factors, combined with poor infrastructure, changing climate conditions, roya (coffee leaf rust) and traditional, unsophisticated farming practices have led to a significant decrease in production over the last decade.

Don’t despair though! There is still hope for the future of coffee in Bolivia, thanks largely to the vision, determination and hard work of a man named Pedro Rodriguez. Pedro entered the coffee industry almost three decades ago, ditching his suit and accounting job and pursuing his passion for agriculture. Ten years ago, he recognised the potential for specialty coffee in Bolivia. Over the last decade, he has worked tirelessly to build the production of, and market for, Bolivian specialty coffee, helping hundreds of local farmers recognise and realise the potential of their land and crops.

With a young, dynamic and passionate team, including his daughter Daniela and son Pedro Pablo, Pedro has built an impressive business called Agricafe, which focuses on building long-term relationships with producers, based on mutual trust and benefit. Today Agricafe represents over 1,000 producers, whose farms average 2 – 5 hectares in size. It also runs a training program, called Sol de la Mañana, which focuses on giving dedicated producers the training and skills they need to improve the quality and quantity of their output.

In recent years, Agricafe has also taken a bigger role in growing coffee. The family now owns several farms, which helps to increase the volume of Bolivian specialty coffee being produced, to reduce its price, and to maintain payment for producers. Pedro and his team also use these farms to demonstrate to local farmers what can be achieved with the use of modern farming techniques and a scientific approach.

At Market Lane, we’ve been working with Pedro and his family since we opened our doors. Every year when we visit them, we are blown away by their determination and commitment to ensuring there is a future for speciality coffee in Bolivia. They care deeply about quality coffee, about the producers they work with, and about creating a sustainable future for this industry.


And we are right there with them! The coffee in Bolivia is way too special, delicious and close to our hearts to let it disappear. We want to continue our relationships with producers, and to discover new producers and coffees as well. By establishing relationships, paying higher prices and and supporting those who support the specialty coffee industry, we hope that, in time, a more sustainable future is built for coffee in Bolivia.

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