MARSELLA, Colombia — At a library in the heart of Colombia's coffee country, Julián Murillo, 8, proudly narrates the process as he makes a meticulous Chemex-method brew. He places a filter-lined funnel atop a glass flask and carefully doles out the speciality coffee — produced and roasted locally — in the centre of the filter paper, before pouring the hot water over the top and watching the dark brown brew drip down.
For now, Julián is learning the skills just for fun, but there’s a larger goal in mind: Low coffee prices, climate change and a rapidly-aging coffee work force mean it's more important than ever to get kids excited and invested in keeping the coffee industry here thriving.
If kids like Julián don't stay on the land, Colombia's smooth Arabica coffee, served by cafe chains around the globe, could disappear — but if programs like these succeed, the next generation could preserve Colombia’s centuries-old culture while providing better local jobs and better-tasting coffee for local consumers.
The library in this town about 130 miles south of Medellín is housed in the corner of a massive colonial building. One overcast October day, nearly a dozen kids between the ages of 6 and 12 filled the common area used by the Cafeteritos, which is Spanish for little coffee makers.
“I want to run my own coffee shop one day,” says Julián, as he makes the pour-over coffee. “And I want kids from all over the world to come and share this coffee with me.”
Towards the end of class, the kids and their instructor sample the final product — in comparison to the U.S., Colombia has a more relaxed attitude toward childhood caffeine consumption. Colombia is in the top 25 in the world for cola consumption and some doctors there say coffee for kids like Julián is permissible in moderation. As they arrive at the library, parents start to get involved, too — one parent describes picking more than 400 pounds of coffee berries daily during the harvest season. Later another parent, a farmer, spontaneously bursts into a traditional regional song.
“I’ve learned a lot about coffee from my boy,” said Arelis Murillo, Julián’s mother. “He also has a lot of confidence now.” She explains that she sent originally Julián to the program to keep him occupied while learning something new, after hearing about Cafeteritos from the organizers of a previous program involving girls’ soccer.
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Cafeteritos grew from a 2016 pilot program started by philanthropist Javier Sánchez Embid from Guadalajara, Spain, local coffee grower José María González Salazar and local library head Adriana Grisales with the intent of providing an educational after-school program that would appeal to both boys and girls. Now, the kids compete in brewing competitions and go on field trips to processing centers and coffee farms.
“We’re bringing together not only the generations, but different parts of the production chain,” said Wilson Flórez Valencia, cultural center and library coordinator for Comfamilar Risaralda, a compensation fund that runs the library and 17 others across the Risaralda region.
“We’re bringing together not only the generations, but different parts of the production chain."
After the coffee making was done, the kids stayed to read — Cafeteritos and other literacy, cultural and historical programs run by Comfamilar Risaralda are crucial in a country where the illiteracy rate has remained above 5 percent despite numerous government pledges and programs.
But for Julián to achieve his future dreams, he’ll need more than passion and barista skills — he’ll need support, training and financing.
In a town a three-hour drive away, Jorge Suarez, 26, has just made his own dream come true — he now has his own coffee shop serving the coffee from his parents' farm. That’s thanks to seed money and training from a program called Coffee Kids, run by the Hanns R. Neumann Foundation. The Hamburg-based NGO was founded in 2005 with the mission of improving the livelihoods of smallholder coffee growers and it says it has helped 266,000 farmer families in 22 countries since then.
Suarez is one of the graduates of an 18-month program aimed at 15 to 30 year-olds that includes a microloan of $200 to $300 to get a business idea off the ground and, in Suarez’s case, a cupping class during a visit to the headquarters of Peet’s Coffee in Emeryville, California.
“This program taught us to look at the farm as a business,” he said.
They now have 68 Colombian graduates and 52 functional business including farms, cafes, and agricultural supply stores.
Initiatives like Cafeteritos and Coffee Kids aim to tackle larger threats to the future of coffee in Colombia. On top of the threat from plant diseases and a 12-year-low market price, generational change also presents a serious challenge to the whole industry.
Alejandro Cadena, Bogota-based CEO of green coffee exporter Caravela Coffee said a recent survey of producers found only 39 percent of family farms had working-age children on them.
“Since the average age of coffee farmers is hovering at 60 years, there will clearly be a huge problem in the next 15 to 20 years,” he said.
Roberto Velez, chief executive officer at the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation told NBC News that only 10 percent of Colombian coffee farmers are looking at coffee as a business for the next generation. “The youth don't believe in coffee growing as a way of life,” he said.
And this is not just a Colombian problem. According to a 2016 International Coffee Organization report, when young people aren’t present as a “catalyst of change,” innovation is slower, resulting in greater inefficiencies. The report also found generational change was more urgent in coffee than in other agricultural industries, as the average age of coffee-growing households in Tanzania and Uganda is 5 to 6 years older than other farming households.
Suarez said that until the systemic issues are resolved, the relentless hard work of life on the land will remain a less attractive proposition.
“Some young farmers,” he said, “have never been on vacation in their whole lives.”
CORRECTION (Nov. 21, 2018, 5:20 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of Caravela Coffee. It is a green coffee exporter, not a specialty roaster.
Andrew J. Wight
Andrew J. Wight is a freelance journalist based in Medellín, Colombia.