San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourism & Good Coffee Revive the Northern Zone

JINOTEGA – The rosy-red coffee cherries that José Luis Herrera has picked for the better part of his 22 years are sent to the United States, Europe and Asia to make cappuccinos, mochas and lattes.

But ask the dirt-caked campesino if he likes cappuccinos and he’s all blank stares. “Café …” he hesitates “…chino?” Herrera, like most Nicaraguans, drinks only instant coffee.

For centuries,Nicaragua’s economic situation has been such that the country’s top export product is consumed mostly in its crudest form here, if at all.

That situation, however, is slowly starting to change as Nicaragua’s $188 million coffeeexport industry contemplates this coffeepicking society’s potential to become consumers of its own product. But coffee producers are not just counting on Nicaraguans for domestic consumption.

The more than 800,000 tourists who arrive here each year are already helping to drive a growing demand for specialty coffee moments of crisis when the international price bottoms out – but it also educates producers about quality while stimulating local businesses, such as coffee shops.

“Now kids don’t go out for a soda. They’re starting to go out for a coffee,” said Rafael Reyes, manager at the Don Paco plantation in the coffee-producing department of Jinotega.

Don Paco has bought 500 hectares outside of Managua to build a coffee-themed hotel with a restaurant and café, where it will sell its own brand of coffee. Don Paco plans to open similar franchises later this year in Granada and Matagalpa.

A Marketing Problem

According to the International Coffee Organization, the average Nicaraguan drinks about 4.5 pounds of coffee a year.

Though Nicaragua’s coffee consumption per capita is higher than other Asian and African coffee-producing countries, it pales in comparison to its Latin American counterparts, such as Brazil, which has more than double Nicaragua’s per capita consumption, and neighboring Costa Rica, where the average Tico drinks 50% more coffee than the average Nica.

In Finland, the world’s top coffee consumer per capita, the average citizen consumes more than four times the amount of coffee as the average Nicaraguan.

“Internal consumption isn’t very high in Nicaragua, like it is in a lot of producing countries,” said Juan Carlos Munguia, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Specialty Coffee Association.

The solution, Munguia says, is marketing. That is why the association has been supporting educational events such as the barista championship – in which Nicaragua held a competition to sniff out its best coffee-preparing barista to represent the country in a worldwide barista competition in Denmark next June. It is Nicaragua’s second year participating.

Other events such as the annual Cup of Excellence competition and the industrywide RAMACAFE conference also stimulate the country’s awareness of quality coffee (NT, Sept. 16, 2005).

The baby-faced Manguia, 29, who coowns the plantation with his father, is one of many coffee producers who has returned to this region after abandoning it during a decade of war in the 1980s. The coffee producing region in the northern highlands was often targeted by contra raiders out of Honduras, making the mountains the site of heavy fighting during the war and grinding most production to a halt.

Manguia spent the decade in exile in neighboring Costa Rica, before returning in 1991. In a symbolic gesture of peace, he built a church on the plantation hilltop where Sandinista helicopters used to make supply and troop drop offs.

Back in business, he now plans to establish his own brand to sell domestically and eventually in his own coffee shop. But marketing, he has found, isn’t cheap.

“The marketing part is the most expensive of all,” he told The Nica Times at his coffee plantation in northern Jinotega.

Many coffee plantations in this region, like Manguia’s, are receiving help of foreign aid and certification programs, such as the New York-based Rainforest Alliance.

USAID is funneling $3.7 million into the Rainforest Alliance over three years in a private-public alliance that has also drawn matching funds from foreign companies such as Mitsubishi, Kellogg’s and Kraft, according to USAID representative Jan Howard.

The cash is going toward certifying local producers – an exhaustive process in which Rainforest Alliance inspectors hold local coffee growers to local and international standards – which makes the farms more sustainable, and in turn allows farmers to charge more for their certified product.

Rainforest’s help has also gone toward training locals in coffee cupping and building quality control labs on some of the 76 plantations with which they work.

With the Rainforest Alliance’s support, many of the local producers have a product that is not only fit for export, but for marketing to locals and tourists in Nicaragua.

“The idea is to market this as a plantation for tourists,” said Samuel Talavera, an engineer at a Jinotega coffee farm that’s in the process of getting a Rainforest Alliance certification.

Brewing New Tourism

Though some efforts are under way to percolate Nicaragua’s potential for coffee  tourism – such as a the Tourism Institute’s four-year, $6.7 million Luxemburg-funded effort to promote coffee plantations as tourism destinations in northern Nicaragua – the market here is still largely untapped.

“Coffee tourism is something we haven’t explored,” said Jessie Arroliga, a partner in the Nicaraguan tourism Web site

“There are people who are interested in that. You can tell by all the visitors at Selva Negra,” she said.

The go-juice industry’s potential flows through Jinotega like a cool mountain breeze. In the region’s city center by the same name, specialty coffee shops such as the quaint Pampa are opening their doors to tourists and locals.

You can walk into the bakery-turned-café and order a cappuccino or mocha with local rosquillas, a popular local cookie.

“In the 1980s, I had to bring coffee from the United States,” said Jan Howard, who worked as a journalist for CNN during the war. Howard said USAID in Nicaragua has helped inject coffee culture into Nicaragua by helping to fund barista-training and coffee-cupping programs run by non-governmental organizations such as Rainforest Alliance.

On a recent afternoon, she ordered a black coffee at La Pampa, a café that opened two months ago. At the next table over, two Nicaraguan mothers sipped cappuccino with their children.

Such local coffee retail enterprises mark the region’s revival after entire plantations were destroyed and abandoned during the war, says Reyes of Don Paco.

“Coffee has really brought commerce, business, industry to Jinotega,” said Reyes. “Coffee is reawakening Jinotega.”


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