"I have treated my select friends to your coffee (ones who I know appreciate quality) and each and every one of them has been bowled over"

Ian Mountain
I started this company in 2007 following a year as a volunteer teacher in Nicaragua. While volunteering I set up a small cottage industry helping the women in the community to sell their coffee; the excerpts from the blogs below detail some of the trials and tribulations of turning a small home-grown business into a bona fide international one.

It’s always good to have a plan…

“It’s always good to have a plan but it’s even better not to worry when it doesn’t come together.”
Paul Coelho

This is probably the best place in the world for that quote, this country makes even the most organised person in the world panic, I’m not that organised, worrying is my best and most useless skill, but I do enjoy a challenge and this place breeds challenges in a way that make you continually think outside of the box… I like that, once I’ve found a solution of course.

We needed to hire a truck to take all of the paint and equipment up to Miraflor, an expensive option but even the sturdiest horse was not going to be able to manage the gallons of paint we had. Loading everything up and the Marlon the artist, so he too could take a look at the building we headed up to El Jilguero. We had to leave everything at the school, then return to Sontule where we were staying, the plan was to ride the following morning to start painting the comeodor a base coat of white sealant inside and out so it would be ready and dry for the painting of the mural to commence. Horse riding is something I take for granted and Katie’s recent prowess had reassured me that it was not going to be a problem for anyone else, I should have known better.

Italians like fast cars, motorbikes anything with go faster stripes and a large engine , I realise that is a sweeping generalisation but for the purposes of this blog I am sticking to it. Horses do not come equipped with a gear stick and brakes and if you add a pair of spurs (not my doing) to a novice horse rider and a nervous horse then you are asking for trouble. Poor bloke, with instructions shouted in a mix of Spanish English and Italian the horse galloped off with a petrified Italian trying desperately to slow him down. It was agreed that horse riding was not for him and once had regained the use of his legs he decided that he would walk to the community each day.

Once we arrived in El Jilguero it became plain that the community was not going to allow us to do all the work, they had promised to be there and all sorts of members from the community had turned up to lend a hand, children of all ages, some of the coffee farmers and community leaders. It was an absolute breath of fresh air to see so many who wanted to get stuck in and help as much as possible. Within a short space of time we had painted the inside and the outside with two paints of coat and the children who had barely said two words when they had turned up were now running around screaming as they were invariably chased by the rest of us with loaded paintbrushes or they returned the favour. Some of the younger girls had turned up after hours of preparation making their hair and clothes look beautiful and they stood around shyly staring at us and giggling, but Bladi was having none of it and shoved paintbrushes in their hands and told them to do some work, within minutes clean clothes and stylish accessories were forgotten and they were covered in paint but their hairstyles remained intact throughout.

blog-2013-2a

blog-2013-2b

There were a few things which needed finishing on the building, windows and two doors, the doors weren’t a problem, we just needed to buy hinges, plane down some wood and fit them in, how hard could that be? Ahem….more of that later. The windows were a different matter, there was no way I had enough money to sort those out this time so it was decided that the community would build these using resources they already had such as chicken wire and wood, Bladi assured me that this would be something they would make and it would not look like a botched job as they wanted to make sure everything looked great, the fact that they were willing to resolve the problem and not leave everything to me was overwhelming. We also had a meeting with the coffee farmers to organise, letters from children in English to be read out by the children when they returned to school the following week and a party, yes a party, the community wanted a grand opening of their new building and a blessing and a presentation, this was going to be arranged for the following Wednesday 13th February. We had one week to sort everything out. No pressure then.

The following day Ricky joined the Italian on his 14km round trip hike. Now, whether he was choosing walking out of solidarity or due to his quite painful saddle sore remains to be seen but they both set off quite happily while Katie and I stuck to our four legged transport. As we came into view of the school we couldn’t quite believe it, the mural had been started and it already looked incredible. Back in England over 24 children had submitted entries into an art competition at Dunhurst and Marlon the artist and the coffee producers had chosen a mix of seven of the entries, Marlon had then come up with one design which combined all of these. The mural shows what their own school means to the Dunhurst children. At the other end of the building there would be a design representing the Nicaraguan community complete with coffee, flowers and volcanoes, at the side there would be a line of children holding hands to show the link between the two countries. We had originally wanted to draw the children on both sides of the building but we couldn’t in the end, nothing technical, we simply ran out of paint.

One of the best things about Marlon the artist was his total ease with everyone helping out, he had pencilled in the design and all we had to do was colour it in, everyone had a go and he had no issue with anyone going over the lines, “tranquillo” was his favourite expression. The Italian was brilliant at the top bits as he reached the parts others could not reach, I knew this already. Ricky took a long time to painstakingly paint a part of the Union Jack and stepping back he announced it was definitely the best and that no one need be envious he just had artistic genius flowing through him, until that is the Italian also stepped back and pointed out that it didn’t match at all with the other side. Crestfallen, Ricky made excuses about sunlight, bad brushes and difficult lines to follow, no further mention of his rare talent…

Over the next two days the mural took real shape and colour, the line of children was to stretch all of our artistic capabilities as we mixed colours to make sure they had differing skin tones and brightly coloured clothes, Katie misunderstood and we spent a long time rectifying the brightly coloured skin tone on one particular person but we forgave her. It was one of those rare days when everything just comes together and no one can stop smiling at our work and the sheer enjoyment of doing something so special, I’m sure there are management companies who have dreadfully expensive team building days to try and do the same thing, we had paint, sunshine, a huge amount of goodwill and no chanting at all. It was brilliant. As we rode away at the end of the week it was fantastic to look back and see a unique slice of bright beautiful Britishness sitting comfortably in the Nicaraguan cloud forest.

The day of the doors…having bought enough hinges for an entire community and endlessly waiting for it to stop raining we headed once again out to El Jilguero. Bladi was waiting for us with a plastic bag of ‘tools’ and the two doors were in the comeodor ready to be fixed into the frames. Much to the consternation of the two blokes there was no electric drill, electric plane or electric saw, in fact there was no electricity. I was unfazed, they had doors everywhere in the community , they hadn’t been put up by magic, it would be fine. Well fine is probably a bit of an exaggeration, having realised that the doors were much too big for the frames Ricky sawed part of his off and then wisely said “It’s much better to saw too little off than too much as you can’t stick it back on” he then spent the best part of the next four hours hand planing off the extra he had been so careful not to manually saw off. The Italian, true to form, watched someone him make this mistake and made sure he cut more off. Regardless they were both planing for hours… I’m not in any way shape or form in the slightest bit adept at DIY, in fact I find it exhausting just watching it, perhaps foolishly I mentioned this to Katie and she empathised how draining it was, much to the utter disbelief of a worn out and sweating Ricky who was now taking swipes at the door frame with a machete. Doors fitted and all of the blokes did that very blokey thing of standing back and admiring their handy-work, this seemed to go on for a long time and it felt as if we were at a BBQ, looking at beautifully cooked sausages. Men, fire and wood, no matter how developed we are there are some things which will never change. Fair play to them, they did an excellent job.
13th February 2013 , not a day I am likely to forget in a hurry. No rain at all, no clouds just clear blue skies and burning sunshine, the perfect day for an inauguration party. The plan was to have a meeting with the coffee farmers, show the letters written in Spanish from a language class in Dunhurst to the children in their classes and celebrate the opening of the new building.

Simples… You’d think.

Only thing was I had completely underestimated how this community felt about what had been done for them, living in an isolated community where they rarely saw foreigners and with no other outside help for the education of their children or assistance with their further education this was an event which was to be celebrated, they wanted to show their appreciation to all of us and that party atmosphere started in the farmer’s meeting. I explained about the sales situation at home and listened as they talked about the difficult harvest they had just had, we discussed where the business was going with the support of Fabretto, I explained that I would not be building anymore in the community but would instead be focusing on grants to enable the children to continue on to secondary school and university, primary school is where it starts but certainly not where the support ends. It was fine until one of them made a speech and said that until I had started buying their coffee they had been unaware of its unique quality and taste, that as a result of this knowledge they were able to be more selective when selling it to outside markets and they were looking at ways of preserving the plantations through better education and using more natural fertilisers. Cue my first lot of tears. Don Pedro whose hands holding a coffee plant have been immortalised on a Hada Del Café postcard held one of the cards in those very same hands and spoke about the loyalty and respect they had for the relationship we had built up over the last 6 years, and that they had found the comedor and the mural to be ‘magnificent’. More tears. It was all a bit much for me crying in front of a group of stalwart men who had supported me so much and put their entire faith in this crazy haired white woman with big ideas and quite often no clue on how to implement them. It was time to party.

I love a school which has the scope to turn itself into so many different things in the course of one afternoon. We had a meeting room, for myself and the farmers, a piñata party room, where kids from the ages of four right up to well, my age actually, bashed a piñata the size of a small child until it’s ceramic insides were smashed and sweets fell onto the floor, health and safety is not an issue here. Another classroom doubled up as an afternoon disco where the local lasses spying an opportunity had kitted themselves out in high heels, over the knee boots and tight tops and with music pumping by the end of the afternoon they were locked in tight embraces with the local lads. I like to think of my work as reaching everyone…

Leaving the classroom after the piñata it was time for the official opening. More and more people were arriving and by now quite a crowd had gathered to hear the speeches and see the ribbon being cut. Okay it was more like police tape but it was there, and it was for me to cut. If only my teachers who had written ‘could try harder’ on my school reports could have seen me. I wish I could write something funny now to stop the sentimentality of this but it’s hopeless, even comedy genius Ricky was reduced to the status of a grinning muppet, the Italian was almost bursting with pride and Katie just sparkled, I was called up and given a framed certificate which was to honour the work I had done in the community, they had been planning this for six months. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Leave a comment

We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything…

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.”
Charles Schaefer

I love playing, mucking around and being plain silly, anything remotely daft which makes me laugh till I’m crying suits me down to the ground. I have had teachers who have written full reports to verify this and a Mother who had her eyes permanently raised to the heavens when I was younger hoping against hope that I would eventually mature, still hoping as far as I know. On the contrary I have dug my heels in and refused as much as I could and for as long as I could to grow up, not interested, not happening, not to me. Maybe that’s why I love doing what I do, I’m happy to help as much as possible to make sure children have a decent education, as long as they have fun and want to be educated. Growing up… well that’s up to them.

This is my seventh year in Nicaragua, must be something in the rice and beans which keeps me coming back, it certainly hasn’t been the adoring crowds and overwhelming appreciation of the community I have worked in up until now that made me return, quite the opposite. Having raised funds to build and paint classrooms and provide educational resources for one community whose total lack of general, positive, negative any sort of response and helpfulness I had put down to general shyness. However, I lost heart last year when I realised that the work carried out by myself, amazing volunteers and by proxy the schools in the UK was somewhat being taken for granted. I wasn’t after a medal, I just wanted them to look after what had been done, but in the same way children cannot force grown-ups to play, adults need to lead by example. I had warned them several times I would use the money raised in another community, in the end that is exactly what I did.

El Jilguero, a community in a very isolated area of Miraflor, is where I have always bought my coffee from, I have supported the school and the community over the last few years with water filters and books and clothes. Last year we decided to build a comeodor (canteen building) on the school site so the children had somewhere to sit and eat, and the community also had an extra meeting place. Thanks to the children at Dunhurst school and their amazing fundraising efforts the actual building was completed by August 2012 much to the utter astonishment of the community. I like the verb astonishing, it’s a sparkly and full of positivity, it means you have surprised someone or something with your actions and that to me is as good as playing, because as long as you are playing people don’t expect to be astonished. All good stuff then with a dollop of deep stress and worry, because where would the fun be without that? More about the building and the general reaction in the community later, but first the volunteers…..

I have been bringing volunteers over here properly for the last 6 years, with only a couple of appalling exceptions they have been fantastic. This year they really are the bees knees, Katie Arnold met me at a trade fair in London 18 months ago and she told me then that she wanted to come and help, true to her word she kept my card and contacted me last year and said she was ready to book her trip. A petite blonde ray of sunshine she has been a pleasure to have around, hard working with a terrific memory (which helps as I keep losing mine) and a dream to horse ride with, she has been brilliant although she does need practice mixing paint colours. To add to the group Katie enlisted a friend of hers who has been travelling around Central America to come along, Ricky ‘the professional’ Bartlett according to him. A shining example to us all of how we should never grow up, ever. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of infantile games, the best one liners and comic expressions not to mention his unforgettable ability to swallow a whole boiled egg in 1.2 seconds, Ricky has ensured that we spend most days crying laughing, he’s also pretty good at planing wood but more of that later. And finally but well worth the twenty year wait, The Italian. Finally I have been able to dispel the rumours in the cloud forests and turn up with a proper boyfriend, no more requests by aging campesinos to come to England with me or have photos taken with me on their knees, his six foot three presence is enough to shut them all up. Plus he has proved to be pretty good at hanging doors, scrubbing floors and painting the hard to reach parts of the building.

2013blog

This is a trip with a difference, I won’t be coming out here for such long periods again as I am planning on changing the dynamics of the company and I have been able to do that by joining forces with the Fabretto Childrens Trust http://www.fabretto.org/

This wonderful Nicaraguan charity approached me and asked me last year if we could possibly work together to sell more of the coffee grown in the Nicaraguan highlands and also to improve the education of the children here, does that sound familiar? The agreement we have is to support each other, I will raise funds which will still be part of Hada Del Café but through a proper registered charity, and in return I have access to coffee plantations and the resources which means I will not be the one running around trying to find extra coffee / a shipping company / certification / accountant etc. knowing I have this support will then free me up to search for more wholesale orders, raise more funds, buy more coffee and so this great big optimistic circle continues to make a difference.

I’m heading further up north next week to visit the Fabretto coffee farms and their communities, I will let you know next week how that all goes but now back to this last couple of weeks and the main objective of coming out here. When we decided we would build this Comeodor we wanted to make sure that this particular community understood that this was a link between the two countries but more importantly that Dunhurst school in Hampshire who have been so pivotal in raising funds for this building had something tangible where the children had made their mark. So we came up with the idea of painting a mural on the building designed by the children in the UK as an art competition, this was organised by their fantastic art teacher Louise Banks. Louise has been the silent but incredibly pro-active partner in the Coffee Fairy and all the funds raised since the very start. To say I could not have done what I have done without her unfailing support over the last six years would be an understatement.

I arrived in Nicaragua with a sheaf of artwork by the children as we had decided that it would be up to the community and the artist to judge their work and decide which ones would be used and how. Seemed to be simple enough, but as anyone who has read any of my previous write ups this country has a habit of making the simplest things complicated and vice versa. The first thing we had to do was to go and see the building and see what still needed to be done. We met up with Bladi, short for Bladimir who is fast becoming a leader of the community in El Jilguero, he has a sense of organisation, authority and a calming presence way beyond his years, he is totally invaluable to the project. He also has the most adorable five year old daughter called Lucy who is my favourite of all the children, yes I am allowed favourites, I keep threatening to kidnap her and bring her to England, he thinks I’m kidding…. Anyway, Katie and I rode to the school, met up with Bladi and Lucy and then we saw the building. I won’t lie, there were tears, unpainted, in all its breeze block glory and standing on a space where a year before there was nothing was overwhelming, it was absolutely perfect, I could also see from Bladi’s face that he was also overjoyed with it and with my reaction. Now I’m trying not to be maudlin here but yes it was quite a special moment, be prepared, there will be quite a few of these coming up. We spent a while discussing the forthcoming meetings with the producers and the ideas we had for painting and how to find an artist and also the plans to have an official inauguration and opening. Then, as I was talking to Katie Bladi interrupted and said “There is something else but it’s a secret and I’m not allowed to tell you” I looked at him and started laughing and then translated this to Katie, before I had finished he interrupted again and said “oh okay I’ll tell you” when we had stopped laughing he told me that the community were planning to give me a ‘surprise’ to show recognition for the work I had done in the community and also to show their appreciation. I was gobsmacked, absolutely and totally.

Bladi Hell.

2013blog

Our first major job was to buy the paint and find an artist for the mural, paint bought, not a problem, and stored in the Nicaraguan equivalent of Homebase until we were able to hire a truck to take the materials and the artist (once we found him) and us back up to Miraflor the following week. Then we started a day of whacky races running around Esteli trying to find a recommended paint school where they may be able to help us out and paint a mural…found them and after a very brief discussion where they quoted us $5k we thanked them and left. As Ricky pointed out were they planning in painting in liquid gold? Time was now running out, I made a call to someone who I had met last year and who had said would help me out, the worry was that he may have changed his number or his mind. We were lucky, very lucky indeed, within an hour he was sitting in a bar and over a beer listened to what we had in mind and looking through the pictures the children had drawn, he loved the project and was keen to help us out, and no it would not cost us thousands of dollars, “see what you think of my work and then decide the price” now there’s a phrase to make anyone nervous but I was delighted, we had an artist, a proper one who was interested and loved the idea of coming up with a mural, he was also keen to use several of the children’s pictures, not just one as he felt he could incorporate their different ideas of what their school was about into one fantastic design.

And he did….but more of that in part two.

Leave a comment

It was the best of times it was the worst of times

I’m going to steal Mr. Dicken’s line from a Tale of Two Cities, because right now it fits in with everything I seem to be doing, although for the sake of accuracy let’s swap city for country.

From the best news possible which means The Coffee Fairy is going to finally grow up and match the big boys on the shelves of all the poshest places….(watch this space) to some of the worst news, bad harvest of coffee, friends with serious health problems the difficulties that accompany the growing of any company – I have been so far away from ‘office politics’ for so long that this one took me completely by surprise but let’s not go there.

I’m tired of describing my life as a rollercoaster, because that would imply I could step off anytime I please, instead I appear to have bought a one way ticket, Then again, I’m not sure I would have it any other way…there is simply no pleasing some people!

I have had an ‘interesting’ day today buying water filters with a truck driver ‘sort of a friend of a friend’ from Esteli who assured me he knew his way around Managua, it turned out that he would not be able to navigate his way round a swimming pool. Managua is a pretty unpleasant city at the best of times, but lost in it’s maze, in 35 degree heat in heavy traffic it feels distinctly like hell on earth. I had no idea where we were going, I had the address but had checked and double checked beforehand that the driver knew his way around the city, and stupidly, naively I believed him when he said yes.

It’s my fault really, I fell for it despite plenty of experience to the contrary, just because Nicas tell you they know where they are going, doesn’t mean they do, just because they say ’it’s just around the corner’ doesn’t mean it is. With my right arm suffering 3rd degree sunburn, (the window wouldn’t close and my sunscreen had lost the battle with the relentless tropical sun) and stopping every 45 seconds to ask directions I think I finally lost it when I realised we were driving around in circles because he didn’t know his left from his right.

On the bright side, there are 15 new water filters bought and heading their way up to Esteli right now. Decidedly worth it in the end, and really, that was a good day.

Leave a comment

Are you being served. . . properly?

I have spent the last 3 months dividing my time between worrying myself sick and being stupidly excited about taking a group of three adults into the wilds of a remote cloud forest in northern Nicaragua. I was sure they would have a great time, I was pretty sure I could do everything I promised, but seriously, shouldn’t I know better than to actually take their money until they had come back with smiles on their faces? Nope, I’m afraid not, there were tickets, hotels and taxis that needed to be paid for and booked in advance and I had to know they were serious about this trip, but deep down I strongly suspected that they would eventually come to their senses and back out.

In the months leading up to our departure I did a great impersonation of someone who was totally in control. Of course I was capable of organising an amazing volunteering experience in a third world country with an itinerary that included surfing down volcanoes and a midnight expedition to watch turtles laying and hatching their eggs on a beach as well as a trip to a stunning volcanic crater lake. Inside I was terrified, what if they didn’t like it? Wanted their money back? Wanted to come home? What if we didn’t get on? All questions that were causing me sleepless nights and worry. Not to mention the rainy season…. Nicaragua, it seemed, was experiencing its heaviest rainy season for five years.

Triffic.

Arriving in Nicaragua is an experience in itself, when you are so tired that you could sleep on your feet the painstakingly slow process through passport control is enough to send you over the edge. However Tom, Sarah and Antony were all surprisingly good natured and seemed to be taking it all in their stride. Not even ‘losing’ the taxi drivers when we arrived seem to phase them, it took me about 20 minutes to find our drivers in an airport area the size of a small playground…….well, it was quite dark. Then, I felt that the journey to the hotel really should have broken them, one taxi hit a massive pothole and blew a large wheezy puncture which needed to be changed in virtual darkness by the roadside. While the other taxi, driven by a distracted driver, constantly on his mobile pone, nearly upended on a curve. But these near misses were simply greeted with a great sense of humour and requests for beer once we arrived at the hotel.

Brilliant, my kind of people.

Two and a half days later and having enjoyed blue skies and temperatures of 30 degrees, an introduction to the positives and negatives of Central American cooking and the delights of Nicaraguan rum, we set off for the north. The real work on the school needed to start soon and I had to see my coffee farmers to discuss the new harvest of coffee, this wasn’t Club Med, we had work to do.

Quite what work we had to do remained to be seen, but I kept that bit quiet, I’d figure something out once we arrived in Miraflor, but first we had to get to Esteli.

Nothing has ever been particularly straightforward in Nicaragua, it’s what I love and detest about the place in almost equal measure, which is fine when I’m dealing with it on my own. The pressure increases somewhat when you have three expectant faces looking to you for the answers, you know when rum is not the answer and the Nicaraguans are being less than reliable then, it can be a little bit disconcerting. Not being met by the truck you had booked to meet you is all part of the adventure, at least that is what I kept telling them, and for their part they could all have given the Nicaraguans a lesson in the art of being ’tranquillo’ thank heavens…

We had transport arranged to take us up to Miraflor on the Sunday, due to heavy rainfall the river has now completely overflowed which has rendered it impassable, this means that all transport must go the long way up to the community. That’s a round trip of 6 hours, more if it’s been raining and the roads are a churned up mess of mud. Fortunately, for this part I had booked a truck, and as we sat or stood in the back of the vehicle, all five of us trying to find space amongst 8 bags and rucksacks full of clothes, numerous sacks of fruit and vegetables and a sense of excited anticipation in the boiling sunshine, (I know I know, what rainy season?) I hoped that it would be as good as I believed it could be.

The views certainly didn’t let me down, following months of rainfall the scenery took on an almost Jurassic Park style magnificence, green lush and utterly beautiful. As the three of them took in the breathtaking surroundings on the ride up they were almost speechless, their reactions were perfect, they raved about everything. I was really delighted but I was afraid to get ahead of myself, they had yet to see where they would be staying and the conditions of the toilet, all of which could have them shouting the trade description riot act to me. I couldn’t breathe easily just yet…

Leave a comment