Café Organica Marcala (COMSA) is an association of small-scale organic coffee producers located in the La Paz region of western Honduras.
Members of COMSA grow high quality certified organic coffee on small farms averaging 3.8 hectares. Many also grow fruit and vegetables, raise cattle, pigs and poultry and keep fish in ponds. Their coffee crop is purchased by COMSA who carry out primary processing then buy in milling, packing and export services. COMSA also purchases coffee from non-member farmers. In 2011/12 COMSA produced and sold 90,000 quintals (approx 4,100 tonnes) of coffee, of which two thirds was sold to Fairtrade buyers.
COMSA was founded as a co-operative in 2000 by 45 community-minded farmers who were members of a community bank scheme that provided loans to local people. This was the time of the global coffee crisis when world prices hit rock bottom making it unprofitable for farmers to harvest their coffee. Most farmers in the area were forced to abandon their farms and many migrated to the cities or to the US in search of work. COMSA farmers realised they had to find a different way of trading coffee and took the decision to join together to access the organic market for its higher prices.
With support from a rural business development organisation, COMSA was formally registered as a limited company in 2001 with a membership of 65 farmers. This was the beginning of a journey in which they learnt that organic culture wasn’t just organic fertiliser, it was about incorporating principles and values into farming practices and balancing the needs of business, society and the environment. Membership has since grown to 800 farmers, a quarter of them women.
COMSA’s organic production policy aims to improve coffee quality by reviving depleted soil fertility and ending use of the harmful chemicals that caused it. This also has health benefits for farmers, makes fields safe to grow food crops and ends contamination of water sources. Coffee waste is recycled to make organic fertiliser which is distributed free to farmers, helping reduce fertiliser costs by a factor of 50 compared to chemicals. Productivity is higher than for conventional production, costs are reduced and the need for more labour generates employment and reduces migration and consequent family breakdown.
COMSA was Fairtrade certified in 2005 after members learnt from Fairtrade co-operatives in the area that Fairtrade included a stable minimum price almost three times higher than the market price. They soon realised other benefits included access to specialist markets, access to finance, business support and technical advice. The training COMSA received to meet Fairtrade Standards helped strengthen business practices and build capacity. COMSA has developed relationships with Fairtrade buyers and roasters who now visit the farms and see the reality of debt and poverty in the communities and understand the sacrifices coffee farmers have to make. Their ambition now is to pass on to their children a legacy of sustainable coffee production.
COMSA is paid the Fairtrade Minimum Price of US$1.40 a pound for Fairtrade sales, or the market price if higher. There is an additional premium of 30 cents a pound for certified organic coffee. The fact that COMSA pays good prices for members’ coffee is public knowledge and forces other traders to offer higher prices to local farmers.
COMSA also receives the Fairtrade Premium of US 20 cents a pound to invest in business development and community improvements. A quarter of the premium must be invested in productivity and quality improvement, to increase incomes and improve competitiveness with other coffees grown in the region.
COMSA has funded diploma courses in organic agriculture from the national university for Sonia Vasquez, Director of Technical Assistance, two members of the technical assistance team and two farmers. The team provides agricultural advice and training to farmers and develops low-cost, quick-win technologies that are easy for farmers to implement. The soil fertility programme, for example, requires laboratory analysis of soil samples taken on farm visits, then advising farmers of the recommended organic fertilisers, nutrients and minerals needed to improve the fertility of their soil.
Integrated farm management training modules cover crop quality, the use of shade trees, water management, and cupping characteristics – which teaches farmers how agricultural techniques affect the final coffee taste. The team organises farmer exchange visits to successful farms to share knowledge, also publishing this information on its web site.
The biggest threat facing farmers in the region is la roya, or leaf rust, a fungal disease that kills coffee trees. So far 26 per cent of COMSA farms have been devastated by la roya and 36% are damaged but recoverable. COMSA is providing farmers with saplings of varieties resilient to la roya on credit. They don’t have sufficient funds to solve the problem but are working to access alternative local funding. COMSA is supporting diversification of crops to reduce members’ dependency on coffee.
Other premium projects:
- Wage increases for processing mill workers and construction of canteen
- Construction of large coffee storage facility and three coffee drying beds which enable taste characteristics to be tailored to specific markets
- Organic compost and fertiliser production and distribution scheme
- Support for community hospital; maintenance and repair of the Red Cross community ambulance
- School and university scholarships for promising students; modernisation of school kitchens.