Bent Dietrich, Trader at American Coffee Corporation and NCA Next Gen member, recently sat down with Alejandro Lozano Rojas, Manager of marketing and Innovation at EXPOCAFE S.A., for a discussion on his background and any words of advice he has for aspiring young coffee professionals.
- Let’s start at the beginning. How did you start your coffee journey? How did you start at Expocafe and what made you decide that coffee is what you wanted to pursue?
I started as an independent businessman, broker and advisor for international business (import and exports) in the Colombian market. Then in 2005 when I was ready for a journey. I was recruited by Mitsubishi Corporation to the UK, to be a coffee buyer for the Japanese market. That marked 5 very intense years of learning the coffee trade and many other products. By the end of 2010, my chapter with Mitsubishi closed. It was during a vacation in Europe when I was contacted by Expocafe to become a coffee trader. The ten years since has been made up of incredible experiences and continuous learning in the world of coffee.
- Since you started working at Expocafe in 2011, what would you say have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry, on both the customer side, and also within Colombia?
Shifting from mainstream to 100% certified, I would say coffee drinkers around the world are thirsty to have more stories about coffee and better understand how they participate and consume sustainably. There is still work needed in solving problems the market cannot address. Colombia is shifting from just great quality to a leader in terms of sustainability and innovation. I still remember when the Scandinavian market was purely commercial and now it is interesting to see them shift to 100% certified coffee. Also leading this change is the growth in specialty shops and the boom of micro-lots.
In Colombia, farmers are very open to change and ready to adapt. They want better farms and more income. They have and will continue to adopt modern technologies, be better informed and better connected.
- Expocafe is known for their ties to local cooperatives. Can you please elaborate/explain your structure, and what makes you different?
Bent, this is such an interesting topic for economic theory. Basically, thousands of coffee growers in Colombia, let’s say roughly 77,000 out of about 540,000 are members of 33 Cooperatives. These Cooperatives make transactions with members and non-members accounting for about 30% of the total Colombian coffee output. Under this baseline, Expocafe S.A is owned by the Cooperatives and trades about 30% of this grand total, in this sense our channel trades roughly 9% of the total coffee exports of Colombia, in its majority differentiated coffee (total about 1.1 M bags 70Kg).
With this you can see, how complex and interesting our network to build this coffee economic system can be.
- With that in mind, are there any special projects, initiatives you are particularly proud of on the sustainability front?
As about 80% of our portfolio is traded as differentiated coffees (certified, verified, Direct Trade, origin, micro-lots and preparation among others), we believe we are mature enough to build new initiatives to innovate and integrate resources with other players in the national and international economy. Our new venture in sustainability is named WRM (Water Resource Management – The Blue Coffee Bean). This represents the ethics of virtues to generate manageable projects, and to support highly vulnerable coffee communities such as children, indigenous, women and those in high poverty region, to name a few. The core is to first approach the person behind the coffee and help give access to basic sanitation, reduce water pollution in coffee processing and increase education among others.
Through this, we can help develop their capabilities to produce value added coffee (for example as certified coffee, or premium demanding specialty lots).
- In your opinion, what should your customers (trade/roasters) be doing differently in their approach to promote sustainability? What steps can we take to improve the industry as a whole?
Sustainability is part of the business but should not be negotiable. Integrative vs distributive, changing the world starts solving problems at the source.
Origin is not a utopia. The new reality of Covid demonstrates how basic sanitation is still the key to survive.
The industrial revolution occurred in 1780 and after 240 years, many industries are still searching for a way to be environmentally friendly, to improve the world we live in. The environmental challenges are no longer just ideas, these are real threats.
Businesses should now be thinking about building wealth through elevating living standards (Conscious Capitalism).
We should be starting discussions on sustainability from the bottom-up, not top-down. Sustainability initiatives should grow from discussions had with producers, and expand from there.
- Since this interview is targeted for the NCA Next Gen, where do you see the industry in 10-20 years? What changes do you anticipate in Colombia (farmers/coops or anything else) and with your customers?
Cooperatives at the end will strengthen their operations as an expression of the local culture’s needs and desires. We will have coffee growers who will use the latest technology in their farms (solar panels, smart systems to clean water, smart soil fertilization) and generate their own food. Data will be collected from the farms, and the whole value chain will be more sustainable and transparent. In this sense, 20 years Juan Valdez will be recalled for growing the best coffee and the most sustainable one. In other words, we should be the Tesla of Coffee.
We will see stronger commitment from the industry and other stakeholders, to help make this dream come true.
- What advice would you give an NCA Next Gener?
When I joined Expocafe in 2011 I attended my first NCA (that year was the NCA’s 100th Anniversary). With this in mind, I believe you are the ones who will write a new book. To Next Gen members, I would advise you all to unite forces and work on small projects origin. Build it up it from A to Z, suffer through it, manage it, make it come true and market it. You will enjoy the experience, and learn the values of the coffee chain.
- How has the NCA helped Expocafe? What value does it provide?
The NCA is a great example of how an industry should perform and grow. For Expocafe, we find it to be the best network, information, and regular updates about the coffee industry. The friendships it facilitates. All this shows how the coffee world is more than just business. It’s about community and relationships.
- If you had to pick a favorite coffee/prep, what would it be? (Correct answer is anything traded through Hacofco 😊 )
I like tinto campesino. It’s black coffee, sweetened with sugar cane. It reminds me of good times with my father on our farm. When I’m at work, I enjoy an espresso. Now that I see the two faces of the business (commercial and sustainability), it’s a gratifying experience to drink a coffee I know benefits the coffee growers in our value chains