Colombian coffee’s new leader has a mountain to climb

colombian coffee federation of national growers (FNC)
  • Robert Vélez Vallejo resigned from the Federation’s top post in December 2022
  • A new leader will be elected on April 27 after a three-person shortlist was drawn up
  • Vélez Vallejo’s successor will face a host of challenges, including how to reinstate Colombia as the world’s “number-one producer”

AFTER SEVEN years at the helm of Colombia’s National Coffee Growers’ Federation (FNC), Robert Vélez Vallejo stated his confidence about leaving the association in a strong position.

“I am leaving a united union,” he said in his resignation speech late last year, “a Steering Committee that knows how to work as a team and is clear about the institutional direction, and a National Congress of Coffee Growers that knows where it is going and promotes long-term policies.”

The process to find his successor got underway immediately and, next week, will reach its conclusion after three final candidates were shortlisted – Germán Alberto Bahamón Jaramillo, Sandra Morelli Rico, and Santiago Pardo Salguero.

The role carries considerable responsibility and is viewed as one of the most important positions in Colombia. The FNC, which is just shy of its centenary, represents some 540,000 coffee farmers – more than the populations of Malta, Iceland, and Barbados – and moves around 14 billion pesos per year.

Its chief purpose is to promote the production and exportation of Colombian coffee, but it also has a hand in a range of other areas, including the distribution of its successful Juan Valdez brand and the development of new climate-resilient species.

Vélez Vallejo led the FNC through some historic moments during his tenure, not least the outbreak of Covid-19 and the nationwide protests that followed, which paralysed coffee exports for over a week. He was also a vocal opponent of the Petro administration’s proposed tax reform, which he claimed would have negatively impacted both production and domestic consumption.

But while Colombia’s coffee sector is in a relatively healthy position, whoever takes his place will have to still face a litany of challenges.

Colombian coffee farmers

Navigating climate change

Climate change is putting coffee production around the world in an increasingly perilous position from which, if nothing is done, it will struggle to ever recover.

This is something the FNC is well aware of. A report by the Federation estimates that the country’s coffee production could decrease by 30% by 2050, after finding that the average altitude of coffee farms in Colombia has been increasing by around 38m per decade due to global warming.

According to Luis Eduardo López, a Colombia Cup of Excellence judge and keynote speaker at last year’s Producer and Roaster Forum in Medellín, finding new ways to tackle climate change will clearly be a major challenge for whoever is elected this month. However, he also suggests that harnessing competitive advantages will take centre stage.

“Climate change is undoubtedly affecting us all in Colombia, as it is elsewhere” Luis explains. “Our situation will be different from that of other countries, but we have to find a way to take advantage of what we are good at as production in other countries diminishes.”

Under Vélez Vallejo the FNC spearheaded the development of Cenicafé 1, a new, disease-resistant arabica variety specifically designed for Colombia’s coffee regions. However, its initial cup quality of 84 points falls short of what is typically needed to command the highest market prices. Luis believes further development of species like Cenicafé 1 will be a key responsibility for Vélez Vallejo’s successor.

“The new head of the FNC will have to be very creative at finding ways of seizing those opportunities, such as planting new species and promoting processing that converts those species into something that tastes interesting in the cup. I believe that management has to be adept as agricultural producers so they can help fill the void that is beginning to form in the industry.”

Uniting Colombia’s half a million or more farmers behind these efforts is part of that battle, as investing for the future can be a difficult sell when many are living hand to mouth. Therefore, the next leader must be able to sell any proposal convincingly to those represented by the Federation.

There is also the issue of the cooperatives. Last year, a crisis compared to the subprime mortgage collapse in 2008 hit Colombia’s cooperatives, leaving a $120 million hole in their finances and bringing them to the brink of liquidation. It’s safe to say that as well as finding solutions to climate change, the FNC’s next in line must also insulate the country from the impact of volatile prices if they are to sustain Colombia’s vital coffee institutions.

juan valdez colombian coffee fnc

Returning Colombia to the top spot

One of the FNC’s greatest achievements since its formation in 1927 is its Juan Valdez marketing campaign. Launched as a series of television commercials in the late 1950s, the character (and his mule sidekick) helped propel the reputation of Colombian coffee in the minds of consumers, particularly in the US. 

Today, its legacy lives on. A 2019 survey conducted by the Federation found that 72% of consumers in the US continue to associate Juan Valdez with quality Colombian coffee, demonstrating the brand’s lasting impact.

But many believe the absence of new marketing campaigns in recent years is a sign of the FNC’s growing complacency – and that it has subsequently allowed other origins to overtake Colombia on the world stage.

Luis claims that this presents another significant challenge for the Federation’s next leader.

“Whenever you see a survey of the preferred choice of coffees among consumers, at the top is usually Ethiopia – and it has been like that for many years,” he says. “In Colombia, we are convinced that we have the best coffee in the world because of the Federation’s 1970s advertising campaigns. But if you compare it with other origins, you can see that we are not the first.

“So then, I would say that a challenge is to become a coffee producer that always ranks at the top for all coffee consumers in the world. It is a great challenge to replace Ethiopia as the best, but we should start working on it.”

But how can the FNC reinstate Colombia to its position as the world’s best producer? For Luis, it is about emulating some of the recent marketing successes of Panama and Peru, while leveraging the expertise of Colombia’s vast pool of coffee professionals.

“I’ve seen big changes take place in the coffee consumption of Asian countries,” he says. “The Federation has a great opportunity to work hand in hand with new super-specialty producers and with exporters who are capable of bringing their coffees to those markets.

“Nobody argues that we are excellent agronomic coffee producers or coffee farmers, but we have to be a country that is a pioneer in quality analysis; that we are as efficient as France, Italy, and their wines today.

“We have to become excellent quality evaluators, excellent tasters, with people in every region of the country so that there are no discussions about when a superior product appears. I think, as part of this, we should aim to encourage our young people to join the conversations. Because when our youth knows more, they can contribute different ideas and innovations.”

The FNC’s new leader will be announced on April 27.