Life on a Nicaraguan Coffee Farm (2)

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Part 2 – Bad Backs and Bag Believers

Coffee and hiking are my passions. Combine the two and I’m in heaven.

I’ve visited dozens of countries across the planet specifically to clamber up rugged hillsides, to sweat and sigh as I scramble towards rocky summits where earth and sky unite above the clouds.

Sometimes on these hikes I feel like a walking advert for technical mountain gear– t-shirts that respond to my body temperature so I’m never too hot or too cold or too sweaty; boots that support my ankles and help me grip the ground like a mountain goat; and best of all a backpack that spreads the weight of my kit between my shoulders and back and waist and chest to ensure I barely notice it.

And afterwards, once I’m showered and rested, I like nothing better than to sit back enjoy a perfectly prepared espresso while gazing wistfully at the mountains and the wilderness all around.

But sometimes I’m not as far from civilisation as I like to think.

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In Central America many of these seemingly remote hillsides are in fact bustling with labourers who dedicate their life to the coffee industry. But while I hit the hills for fun, coffee workers are there out of necessity; to make money, to feed their families, to survive.

Until I volunteered on a Nicaraguan coffee farm it was incomprehensible to me that anybody would even attempt to scale mountain paths dressed in baggy jeans and old sneakers or rubber boots and with 12kg of coffee beans in a wide basket tied around their waist.

The strength, stamina and agility of the coffee workers astounded me – and despite all my expensive technical gear and years of mountain experience, I struggled to keep up.

I’d never imagined the steepness of the slopes where coffee plants grow, hillsides so inclined that simply standing still is a challenge. I couldn’t have pictured how closely together the plants grow, the way workers would duck and dive between the branches – almost always keeping their balance and their harvested berries intact.

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And to my shame, I’d never really considered how much physical pain these people endure every day of their working life to bring me and millions of other Westerners our daily espresso.

This pain is precisely what inspired American ergonomist and researcher Kate Stewart to lead a project in the remote highlands of Nicaragua. She first visited a coffee farm in 2008 and was immediately struck by the poor design of harvesting baskets.

“I started talking to a number of the harvesters because the basket was really big and round. I asked them how they felt after a day of work and all of them talked about their back hurting.”

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Coffee harvesters traditionally collect berries using round wicker baskets which are held in place using a plastic or cloth belt tied around the waist – a method Kate believes puts excess strain on workers’ back, causing pain and discomfort.

Kate was a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Department of Public Health for fifteen years and is currently a visiting professor at National University of Nicaragua in the city of Leon.

Following her first visit to a coffee farm in 2008 she led a project to develop and produce a new style of harvesting bag based on a design she’d seen on a US apple farm.

The original funding came from the International Ergonomics Association based in Switzerland and subsequent support came from Germany-based 4C Coffee Association and a global export company Exportadora Atlantic, both organisations focussed on improving the economic, social and environmental conditions of coffee production worldwide.

Kate’s design comprises a lightweight metal frame and fabric bag which can be effortlessly opened once full to release the berries into sacks for transportation. A full bag weighs around 28 lbs or 12 kg. Crucially the new bag uses shoulder straps in addition to a supportive back-belt worn around the waist.

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“The idea was to take the full weight away from the back and help these hard-

working and underpaid people to work without getting hurt. And also, to improve production so that producers would be interested in providing them for their workers.”

Trials took place at two high altitude farms in the Nicaraguan highlands. Participating harvesters worked one day with an original wicker basket and one day with a new bag. Muscle activity was measured using electromyography (EMG) and workers gave feedback via interviews and questionnaires.

“The idea with the interviews and questionnaires was to solicit their ideas on how we could improve on what we had done. Over the next few years we tweaked the prototype. A lot of really cool ideas all came from the harvesters.”

Working with a seamstress in the Nicaraguan town of La Paz Centro, Kate and her team modified the design several times to incorporate the ideas of the workers. In addition, she managed to reduce the overall cost to just $18 per bag without losing any of the specific requirements or quality.

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But then progress came to halt as external factors forced producers to reduce their budgets and left little scope for investment in new bags. The arrival of coffee rust disease La Roya to Nicaragua had a devastating impact on production, with some farms losing half of their plants. Each plant takes around four years to produce fruits for harvest. The dire situation was exacerbated further by the country’s extreme weather conditions.

Kate said: “The producers were barely breaking even as it was, then a drought came along.”

Despite the setbacks, Kate’s faith in the product is strong as ever. Her team’s research concluded there was “slight productivity gain” and “significant improvement” in the health of the workers.

“It’s a great product for people who care about their harvesters. Having someone take a real interest was important for them; someone looking out for them and their conditions and trying to make their lives better.”

Her long term hope is that a major coffee company invests in the design – and if possible works with local manufacturer and materials to mass produce the bags. She believes this would be better than smaller producers and farms attempting to reproduce them individually.

“With the design specifics we’ve developed it would be difficult to reproduce them without control. Better to mass produce and have a lower price and consistent fabrication.”

Her ideal would be finding a manufacturer to produce the bags and make them available to coffee farmers worldwide for less than $10 – $12 each. “We need a believer,” says Kate.

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For further information or to help Kate find a believer please contact ergowoman@gmail.com or kstewart@uw.edu

Pictures by Steve Russell