The Power of Youth in Coffee: An Inspiring Story from Huehuetenango

Written By:Michaela Tomchek
Date:29 August 2021
The Power of Youth in Coffee

Within the rich and biodiverse Coffee Belt, nearly 12.4 million smallholder families depend on coffee for their livelihoods. A significant portion of these smallholder families live in impoverished conditions and are facing a number of obstacles when it comes to growing and selling coffee. This has strongly contributed to a reduced interest in coffee production. Young people lack opportunities and do not see a future in agriculture. The voices of youth are rarely heard, potentials of future generations are not developing properly and coffee producing populations are aging. As a result, youth are migrating to urban centers in search of job opportunities.

Thanks to the work done by Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS), these threats are being mitigated, smallholder families are improving their livelihoods and youth are becoming drivers for thriving communities.

Honing in on Central America, Guatemala specifically, you will find an interesting and inspiring story from one of HRNS’ model-youth stars. Along the border between Mexico and Guatemala, deep in the rocky and dusty mountains, you will find Huehuetenango – the second leading coffee-producing region in Guatemala. The high altitudes and rich soils allow for some of the most highly regarded coffee in Central America. In 2010, HRNS initiated various youth focused projects in Huehue. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Huehue with some HRNS representatives, and was able to see, firsthand, the success of their youth initiative.

Alejandros story

As our truck climbs up the steep hill, we arrive in San Antonio Huista, and we turn onto a road filled with children running happily through the red dirt. We emerge to meet Alejandro Herrera Cruz, a 22-year-old, impressive young man, shining bright like the sun overhead. Alejandro comes from a background of coffee. That in itself is an important feat, but only later do I learn about all of his achievements.

In 2018, Alejandro joined one of HRNS’ youth initiatives. He was one of the youngest youth participants during that time and did not have much interest in pursuing a future related to coffee. Encouraged by his parents to join, Alejandro still recalls the day of his first meeting and saw other timid youths similar to himself, unsure of what to expect. Time would unveil that coffee did not only mean maintaining a farm, but that there were a multitude of other opportunities across the coffee value chain that could be explored. Alejandro did not expect that the experiences and skills he gained through HRNS’ youth initiative would make him fall in love with coffee and lead him into becoming an exemplary entrepreneur within his community.

Alejandro Herrera in 2018

Alejandro Herrera

Alejandro and two other youth members

Alejandro and two other youth members

While we sit on his patio, enjoying a delicate and expertly roasted cup of Huehuetenango coffee, Alejandro explained how the workshops yielded significant benefits. By addressing the development and strengthening of professional and life skills, the workshops were a turning point for Alejandro – providing him with the confidence to discover his inner creativity, self-discipline, and competitiveness. Hands-on training and capacity building opened a whole new world of exploration and learning about the coffee value chain. This was the first time he was introduced to coffee roasting, brewing, and packaging. It piqued his curiosity and he yearned for more. “The idea I had about coffee being only a crop, slowly began to shift”, he told me. “As my curiosity towards coffee roasting grew, I started to see coffee as a potential business opportunity that could create entrepreneurial opportunities for myself and youth my age. I could apply the on-farm knowledge I had and combine it with other parts of the value chain. That is when my first idea sparked”.

After pouring more of his freshly brewed coffee into my nearly empty cup, I sipped and asked him to tell me more. “I was sitting on my bed one rainy afternoon when the idea of creating innovative and unique products out of coffee came to mind”, he explained. Before unveiling the ending of his story, he gestured to me to follow him.

Alejandro together with his mentor Marlon, after a barista training course

Alejandro together with his mentor Marlon, after a barista training course

Alejandro and his youth gorup during an entrepreneurship fair in San Antonio Huista, Huehuetenango

Alejandro and his youth gorup during an entrepreneurship fair in San Antonio Huista, Huehuetenango

Just when we reached the storefront and compact warehouse, of which I later learned he saved significantly to invest in, he carefully opened the gate protecting the front door. Stools were set up by two other volunteering youth, part of HRNS’ youth initiative, in a crescent moon shape prepared for the display. On top of the table, I could see a set of unique products lined up, all with the brand name “Aleherr”, short for Alejandro Herrera. With his innovative ideas, strong leadership and communication, Alejandro had developed a select number of products made from coffee and coffee pulp to bring to the market. The unique products include Coffee Pulp Soda, Coffee Beer, Coffee Jam’ and Coffee from Huehuetenango. Alejandro later explained that he sells these products to other coffee shops in his local community and is starting to export his coffee to the United States. The grand finale of the visit brought me to the back of the warehouse to see the stunning roaster that he had happily fired to life, showing me his roasting process. The excitement evoked by this young man was contagious – I grew eager to watch the freshly roasted beans emerge.

Before it was time to say goodbye, I was able to experience the wonderful explosion of flavor from the coffee pulp jam as small crackers were dispersed to spread the heavenly jam onto. We sipped on coffee soda, more freshly-roasted Huehuetenango coffee and snacked on crackers with jam – my eyes slowly filling with joyous tears, seeing the future of coffee in this amazing young man.

As I said goodbye and thanked him for the visit, I could only think to myself how his story is not one of simply success, but also the creation of a model for future youth smallholder coffee producers to follow. His dedication, diligence, and hard work all reflect positively within the community – providing local youths with a role model for guidance. A collection of youths have volunteered to support his business and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities thanks to his guidance. For Alejandro, this is his life, his career – and his drive has given him a number of great opportunities. As a self-employed young man, it takes a significant amount of effort to see results. By exporting his coffee, selling to locals, and developing innovative products to sell worldwide – Alejandro has created a future for himself and an inspiring story to other youths in his community.

Alejandro is the ideal role model for what HRNS wants to show youths – the power of coffee and the opportunities it can create for people. Through collaboration with like-minded partners and organizations, the work of HRNS, particularly with youth has been expanded and scaled. Step by step, they are building a more proactive, communicative, engaging, and empathetic generation of young and talented people who are tackling the problems of tomorrow with conviction and purpose. Each producer has the potential to create a future for themselves – and with the support of HRNS and shining lights such as Alejandro – this can be achieved.

About the Youth Initiative of Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung

Youths are the drivers for thriving communities in coffee regions. As one of the four core components of HRNS’ Theory of Change, (youth, family business, climate change and farmer organizations), the focus on youth has been particularly important. The youngest portion of global populations is now the largest – and are the ones who can evoke change. They have the power to lead vibrant and dynamic coffee growing communities. The main goal working with youths is to empower young people in rural communities to make informed decisions about their livelihoods and act as role models within their communities. Since 2010, HRNS has been incorporating youths into the coffee value chain and encouraging them to explore coffee cultivation as an economically viable livelihood activity. HRNS has achieved this by developing social and technical capacities in farming practices, supporting youth in identifying and pursuing job opportunities and engaging them in soft skills and entrepreneurship training. This enables them to use both on and off farm activities to develop themselves and earn their living. To date, HRNS has worked with over 14,000 youths in Central America, East Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia in youth focused projects.

Michaela Tomchek

About the author

Michaela Tomchek has worked within the specialty coffee industry for over six years – spending time in the Coffee Belt, researching how to promote sustainable development amongst the communities responsible for coffee production. She currently works to ensure coffee and its producers have a future. Here she explores the importance of youths in the coffee industry.