Located in Palestina, Huila, Colombia, the El Puente community processing facility has been working with the area’s smallholder producers since 2018. El Puente translates to “the bridge”, named not only for the footbridge near the facility’s original location, but more importantly representing the connection the processing facility creates between local smallholder producers and the global specialty coffee industry. Operated by our friends at Clearpath Coffee, including Founder and CEO Vicente Mejia, and managed by innovative producer Elkin Guzman—also the owner and operator of Finca El Mirador in Palestina—El Puente was developed in response to a number of issues faced by the area’s smallholder farmers including:
- Lack of post-harvest infrastructure
- Lack of financial resources
- The risk of adopting sought-after processing methods
El Puente was developed to solve these issues for producers in the region, collecting the knowledge, infrastructure, and financial resources to support farmers and purchase their harvest at a premium price. This requires not only the means to process high quality coffees, but also the right connections in the coffee market to sell them to interested buyers, making Clearpath Coffee uniquely suited to take on the challenge and succeed. Today, the team at El Puente partners with more than 300 producers throughout the harvest season, creating opportunities for them to earn more for their harvest and to connect with specialty coffee consumers around the globe.
Processing equipment in the El Puente wet mill
We’re thrilled to share the story of El Puente and explore the ways in which Clearpath Coffee, Elkin Guzman, and all of the people involved in the project are moving coffee forward in their region.
El Puente’s History
Clearpath Coffee started working to launch El Puente in 2018, beginning with fundraising efforts to secure the necessary finances for the project. The first effort was made through the Kiva crowdsourcing platform with an aim to secure $50,000. Response and support was immediate, with Clearpath reaching their goal in only 24 hours. These funds were used to purchase the first machines needed for processing and milling—like a water tank used to sort cherries via floatation, and a mechanical dryer for efficient and consistent drying—as well as to build the necessary infrastructure at El Puente’s original site.
The next step was connecting with Yunus Social Business, a non-profit organization with a branch which works directly on financing for companies in developing countries who are creating positive social impact in their communities. This process required several steps, including presenting the project to them and a thorough vetting period before Yunus Social Business invested in 2019.
Vicente Mejia, Founder and CEO of Clearpath Coffee (left), Ricardo Pereira, COO of Ally Coffee (right)
While securing their initial funding, El Puente purchased their first coffee cherries from local smallholder producers in 2018. This wasn’t a simple task at first, as purchasing fresh cherries rather than parchment coffee is an unusual practice in Colombia. As most producers maintain their own processing infrastructure and sell parchment coffee directly to buyers, even the idea of a centralized processing facility was a novelty in the beginning despite how common the practice is in other origins like Ethiopia. This new model required some explanation for producers at first, which was aided by some of Clearpath’s well-respected allied producers in the region including Elkin Guzman (who operates Finca El Mirador and now oversees El Puente), and Rodrigo Sanchez and Claudia Samboni (who operate Aromas del Sur, including several farms like Finca Monteblanco and Finca Las Nubes, as well as their own state-of-the-art processing facility). The project worked with 30-40 producers in its first year, planting the seed for other farmers in the area that a new way of selling their crop was possible. Over time, word spread and eventually more producers wanted to sell their cherries to El Puente than the facility could handle, creating an opportunity for the mill to be more selective in their purchases and ensuring that they were only buying fresh, fully ripe coffee cherries.
El Puente Today
Since its establishment in 2018, El Puente has grown considerably as they continue to deliver on their original goals of addressing challenges for the region’s coffee farmers. The mill facility was relocated in 2022, moving from its original site in Palestina to Elkin Guzman’s property in Fundador Township by Finca El Mirador. Today, he oversees the processing team, which includes around 10 full-time employees throughout the harvest season, utilizing his experience and comprehensive knowledge of processing to deliver consistently high quality coffees.
Elkin Guzman at Finca El Mirador
The operation still pays a price premium equal to what producers would receive for a fully processed 85 point coffee from the FNC. The number of contributing producers has grown from 30-40 in the first year to a total of 314 producers in 2022. Currently, the mill can process approximately one container of Natural coffee per month during the harvest season, which in Huila runs year-round except for a few weeks each March. In 2022, the mill shipped 11 containers of Natural and Honey coffee, a significant amount of alternative process lots for a country in which nearly all coffee produced is still Fully Washed.
Offerings from the mill have expanded from exclusively processing Natural coffees to reintroduce Honey lots. El Puente also encourages producers to maintain their own processing infrastructure and continue completing some of their own processing, ensuring continued self-sufficiency and highlighting the clean Washed lots produced by Huila’s coffee farmers.
Coffee cherries being fermented and dried for Natural processing at El Puente
El Puente has maintained their relationships through the project’s growth as well, including Yunus Social Business who continues to support the mill through ongoing funding. This funding requires check-ins including regular impact reports and an annual visit to the mill to ensure that the project is continuing to have a positive impact on the community. At Ally Coffee, we’re proud to be one of El Puente’s partners each harvest, with our relationship dating back to 2019 when we were one of El Puente’s first importers.
El Puente’s Triple Community Impact
Through this project, Clearpath Coffee and everyone involved in El Puente have been able to create an impact on the people in their community in three different ways.
- Economic Impact
- El Puente has developed a niche in the Colombian coffee industry, ensuring that allied producers receive premium pricing for their work while assuming the responsibility and risk associated with post-harvest processing. While this project is dedicated to social impact, Vicente Mejia, Founder and CEO of Clearpath Coffee, is sure to emphasize that this isn’t a non-profit, it’s good business for hundreds of Huila’s coffee growers.
- Social Impact
- Beyond creating an opportunity for producers to sell their coffee for a higher price than they would be able to through a traditional coffee buyer, El Puente also functions to solve other issues at the farm level like addressing processing and drying capacity for individuals.
- By assuming the responsibility and labor of processing, El Puente also effectively gives time back to producers which would otherwise be spent in the wet mill or drying patios. This allows producers to spend more time with family, friends, and community, and to reinvest that available time into other work at the farm or elsewhere.
- Environmental Impact
- By only using Natural and Honey processes at El Puente, the mill uses 80% less water than it would for traditional Washed processing. Beyond the usage reduction, El Puente also doesn’t have to invest in the additional resources needed to process and appropriately dispose of waste water. This significant reduction in water usage adds up quickly for the 11 containers of coffee produced last year, the equivalent of approximately 3,000 bags of 70 kg.
To learn more about El Puente, you can visit the Clearpath Coffee site or check out the video conversation Who Farmed Your Coffee Beans?, hosted by Yunus Social Business and featuring Vicente Mejia, Founder and CEO of Clearpath Coffee, and Ricardo Pereira, COO of Ally Coffee, on YouTube.