Bogotá — Rarely does Colombian coffee have such a major global showcase as the Emmy Awards, in whose most recent edition Colombian María José Palacio was selected to tell her story and that of her business with a short film, the extended edition of which will be presented at the Sundance Festival.
Palacio, born in Colombia’s coffee-growing belt, is the young entrepreneur behind the brand of coffee being enjoyed by employees of big tech companies such as Google, Meta (Facebook), LinkedIn, Twitter and Salesforce, among others, as well as in the coffee shops of luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Tory Burch.
“When we started they told us that it was impossible to open a company only selling Colombian coffee, that because the country only produces a single type. And we said: ‘No, Colombia produces all the varieties that you can find worldwide, it is produced in Huila, in Nariño,” Palacio said in an interview with Bloomberg Linea.
Her brand, Progeny Coffee, which has received capital injections from Latitude Ventures in the US, focuses on the circular economy, with its operations, from land management to its packaging, which is compostable, governed under that philosophy.
Raised in a coffee-growing family in the Colombian region of Armenia, María José Palacio became interested in agribusiness at an early age, but did not see opportunities at the time to stay in that field, and instead decided to study design at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá.
Life took her to New York to work in fashion, but while there she realized that the coffee market had enormous potential for growth, and it was there that her roots in the coffee-growing tradition were awoken.
“I began to see what was being paid for coffee in New York, and the amount of coffee that people were drinking, and when we traveled to Colombia it was not the same reality. The quality that was being paid for was not the same as that at home, which my family drinks, and of the coffee in Quindío”, she said.
With the purpose of changing this, in 2016 she partnered with her husband John J. Trabelsi to open a company that would be “a totally sustainable chain, based on the circular economy, and that could deliver very good coffee and represent Colombia in the US”.
“Normally, roasters are founded by Americans who are far removed from the origin, and there are many who don’t even know a farm. So, understanding this part of the market, we decided to launch a company that represented the culture”, she said.
The production model
Progeny Coffee’s has a line of business called Beyond Trade, under which it aims to “at least double the income of coffee growers, provide them with free education and technical assistance” to transform their farms.
The company has an innovation farm in the Colombian department of Quindío where it has been able to develop very low-cost methods to mitigate the effects of climate change, while at the same time carrying out effective water management, among other aspects related to environmental sustainability.
María José explains that the company has a vertical business model, because beyond the threshing machine there are no intermediaries and costs are very well defined. “When the coffee grower reaches a certain score we bring the coffee to the US, we are based in Oakland (California), and here we roast and distribute it,” she said.
“Instead of choosing a blend, clients choose a coffee grower. We never mix the coffee of the coffee growers, the packaging always carries the photo of the coffee grower, with Wayúu [a Colombian Indigenous group] patterns, Colombian colors,” she said.
The company will begin to work with a network of some 500 Colombian coffee growers and plans to carry out a census to gather more information on how it can help this sector, understanding that with the pandemic “many things have changed and the needs are different”.
Women in the coffee-growing business
María José is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who are taking the reins of a business that has historically been managed by men, despite the important role of women as coffee growers in the entire production chain.
“We tried to start four years before 2016 and we called everyone and no one believed in us because it was a man’s world. Now it has made way for women. Our coffee roaster was a woman. My mother has already found a community of women coffee growers in the country, it is very exciting. So we have seen a change, although there is still a long way to go to close the gap,” she said.
For María José, it is important to point out that in many coffee-growing families the man is normally recognized, but the woman is “the first to get up and the last to go to bed on the farms. So part of the census that we are carrying out is to be able to identify more of those women”.
“Another thing we have seen is the lack of education, in terms of coffee-production processes. How to improve their coffees. What we have seen is that they are just entering the world, they are new, so they still don’t know the protocols and all that. Sometimes they are not able to export, but I believe that with assistance and good management we can have very positive results.”
For now, Progeny Coffee concentrates all its impact on the Colombian market, mainly focused on the so-called coffee-growing belt (eje cafetero) and soon in Huila, but has no direct presence in the country.
Among the company’s plans is the opening of new markets in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico.
In addition, María José also plans to enter the country with a network of coffee shops and already has plans in that direction.
“We are going to start opening stores next year,” she said.
The company has just closed a $1.7 million investment round and the funds were used to strengthen the brand’s distribution capabilities. María José says that with a new injection of capital they hope to start up the network of coffee shops.
María José was recently the recipient of the Entrepreneurial Spirit Award from the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC).
“Reflecting on where my drive came from, it all goes back to my incredible family, who taught me the resilience that only comes from being a farmer. Where there is no rest, and you are constantly fighting against all economic and climatic adversity,” she said on social media after winning the award.
Translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley