What if the cup of coffee you drink in the morning could literally change the world, change the future? For Mayra Orellana-Powell, that’s a reality. Mayra, 39, grew up cultivating coffee in her small mountain village of Santa Elena in Honduras. She came to the United States as a college student to study small business; returned to Honduras, where she met and married her husband, Lowell Powell, and then they both came back to the States to live.
When she returned to the U.S. after visits to Honduras, she always brought her family’s coffee in her suitcase. So why not import this hand-picked, small-farm coffee to the Bay Area? Why not bring the taste of Honduras – single-origin, shade-grown, hand-picked – to the American breakfast table and coffee house?
“I know every single farmer,” says Mayra. Although the business is still in startup mode, it means a lot to the coffee farmers of Santa Elena. These neighbors formerly took their beans to a large processing plant, to be mixed communally and sold in mega-batches to corporations; now they have pride of place and their own names stamped on a burlap sack. Each family’s bean crop has a slightly different flavor profile, a terroir of sorts, that gives Santa Elena coffee its well deserved distinction, says Mayra. She named her company Catracha Coffee Company (catracha is slang for a Honduran woman).
Filmmaker Sarah Gerber of Berkeley met Mayra a few years ago and accompanied her back to Honduras with coffee buyers from Blue Bottle Coffee, Royal Coffee, Inc. and RoastCo, filming the interaction with coffee farmers from Yarasquin (the region in Santa Elena where the Orellanas farm coffee) and American gourmet coffee buyers. The resulting film, The Way Back to Yarasquin, has made the rounds of film festivals and coffee confabs.
For the farmers in Santa Elena, who had never even been inside a movie theater in their lives, the honor was great – and the stakes are high, according to Gerber. The film, but more so, the coffee crop, has the potential to change lives. “They have a vested interest in improving the lives of their families,” Gerber says. The film has since had 23 screenings, including in Santa Elena, where 600 residents packed the church, the only building large enough to hold so many. And they all want to be a part of Catracha Coffee now. “They definitely felt proud of themselves,” said Lowell Powell.
Mayra goes back once a year to work with the farmers and set up new programs and systems. Catracha started with a dozen families and are up to 45 families, adding about 15 per year. “This year, many of the interested farmers are women,” Mayra explains. The Powells have been working to get women owning land, even a single acre, to take more ownership of the process. While two-thirds of the work is done by women, the men have been the ones going to meetings, making decisions. “We need the women to get involved,” she says. “Since the coffee-selling is done by the men, we don’t know if the women are directly benefitting from their husbands.”
Catracha’s aim of empowering local women led to a program called Women in Craft, where local women learn to make clothing to sell at markets and festivals. Funding and support for that project has come from the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). The coffee harvest is in January, but by February and March, they will be involved in the Women in Craft project. “We want to give them a reason to get out of their houses and interact with other women,” says Mayra. “It’s very empowering.”
During the harvest, everyone picks, but much of coffee-farming is woman’s labor. For example, both statistically and anecdotally, women are better at picking and sorting the coffee cherries. The Powells speculate that perhaps the bright colors are easier for women’s eyes to see. Perhaps women are more detail-oriented, they suggest. But while women do more work in the process, “women are the least recognized in the coffee industry,” she says.
So Mayra hopes to lead by example. “In every meeting we say we need to have women.” While Mayra coordinates the business on the American side, in Honduras, Mayra’s mother and sister manage the families and programs. “’If Mayra can do it, we can do it.’”
And the difference this is making? “The standard of living is rising,” Mayra says. “They are investing” in their futures. “Having more money allows them to make more money.” What distinguishes Catracha Coffee from other coffee ventures in the region is that “We give the money back to them [and ask them] to make choices for themselves.”
Can your choice of morning coffee make such a difference, then? “Any customer can ask the coffee shop to sell our beans,” Mayra says. “The impact benefits where the coffee comes from. When you don’t pay much for your coffee, it is the families [who grow coffee], the farmers who suffer.” Farmers who take their beans to a local co-op or distribution center in Honduras might receive less than $1 a pound. With Catracha, and the ownership and self-determination that comes along with the company, the farmers of Santa Elena are making more than $2 per pound.
Mayra works in marketing and outreach for Royal Coffee in Emeryville, a position which came from her extensive work speaking with local roasters and importers. Royal Coffee is importing Catracha beans to the United States, and the Powells have hopes of creating more demand for their Honduran artisanal beans.
Want to taste this rich, robust brew? To order beans or learn more about Catracha Coffee, visit www.catrachacoffee.com.
Meet the farmers by name.