Q&As with Martina Gruppo aka The Coffee Fairy
Find out how Martina went from the home comforts of British suburbia to the wilds of Nicaragua and, from there, to becoming a coffee importer with a social conscience.
Your story is a classic one of our times – you took a year out and moved to Nicaragua and had a life-changing experience – how did you hit upon the idea of utilising the country’s crop for the greater good?
It started almost by accident, whilst volunteering in Nicaragua. I met a group of backpackers who were very interested in visiting Miraflor as it was off the beaten track. They fell in love with the place and the coffee and commented on how hard it was to buy really good quality coffee that didn’t come from a supermarket. They also wanted to support the community. I felt that this had potential as a way of earning money for the community while at the same time giving people who were traveling around a sense of buying something grown locally. I took bags of their freshly roasted and hand ground coffee to various ‘touristy’ locations such as hostels and restaurants on the west coast of Nicaragua. Several bought into the idea and are still using the coffee.
I brought the idea back to England because I felt I could raise the profile of the country and the problems they have with education through coffee sales. I researched how to start a business and the import/export side of things.
When I returned to Nicaragua I told people I knew of my plans. Their reaction was incredible, they loved the idea that people might be interested in knowing where the coffee came from and what their lives were like. I felt that there was a real opportunity to do something different, so on a trust basis they sold me their finest quality coffee and I promised to raise money for their schools and to create educational bursaries.
You donate a percentage of your profits to help the children – how do you ensure it’s spent directly on the kids’ education?
We haven’t started funding the educational scholarships yet because any money made is going straight back into the company to use for fairs, marketing and promoting the coffee and the project. I’ve been trading for less than a year so what I’m doing at the moment is ensuring that more coffee is bought.
Having said that there’s already some great news; despite being a new business I’ll be funding 16 computer bursaries this summer with the help of a Spanish charity that has a computer centre near Miraflor. A mix of 16 children (aged 13+ ) and adults will be attending a basic computer class for six months that’s being paid for by The Coffee Fairy.
Inbetween selling at food fairs and talking to retailers I’ve also been giving presentations in schools about the coffee process. This has been very successful – in one school alone they raised over £1,200 for one of the community schools.
Once the scholarship scheme starts the community members and teachers will decide who’ll benefit from the educational bursaries. Each one costs approximately £300 per year – this pays for transport, books and schooling. I’ll take this money directly to the community to pass on to the teachers and will follow the progress of each beneficiary. This is essential because I want to pass this information on so people understand that their money really has made a difference.
How does a small business like yours cope with donating money?
Although I’m not donating a huge amount yet, as long as I’m communicating regularly with the farmers and letting them know what’s happening they’re happy with what I’m doing. They also understand that I want to give more and will when the business takes off and they know that I’m doing this entirely on my own and I’m sympathetic to the costs involved.
Do you think all businesses – large and small – have an ethical responsibility to donate money to worthy causes?
I think that’s up to the individual businesses. It was my decision to do this, I didn’t feel as if I had to donate to anyone, it was more the way the business evolved. I do believe that there are an awful lot of ‘middle men’ out there who are taking a large chunk from what effectively belongs to smaller producers. I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way. I also believe that people are asking far more questions about what they are buying, and I like the fact that I’m able to answer them.
How important do you think branding and advertising is in order to be noticed?
Very important, but it’s not enough just to have ‘shiny packaging’ and a quirky name. Consumers are far more discerning and are willing to try less mass-marketed products if they’re convinced of the quality and the source of the product. It comes down to a more intelligent consumer and we have to be ready to satisfy them.
What advice would you give other fledgling businesses?
I don’t feel as though I am in a position to give advice to anyone! I believe in what I do so I’m enthusiastic and knowledgeable about it. My branding grew directly from something I believed in and I think that shows. I’m not sure this is proper advice but I think some of the best brands I’ve seen come from ideas that people feel strongly about, as long as you’re passionate and not preachy!
Do you go back to Miraflor much?
Twice a year; I go back in January for the coffee harvest and then back again in August to pay the farmers a deposit for the following year’s harvest and to update them on what’s going on how sales have been at the various fairs. They love hearing about the reaction to their coffee and their lives, it fascinates them to hear this first-hand and I love passing on the latest news and updates. Sometimes it feels very surreal to be sitting in a room with a mud floor and chickens walking around talking to 15 men about how the sales of the coffee are doing in England. However, it beats sitting in an office!
Tell us about the convenient coffee plans on your
– they seem a great way for people to purchase a product while helping a community…
The plans make great original gift ideas; sign up to a subscription and receive a bag of freshly roasted coffee through your door each month and updates about how your coffee of choice is making a difference to a community in Nicaragua. It’s convenient and smells so much better than your usual post.
And your 25% discount for those serving in the forces?
This came about because someone suggested to me that those serving abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq had to put up with really awful coffee while they were out there. I had given a gift of one of my cafetiere mugs to a very good friend who had served in Afghanistan and he said that they would be ideal in the desert as they are very robust and simple to use by just adding hot water. He said those serving really craved decent coffee. I felt that a discount was the right thing to offer on the plans with a mug because I wanted to do something to make it a bit easier for them. I’m not sure how much it would help but I do know how much I hate being without good coffee!
What is the future for Coffee Fairy? Will you stick to importing from Nicaragua or expand?
My dream is to have enough orders to be able to increase the quantity of coffee I import from my present group of farmers so that they can sell all of it to me instead of having to look for external markets to sell to. I would like to be able to send significant numbers of children on to secondary education and university from these communities.
As the company grows as I would really love to source coffee from other areas in the Nicaraguan mountains outside of Miraflor and take the project to even more communities. There are so many possibilities and places to take this to that all I want is for the initial project to work – the rest will follow.
Why do you think that events like the Real Food Festival are good for you and other small businesses?
They’re a terrific opportunity for small businesses to showcase their produce to people who have gone out of their way to look at products that are just that little bit more unique.
It makes a huge difference to speak to people who are genuinely interested in what you do; price is important but ultimately it comes down to taste. My coffee speaks for itself – as for the project, you can’t shut me up about it so meeting people who are interested is always a pleasure.
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