How Inga Foundation is leading a revolution in coffee
“Together with Inga Foundation, we are going to revolutionize the production of coffee in Honduras” – Milton A Ramos, Technical Assistance Officer at Becamo
We’re delighted to announce a new partnership with Tchibo – the German chain of coffee retailers and cafés – and Becamo, Honduran coffee exporters. The Becamo agronomists and some of their coffee farmers have been embedded for two weeks at a time with the Inga Foundation farms, so they can learn all of the practical and social approaches needed to make this nature-based, improvisation-supported revolution in coffee work.
This is the story of how it came to be. If it resonates, and you are part of a company that genuinely wants to improve the land and the lives of farmers in the humid tropics, please do contact us for details of our training programmes.
V I V A L A R E V O L U C I Ó N !
Words by BELINA RAFFY
Abridged article, originally published in Applied Improvisation Magazine, issue 1 / 2023
I am based in Berlin, where the public transportation is plentiful and regular, the tap water is safe to drink, and my most frequent encounter with local wildlife is while trying to feed hazelnuts to adorable and timid red squirrels.
The first time I went to Honduras was in December 2021. While there, I got hissed at by a giant boa constrictor I couldn’t see (it was dark), bitten by numerous bugs (I am apparently delicious), and managed to pick up both influenza A and a parasite called Entamoeba histolytica.
The second time was in May 2022. I was only there for a week, and I managed to pick up the gut bacteria Helicobacter pylori which, if left untreated, could cause stomach ulcers and cancer. (My doctors and I treated it and I am now fine.)
I am about to go to Honduras for the third time in under a year. This time for six weeks. And I can’t wait. What makes it worth it to me to visit this adventurous, wildly beautiful, transitioning narco-state with dangerous life forms big and small?
It’s a chance for me to support a nascent nature-based revolution in the coffee industry. This work has the potential to transform land use and the well-being of smallholder coffee farmers’ lives.
These goals are especially attractive at a time when war by Russia is making traditional pesticides and fertilisers prohibitively expensive in Honduras, back-to-back climate crises are causing crop failure, and diminishing crop returns by exhausted soils are making many Central American smallholder farmers lose hope and join the precarious caravanas to seek a better life.
In July 2012, I went to the Frontline Club in London and watched a documentary called ‘Up in Smoke’ (not the Cheech and Chong film). Through that film, I fell in love with an amazing, rigorously scientifically proven, and breathtakingly holistic nature-based agroforestry approach
by the Inga Foundation, which gives farmers in the humid tropics a vibrant and truly regenerative alternative to ‘slash and burn’ farming. I kept in touch with them and was planning to visit their demonstration farm in Le Ceiba, Honduras in December 2021.
Ten years on from the initial documentary film, their system was being replicated in 15 countries in the humid tropics. In Honduras, the Inga Foundation had 420 families [now over 450] who had embraced the system, with none returning to slash-and-burn practices. Those families were also responsible for planting over four million trees. And a community whose slash-and-burn farming had split a national park were now looking to rejoin the two sides of the park by embracing the Inga Foundation agroforestry system. On the fields that had been running the system for a while, long-gone freshwater springs were returning. In terms of SDGs, the Inga Foundation approach was positively addressing 11 of the 17 goals, with no negative impact on the other six.
In July 2021, I was approached by two fabulous ladies I knew, both working with an organisation called ‘Bring on the Zoo’ (BOTZ). For years, BOTZ had worked with Tchibo, a big German company, to help improve human rights conditions in supplier factories around the world.
As we all know, 2020 and 2021 were particularly difficult times with the global pandemic. To bring much needed new energy and insights to their human rights facilitators around the world, the BOTZ ladies created a series of online workshops as part of their beautifully-titled, ‘Summer of Love and Art,’ and they asked me to run a workshop for them.
I ran one in line with my book, Using Improv to Save the World (and me). We focused on activities which create joyful connection, encourage listening and presence, and help us
practice co-creation. They loved it. In October 2021, the BOTZ ladies asked me to design and deliver a three-day online conference for the same group of trainers on working with power. For this, I decided to weave together three threads:improvisation, solutions focus, and an adaptation of a Quaker ‘clearness committee’ process. The experience was truly transformational and
showed the power of what we can do to support each other through times of major change if we have the right processes, culture and approach.
One attendee in October, Tchibo’s Aida Guerreiro Brito, had been instrumental in advancing the human rights work with the BOTZ ladies. She’d recently moved to the coffee section of Tchibo, where she was looking to transform both environmental sustainability and the quality of life of their smallholder coffee farmers.
I mentioned to Aida that I was going to be in Honduras in December, visiting the Inga Foundation, and she, the Inga Foundation, and I devised an experiment based on
two questions. “What happens if we spend three days introducing key managers and agronomists within the Honduran coffee company Becamo (supplying Tchibo), to these
collaborative, creative mindsets of improvisation, while they explore the Inga Foundation’s nature-based approach? How might the approach support the transformation of the environmental impact and the livelihoods of their coffee farmers?”.
First, I don’t speak Spanish. (The company found me an awesome interpreter named Katia.)
Second, I had never worked with the Inga Foundation team before. (They were generously big-hearted and when we first met in person, we had a blue morpho butterfly dancing around our heads, which I took as a good omen.)
Third, Inga Foundation had never worked this way with a company before. (They were nervous about how the agronomists from Becamo would find it, as Inga Foundation is revolutionary in terms of traditional agriculture practices.)
Despite all that, the experiment in December 2021 paid off, and we realised something important. Not only were the participants from the coffee company excited to learn more
about this nature-based solution, but they also noticed that the quality of conversations they had experienced, in large part created by the workshop design and culture of improvisation
and engagement, was totally different from what happens when they run a typical training with their coffee farmers on new agricultural methods. Their traditional approach to training was relatively didactic and rigid.
I learned that a key to Inga Foundation’s success at testing and adapting the implementation of this nature-based solution to over 420 families in Honduras was that the Inga team instinctively improvises – with each other, changing conditions and farmer wisdom. And they are very good at it – doing it with great care, integrity and compassion. If another company were to adopt and adapt their nature-based and people based solutions, their trainers – in this case the coffee agronomists in Becamo – would have to improvise too, with their own coffee farmers. So that was what happened in May 2022. I joined a wise, Ireland-based Peruvian facilitator named Charo Lanao to design and run a three-day Training of Trainers (ToT) for 15 Latinx agronomists (14 males and 1 female).
On the first day, Charo and I introduced key concepts, including Charo’s powerful invitation that a trainer also needs to be a facilitator and a learner. On the second day, we focused on practices that helped us to identify and engage with different perspectives, and we experienced approaches that nurtured our own curiosity and helped us to hold our own assumptions lightly.
The task was for the groups to cover the topic, but design and deliver it in a way that honoured being a trainer, facilitator, and learner. Traditionally, these topics would have been delivered only from the trainer perspective.
The agronomists felt the difference – both as a person leading the mini-workshop, and as a role-play farmer. They could feel instantly how much more alive and useful the conversations were.
On the third day, the founder and president of the company arrived by helicopter to see how the training was going. We did not know this was going to happen until the second day, and we were worried about the impact on participants of having the big boss come. What the agronomists did was powerful – they created refined mini-workshops designed to help everyone remember what their learning had been in our ToT, by using and adapting the tools we had given them.
Throughout the workshop, we gave the agronomists time to reflect and co-create their own ideal learning toolkit for what we were covering, so that they had something perfectly adapted to their own needs. After our ToT, they quickly refined this material into a living document with quotes, photos, and notes on the different models and activities that they wanted to remember.
In the follow-up meeting a month and a half later, their creative use of improvisation gave us all chilly bumps. The agronomists were even using methods like acknowledging the value in each others’ ideas with their wives and children. (I think our three days in May made a lot of wives happier.)
Just after our time together in May, two of our participants headed into a training meeting with coffee farmers, and there were three times as many farmers as they expected. They immediately invited people to form groups based on interest so that the design could be tailored to what people wanted to cover on the day. Something they had never done before our 3-day training.
Since then, Tchibo, Becamo and Inga Foundation have signed a contract. Now equipped with improvisation, the Becamo agronomists and some of their coffee farmers will be embedded for two weeks at a time with the Inga Foundation farms, so they can learn all of the practical and social approaches needed to make this nature-based, improvisation-supported revolution in coffee work.
Viva la revolución!
Belina helps people who work on environmental and social issues to collaborate more effectively, creatively, and lovingly with nature and each other. She is the collaboration coach for the science accelerator lab Frontier Development Lab. She created the global, compassionate, stand-up comedy course, Sustainable Stand Up. Belina giggles a lot because she loves what she does.