IN 2005, DURING AN INTERNSHIP working with a nonprofit women’s cooperative in Nicaragua, Rob Terenzi ’01 was struck by how little individual coffee farmers were earning for growing the world’s second-most traded commodity.
“This was my first exposure to the coffee supply chain,” Terenzi says. “They were earning around 70 cents per pound. I was blown away by that number. I saw how hard these farmers work.”
Seventy cents per pound of coffee that would then go up the supply chain to end up costing the final consumer up to $20 per pound, a 90 percent profit margin that “bewildered” Terenzi.
“It takes five to seven years to produce coffee,” he says. “These women farmers who own less than one acre of land have to make their entire life planning around their one paycheck a year.”
Global coffee consumption has doubled over the past two decades, with an estimated 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed every day. Terenzi and his wife, Noushin Ketabi, and his Boston College friend, Will DeLuca, saw an opportunity to help coffee farmers and upend the supply chain. In 2015, they formed Vega Coffee, which has been dubbed the “Etsy” of coffee production for its dedication to individual coffee farmers.
Much of the profit in coffee production goes to middlemen buyers and shippers, but roasting the beans is also profitable. Vega Coffee brings the roasting back to Nicaragua, putting more money in the hands of the farmers. Ninety percent of the coffee beans Vega buys are from women-owned farms, and all of Vega’s roasters are women. The 15,000 farmers they source from grow beans organically.
Growers harvest their beans and then take them to a centralized roasting facility near Esteli, Nicaragua, where they are able to roast, grind, and package their beans. The facility, which opened five years ago, regularly hosts training days, where farmers come to learn about the process, taste coffees, and participate in roasting sessions.
Vega’s farmers make on average four times the traditional method, and are also paid every two weeks, instead of a few times per year.
The company’s international customers subscribe online at www.vegacoffee.com and choose how often to have their coffee delivered. It usually takes around two weeks from order to delivery, and subscribers can choose from a variety of roasts and grinds.
Terenzi and his partners are also bringing Vega Coffee to colleges and universities, where the appeal to help small coffee growers lands on fertile soil.
“When we bring our company to a college or university, we really emphasize the connection with the farmers,” he says. “We know the farmers incredibly well, and showing students how much money goes back to the farmers, I think students understand that better than most.”
Vega Coffee has contracts with a growing number of educational institutions, such as Emory University and the University of Alabama, as well as SUNY schools.
“When I drive through the communities that we work most closely with, I see new houses, the women’s cooperative just bought more land to grow coffee, women who are going to school to finish a degree, bringing their families to the doctor for the first time—we’re actually seeing the difference we are making,” he says.
Coffee is just one product Terenzi and his partners are exploring. Up next? Cacao beans, which make chocolate.
“We’re working on a cacao product in a bean-to-bar process,” he says. “We will do all the work in-country, including Nicaragua, Colombia, and Guatemala.”
Terenzi says his experiences have been life-altering.
“I will never forget the first day, meeting this family in Miraflor, Nicaragua,” he says. “They were the first farmers I had met—the first time I’d ever seen a coffee field. They were so underrated and so valuable. That was a really big turning point.”
And while coffee prices are still substantially below the cost of production, Terenzi and his team hope to empower local growers and show that the Vega model is a sustainable way forward. By keeping more money in country, Terenzi notes the side benefits: less deforestation, less need for emigration, and more money in the pockets of the people who actually produce the world’s coffee.
As for himself, Terenzi admits he doesn’t drink too much coffee himself. “One triple macchiato per day,” he says with a laugh.
—Bonnie Blackburn-Penhollow ’84