Honduras is a small yet mighty coffee producer. The country boasts the largest per capita coffee production in the world. Beginning in 2017, Honduras began placing in third place for Arabica production volume globally. For this slot, they compete with Ethiopia—a country 10 times larger than Honduras. The two countries trade between third and fourth place annually, but the achievement is impressive, nonetheless.
Coffee arrived in Honduras on trading ships in the 18th century. While some small-scale farmers were growing coffee as a minor cash crop early on, banana remained the main cash crop in Honduras throughout the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th. It was not until the late 20th century that widespread and more intensive coffee farming began.
Roadblocks to Cultivation
The path to largescale coffee production has been littered with stumbling blocks for Honduran producers. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, the second deadliest Atlantic Hurricane on record, had a catastrophic impact on coffee production in the country. In total, as much as 70% of agriculture in Honduras was destroyed. This widespread destruction led to food shortages, and damaged internal infrastructure made transporting coffee even more difficult.
Many farmers smuggled their parchment to neighboring Guatemala where they could fetch higher prices. Due to the slow recovery process, smuggling continued for several years after the hurricane struck. During that time, a lot of Honduran coffee, especially that of better quality that had the potential to fetch higher prices, was sold as Guatemalan.
More recently, Honduras has battled Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR). Like many other Central American countries, CLR began appearing in 2010, and the intensity peaked in 2012. Smallholder farmers—who compose 95% of coffee growers in Honduras—farm organically by default and with very little access to inputs that would help to minimize the impact of CLR. Furthermore, many of these farmers had aging rootstock and little access to seedlings or training in renovation practices. This meant that smallholder farmers in Honduras were disproportionally affected by the outbreak. Though the effects of CLR have lessened in recent years, the disease is still widespread and has the potential to devastate crop production, especially for smallholders.
Transport and processing infrastructure can also pose challenges. While Honduran farmers have been growing coffee as a main cash crop since the 1900s, export volumes remained small well into the 1980s, due in part to the difficulty of transportation for farmers and middlemen. This lack of infrastructure led to lower-quality production overall than in neighboring countries, which also created stigma against Honduran coffee.
Expansion of Specialty Production
Honduras has everything it needs to become a premier specialty coffee producer. The country has the right growing conditions, abundant fertile soils and soaring altitudes (nearly all farms are at more than 1,000 meters above sea level), plus a variety of microclimates.
Beginning in the early 2000s the industry began to focus on quality. Improved infrastructure (better mechanical dryers, centralized wet mills, an increasing number of solar dryers), quality control/assurance trainings (separating lots by qualities, cupping schools, etc.), the rise of specialty-focused exporters, increased volumes of certified coffees and the strengthening cooperative movement all have worked in tandem to make Honduran coffee ‘one to watch’.
This movement is helped along by a significant generational shift. Unlike many Central American countries, Honduras has a younger average age of producer. Many coops and exporters are run, today, by young, innovative, create entrepreneurs who have focused on quality and, importantly, collaboration with one another to achieve a common goal. This generation’s efforts have greatly improved Honduras’s reputation in terms of quality and their growth in demand internationally.
In addition to improving quality, these leaders have greatly improved productivity. Within 1-2 years post-CLR outbreak, there was a widescale investment in farm renovation, which is why volumes jumped massively in 2016/17 to record levels of production.
IHCAFE & Improving Production
IHCAFE (Instituto Hondureño del Café) has complemented these efforts with a focus on improving production and quality, mitigating CLR and adding value in country. The Honduran government created IHCAFE in 1970. The agency remains active in helping farmers confront key challenges to productivity and quality.
IHCAFE has created a number of tools for farmers to track and reduce CLR outbreaks. One of IHCAFE’s slogans, “Don’t change the coffee variety; change your attitude” speaks to their methods of equipping farmers with a range of tools, including organic methods—rather than solely CLR-resistant varieties—to ward off CLR. Additionally, IHCAFE’s Early Warning System, released in 2012, helps alert farmers in areas where CLR has been detected to give them advanced notice to prepare for CLR that could encroach from nearby fields.
This strategy also complements their work on value addition. IHCAFE created 6 key coffee producing regions for branding purposes (Copan, Opalaca, Montecillos, Comayagua, El Paraiso and Agalta). While the regions overlap with areas that have seen CLR outbreaks, IHCAFE supports farmers use good farming practices to control CLR and continue to improve overall quality.
Honduran Coffee Today
It is only in more recent years that coffee production in Honduras has reached specialty levels comparable to other Central American countries, but specialty roasters are responding with enthusiasm. In 2017, a lot in the Cup of Excellence garnered the highest price ever paid for a Cup of Excellence coffee in any country: $124.50 per pound (approximately $56.50 per kg).
Above all, while Honduras increasingly offers high end microlots, what the country arguably represents overall is exceptional value. Quality has improved massively over the last 15 years, and in addition to unique specialty lots, the country offers very solid, clean blenders at very attractive prices.
Sucafina in Honduras
As is the case throughout Central America, rather than opening up an origin operation, Sucafina has chosen to work through an extensive network of local third-party exporters, producers and cooperatives with whom we have established durable relationships and a set of shared values. We work with many national exporters that have been around for generations. They have long-term relationships with producers and are highly invested in their communities.
Honduras is one of the most important origins in Central America for Sucafina, and they are our largest origin in terms of volume. We source the entire range of qualities, from macrolot to microlot, which has required us to have a very broad range of suppliers. We source any and all qualities, regions, certifications, processes and varietals.
We venture to say that we know nearly every coffee exporter and supplier in the country, and we work with many of them).