A short story about our visit to Jardín in December 2019, by André Volpato.
1. A small step into the future.
Martín cuts his monologue short, suddenly aware of his listeners’ puzzled expression. Big room, big project, big meeting, his first with a big-time investor, and it’s important for everyone that it go well.
It’s not going well.
Like so many entrepreneurs, Martín faces having to explain to another a series of events and ideas that is both crystal-clear to him and incredibly complex to everyone else.
“I’m not sure I understand,” says the investor, “could we take a step back, please?, start again from the beginning?” “No problem,” says Martín.
Before time existed, we were all home, together in the singularity, then BANG!, our particles started zooming about, and some of them became Colombian coffee. Which is great, because Colombian coffee is great. And there are also Colombian coffee farmers, Colombian towns that only exist because of Colombian coffee, Colombian coffee cooperatives, Colombian coffee traders, and a lot of Colombian coffee drinkers.
Now there’s also Hilo, Coffee’s Common Thread.
But don’t get me wrong, I don’t wanna make it sound like it’s that simple, I mean: I’m with the clueless investor on this one. Hilo’s team is without a doubt one of the most random groups of people I ever met. So much so that it kinda makes me wonder about the nature of their connection.
I guess most of us have had a few encounters that made us question the chance factor in life, as swift and discrete as the Earth’s rotation, but also as determining for how things turn out. And being as skeptical as I am, I shiver at the question before I even ask it, but preordained or not, these people and what they’ve been doing are undeniably special. And this alone warrants that investor and you and I to have a go at understanding them.
2. Lo and behold: HILO.
Many of us ask, at one point or another, how the hell was it that we came into the world, and that’s a real headscratcher because, if you think about it, we didn’t. We came out of it. Not like a person walks into a new room, but more like a leaf grows out of a tree. And I think the same is true for an organization, at least when its existence feels inevitable.
When Marta and Patrícia’s literacy project, Jardín Municipio Lector, lost its public funding on account of the opposition won the election, it could’ve been the end of things. But instead, having the energy these two ladies have, they started buying a little coffee from the Giraldo family and selling it under the brand Yerbasanta to try and fund the project on their own. Marta and Patricia are his aunts, he spent a lot of his childhood in Jardín: Martín had no choice but to get involved.
And although the same couldn’t be said for the people around Martín (I mean, surely they had a choice), it’s not surprising that so many of them chose a be a part of Hilo: once one understands the point, it’s easy to see there’s no other way to do things that would make sense.
Altogether, it’s about 30 people: there are Marta, Patricia and the Giraldo family, who are at the root of everything, there’s the core team, Martín, Thomas, and Tiago, there’s a huge team of volunteers, without whom the crowdfunding campaign wouldn’t have happened. Not to mention Hilo’s customers and followers and even myself, just another guy who got entangled in this weave way before I realized it.
I’m Tiago’s brother, pleasure to meet you.
But anywho, the point I’m trying to make is that nobody brought Hilo into the world: it grew, it’s been growing out of it. And I didn’t understand that until I visited the place where its first embryo started to manifest.
3. Uncovering Jardín.
It was December 2019, the entire core team was gonna go to Colombia to meet with the Giraldos and to get things straight for the year to come, goals and expectations and that sort of thing. My brother invited me to come along and I accepted. Obviously.
We arrived in Jardín from Medellín after a couple of hours of bad roads, found a parking spot, and walked a couple of blocks to the main square: a mass going on in the cathedral, tourists walking about, café tables spread throughout, people talking, cars honking. And contradictions all around us like a palisade.
There was a statue in front of the church with a saying beneath it: a man becomes acquainted with God’s grace when he is an artist; a woman, when she is a mother. And maybe twenty meters away from where it stood, there was a large tent where volunteers of Jardín Municipio Lector were selling books to raise money. A woman walked over to a microphone and announced she was gonna read chapter 7 of Rayuela, by Julio Cortázar. It was Patricia, with an audience of passers-by bewitched by her performance, just a little taste of the work she’s been doing with the local school kids for over 15 years.
Martín introduced us to his aunts, we said hi to the volunteers and promised we’d be back later to help disassemble their tent.
The next few hours were spent walking the narrow streets of Jardín’s center, surrounded by well preserved colonial architecture and by this tropical mood of vivid voices and perfumes and colors. We didn’t even have to go far to stumble upon birds, fruits, leaves, and flowers I’d never seen before. And already at nighttime, while we were putting away the books that hadn’t been sold, I felt like I could remember this place from the pages of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, a feeling I wasn’t able to shake away for the entire time we were there. Like in Macondo, the reality in Jardín is permeated by fantasy, but fantasy sometimes collapses under the weight of reality.
4. Not everything in Colombia is sunshine and blow.
We spent our second day getting to know Marta and Patricia a little better, discussing the future of Hilo and, of course, drinking excellent coffee. On our third day, we welcomed to Jardín two more companions and Hilo volunteers, Marcela and Andrea.
During a single meeting with the team: I learned that one container holds more or less 20 tons of coffee, depending on the packaging; I learned that the cooperative based in Jardín was close to bankruptcy on account of the director lost its money in the stock market; I learned that to fill one container or, in other words, to get 20 tons of coffee in a single shipping, Hilo has to buy from at least 8 families in the region; I learned that the newly elected mayor of Jardín is not aware of the term “gentrification”, nor of the phenomenon it names; I learned that Germany alone consumes over 390 million tons of roasted coffee every year; finally, I learned that in order to sustain its current operation, Hilo would need a 0,000014% share of that market, or 55 tons.
And like we just got done discussing the weather report, we called it a day and went out to eat.
On our fourth morning, we woke up to some horrible news: a nephew of the Giraldos was murdered that night. We were supposed to meet them that day, and apparently, that was not too much out of the ordinary, so it was no reason to cancel our visit to the farm.
Only thing was they had the funeral later, so we couldn’t take long.
We hurried a bit and arrived there about half an hour later. Don Andrés was the first to greet us, we then met Doña Alicia and their son, Robinson, who’s been managing the farm for the past few years. Workers were coming and going, a couple of kilos of coffee beans were spread over three or four square meters to dry, there was a couch in the varanda, we grabbed a few extra chairs and sat down for the meeting.
5. The women of HILO.
Before we move on to what was said in the meeting, I believe we should discuss the people who made it possible.
At first glance, Martín and Robinson might seem like the main pieces of this puzzle, and the work they put in is, of course, indispensable. The same goes for Thomas and Tiago and all the volunteers back in Germany, as well as for every employee working at the Giraldo farm.
But surely the people who stitch both ends of this operation, the threads which connect them, the hilos, are Marta, Patricia, and Doña Alicia.
Marta and Patricia have the trust of the community of farmers. In Jardín, there are people already in their twenties and thirties who learned how to read with them. They know and have access to the families, and they take this role very seriously. They are also two of the most interesting women and one of the sweetest couples I’ve ever met.
You probably can’t tell, but I’m quite shy, and even so, we were able to talk about literature, art, politics, and so many other things.
I didn’t spend that much time with Doña Alicia, but anybody could tell she’s a stern woman, down to earth like most farmers are. She goes about her work and doesn’t waste time with things she can’t help. And by the way she sat down for the meeting, next to Patricia as if under her protection, anybody could also tell there’s complicity there. The Colombian countryside still holds on to some old habits when it comes to gender roles, but it was obvious that, in that room, everything was dependent on the trust these women put in each other.
6. Not everything in Colombia is sunshine and blow (2).
Our meeting with the Giraldos started with a recap of everything that had happened so far: the crowdfunding campaign, Marta’s and Patricia’s connection to the coffee farmers in the region, the 500kg of coffee Hilo bought from this family. This was all meant to proof Hilo’s concept. Now, Martín said, we want to move forward: in 2020, we’d like to scale up.
Marta and Patricia intervened next. They wanted us to know that, for them, Hilo has already been life-changing. All of us shared a little bit, even Thomas, who struggled to follow the Spanish, was excited.
The Giraldos were on board but, aside from Don Andrés’ jokes, didn’t say much.
It may have felt disappointing, but afterwards, while we were getting a tour of the house and of the farm, I think I got it. The Giraldos live mostly under a rural type of stoicism. You can see that on the way they deal with death and with work. They don’t think in terms of moving forward towards a goal, they don’t welcome change as a ~new experience~; they follow the rhythm of the farm, with good year after bad year after bad year after good year: they live in cycles. Only twice I saw in them genuine admiration: when Doña Alicia showed us a bed she made from the wood of a coffee tree, and when Don Andrés pointed in the distance some native forest they have managed to preserve.
The Giraldos own both that bed and that piece of land since they were first married, and that’s the most important part of their stoicism: they trust and value only that which lasts. And I bet the same goes for all the other families in the region. They obviously understand how things could get better with Hilo, but for them to truly value it, it must remain consistent for a long time.
And on this note, I think we should start to wrap things up: after a couple more days in Colombia, it was time to say goodbye.
7. Back to the future.
I started this text posing a question about the nature of the connection between the people who got involved with Hilo. Random encounters that worked out great or something preordained? Lucky for me, there’s a word in the dictionary that translates both those sentiments, synonym to fate as well as to chance: fortune.
Part of Hilo’s team just got together in Germany a couple of days ago; another part is still in Jardín, and after our visit to Colombia, there’s a team starting to make it happen in Medellín. And somehow they’re all working together. They’ve had great fortune so far, and I wish them way more than that from this point on.