March 29, 2016

Sustainable Farming: How Can Specialty Coffee Empower People with Disabilities?


There are more than one billion people in the world with a disability. To put that into perspective, that’s 15 percent of the global population.

And according to the United Nations, 80-90% of people with disabilities in “developing countries” are unemployed, while in Mexico 14% of people with disabilities who have work are not even paid.

So what if specialty coffee could empower people with disabilities in Mexico? And preserve an at-risk coffee varietal at the same time?

Spanish Version: Cultivo Sustentable: Como el Café Especial Puede Traer Empoderamiento a las Personas con Discapacidades

Coffee tasting

Tasting coffee: Speciality coffee is something that everyone can be involved in, regardless of ability. 

The Lucy Foundation: Empowering People with Disabilities

The Lucy Foundation is a New Zealand-based social enterprise formed in 2014 with the aim of using business to increase economic and social inclusion for people with disabilities. In particular, they’re using specialty coffee to empower people with disabilities, and their families, in a small mountainous part of Oaxaca, Mexico.

The idea for the project arose in 2013. Robbie Francis, the director of The Lucy Foundation, was interning as a human rights monitor in Mexico for six months. She saw the appalling conditions that institutionalised people with disabilities were living in

Robbie says that people with disabilities who were not in institutions also faced discrimination and exclusion in their day-to-day lives.

After seeing how people with disabilities in Mexico were treated, and as someone with a disability herself, Robbie was compelled to do something. When she got back to New Zealand, her and her friends started pitching the idea of a social enterprise that employs people with disabilities to increase social and economic inclusion.


Families from Pluma Hidalgo, the Pina Palmera team and The Lucy Foundation.

And The Lucy Foundation was born.

The Lucy Foundation’s Plans: Specialty Coffee in Oaxaca

The Lucy Foundation’s first project is in Pluma Hidalgo, which also happens to be the home of Pluma coffee, a progeny of an heirloom variety of Typica. The project is in collaboration with Piña Palmera, an organisation working with people with disabilities in five Oaxacan municipalities, including Pluma Hidalgo. Currently, only one of the individuals that Piña Palmera works with is employed.

Together, The Lucy Foundation and Piña Palmera will work with a core group of families to increase the quality and yield of their coffee crops, and encouraging all of the family members – including those with disabilities – to participate.


Bringing people together over coffee, Juan and Miguel.

Over the next six months, they will work closely with the individuals and their families to identify and strengthen those skills that can be transferred to the production of coffee. For example, one young man has been learning how to wash his own clothes: a skill that can be applied during the hand sorting and processing of coffee.

Why Coffee?

Robbie says that the answer to that is simple: New Zealanders love coffee and, if social inclusion is integrated every step of the way, then New Zealanders will pay more for the product. Higher returns will then be reinvested into local coffee production in Pluma Hidalgo.

Yet coffee wasn’t just the perfect choice for New Zealand; it was also the perfect choice for Pluma Hidalgo.

Piña Palmera had previously tried other economic activities to promote disability inclusion within families, but found that they didn’t quite suit the needs of the community. Improving the coffee industry, on the other hand, would.

Coffee has formed the economic backbone of Pluma for hundreds of years. However, local coffee growers say that coffee production in Pluma Hidalgo has been in decline ever since Hurricane Paulina hit in 1996. In particular, the production of Pluma has fallen.

Hurricane Paulina changed the microclimate of the area, because it carried seawater into the mountains and uprooted shade trees. The farmers in the region were not able to adapt to the new, unfavourable conditions.

Then there’s the impact of La Roya, a.ka. coffee rust: a pestilence that affects the leaves of coffee plants. In the last year, some of the farmers in the area have started to change to more resistant varieties, such as Oro Azteca, Guacamayo and Costa Rica. If this trend continues, it could eliminate the Pluma varietal in a matter of years.

But Pluma Hidalgo isn’t just the home of Pluma. It’s also the only place where Pluma grows. And throughout the entire world, there are only a few coffee varietals that come from the heirloom Typica.

Making this issue even more pressing is that fact that Oaxaca is Mexico’s biggest producer of organic coffee.

So at stake is the extinction of a high-quality coffee grown in a chemical-free manner. And there is no doubt that, if Pluma is lost, not only will this unique coffee disappear but the region’s quality of coffee will also fall. New crops will have to be established, and they will probably be Timor Hybrid and Arabica cross-breeds.


Hand-sorting coffee cherries grown by families in Pluma Hidalgo.

So over the next few years, The Lucy Foundation and Piña Palmera will work with local families to increase the quality of the soil through fertilisation and processing, and thereby produce healthier plants. In this way, they aim to not only empower individuals with disabilities but to also protect the future of Pluma.

SEE ALSO: 8 Steps to Building Gender Equity into the Global Coffee Supply Chain

Early Successes

Since the project started a year ago, one of the families The Lucy Project are working with has replanted with the Pluma variety. Two of the sons, both of whom having learning difficulties and one of whom is deaf, have also started growing seedlings to sell at the local market for extra income.

This is a promising sign. Pluma is being replanted; people with disabilities, and their families, are seeing an increased income; and people are willing to both adapt their farming practices and share their knowledge of coffee with people with disabilities – lessening the exclusion that can have such a negative impact on people’s lives.  

Improving Soil Quality & Fighting Leaf Rust

Moving forward, The Lucy Foundation’s first step will be to work on decreasing the level of acidity in the soil and increasing the amount of organic material on the land. It’s important that the Foundation adopts an organic approach because the local community is resistant to changing the way they have tended the plants in the past.

To do this, each of the families they work with will begin making compost from food waste and organic material around their plantations. They will use this to fertilise the coffee trees, as each tree will need around 12kgs of organic compost per year.  

The Lucy Foundation will also work with the families to plant more shade trees, such as Inga edulis. These trees have nitrogen-fixing properties, which the soil needs.

And once the trees are healthier, the coffee plants will also stand more of a chance against leaf rust.

Looking into the Future: The Long-Term Plans

In the December 2016 harvest, The Lucy Foundation plan to guide the families through the processing of the cherries. In past visits, milling and drying the coffee had proven to be an issue: the families cannot afford a suitable mill, nor do they have the requisite knowledge to achieve specialty standards.

The next stage of The Lucy Foundation’s project in Pluma Hidalgo will be the setting up a washing station, along with processing the cherries for export to New Zealand.

In this way, The Lucy Foundation hope to see a long-term improvement in the quality and quantity of Pluma plants and, most importantly, the lives of people with disabilities and their families. By empowering these individuals to both work within a community, and receive payment for their work, they are aiming to change the tradition of exclusion, discrimination, and financial disempowerment that so many face today.

Edited by T. Newton.

Perfect Daily Grind.