September 12, 2019

Are Mingas The Solution to Colombia’s Coffee Worker Shortage?


Low coffee prices and political tensions have contributed to labor shortages in several Latin American coffee-producing countries. In response, some Colombian farmers are revitalizing a traditional working model. Through collaboration, mingas not only provide each other with a workforce, they also help improve coffee quality and share knowledge.

Read on to learn more about who the mingas are and how their model works.

Lee este artículo en español Mingas: ¿Resuelven la Falta de Trabajadores Del Café en Colombia?

Bags of parchment coffee in Paicol Huila, Colombia. Credit: Carlos Jaramillo / Cocora Coffee Co.

Coffee Labor Shortages in Colombia

For most of 2019, coffee prices have been below US $1 per pound. For coffee farmers in Colombia, as well as in Peru, Costa Rica, and other countries, this doesn’t even cover production costs.

In relation to low prices, the coffee industry is experiencing a serious labor shortage in many producing countries. Reduced margins from lower coffee prices can mean that producers can’t afford to pay workers enough to compete with other industries. In Colombia, there are enough coffee crops to satisfy demand, but due to rising labor costs and workers migrating to cities in search of better opportunities, there’s often no one to pick the cherries

Find out more in This Is How Much It Costs to Produce Coffee Across Latin America

A group of producers sort parchment coffee in Paicol Huila, Colombia. Credit: Carlos Jaramillo / Cocora Coffee Co.

The Traditional Minga Model

To manage the labor shortage, some Colombian farmers have rethought a traditional practice that coffee-producing families have used for generations. Group of farmers and their families who collaborate and work each other’s farms are known as mingas.

For these families, their small farms are both their home and their workplace. Every member of the family learns about the process of growing coffee from a young age and everyone is actively involved in the farm’s daily labors.

Paola Pobre is a coffee farmer from Quindio and the leader of Paicol’s Women Association, a minga of female producers from Paicol and Pital. She tells me that 30 years ago, in this area there were only five families that collaborated with each other in an informal way. Today, the mingas are a real institution here – more than 16 families work together in a formal organization to improve not just their quality of life, but also their industry.

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Coffee grows in Cocora Valley, Salento, Colombia. Credit: Cocora Coffee Co.

How Modern Mingas Work

Within minga organizations, farmers work together in a number of ways to improve their own livelihood and better the community.

Paula says, “We have weekly meetings where we assess a daily plan for every farm we will be working at. [We plan tasks such as] on that day we go and pick coffee cherries, plant a vegetable garden, make a fish pond, or even build a house.”

The Paicol’s Women Association also collaborates with outside organizations, such as coffee shop and green coffee exporter Cocora Coffee Co., which provide them with guidance on how to improve yield and implement sustainable practices.

A mingas meeting in Paicol Huila, Colombia. Credit: Carlos Jaramillo / Cocora Coffee Co.

The Benefits of the Minga Model

As well as growing coffee, the mingas who make up Paicol’s Women Association produce their own food crops, keep fish, and raise chickens. Farmers grow diverse crops and keep different livestock, so they’re able to trade among themselves and be fairly self-sufficient. This crop diversification allows them to better weather price fluctuations and “thin months” because they aren’t dependent on a good coffee price and don’t need to wait for a payment to come through to eat or buy supplies.

They also create their own fertilizer by using organic matter from all of the farms. This further reduces the cost of production.

Among the producers, agricultural processes have been standardized and improved by shared knowledge and outside assistance. Through this collaboration, the whole community of farmers has been able to improve the quality of its coffee and sell it at a better price.

Producers work together to construct wet processing facilities in Paicol Huila, Colombia. Credit: Carlos Jaramillo / Cocora Coffee Co.

The mingas have a commitment to social sustainability within their community. As well as the social cohesion created by working together, they help people in need from outside of the minga association. 

Equipped with knowledge and the necessary labor force, they have helped to build and fix houses, collect coffee cherries, and provided other labor for elders, people with disabilities, and the sick within their wider communities.

A mingas meeting in Paicol Huila, Colombia. Credit: Carlos Jaramillo / Cocora Coffee Co.

It’s said that in times of crisis, creativity flourishes. The Paicol’s Women Association and other minga communities are good examples of this. They rethought a traditional practice and improved on to the benefit of whole communities.

Mingas help coffee farmers in Colombia to reduce their fixed expenses. They enrich and improve the quality of their coffee through sustainable processes and new practices, and this allows them to sell their final product at better prices.

And they do all of this while growing stronger both socially and economically as a community. Through organizing, the mingas have brought new possibilities to their regions. They bring a direct and positive impact to their neighbors, the wider area, and the Colombian coffee industry as a whole.

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