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Buencafé‘s leading lady

From the April 2019 issue.

Constanza Mejía, Director of Buencafé, is focused on helping increase the profitability and economic security of more than 540,000 Colombian farmers through one of the world’s premium soluble coffee suppliers.

In a society driven by ambitious youth seeking new opportunities and monetary gain, it’s rare to find employees committed to long-term company loyalty, but not at Buencafé. Constanza Mejía has contributed 33 years of professional work to the development and service of Colombia’s leading gourmet soluble coffee suppliers.

Operating as part of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC), Buencafé is not just a job for Mejía – it’s a personal responsibly she has to the development of Colombia’s coffee producers, and making Buencafé one of the most innovative and progressive companies in soluble coffee.

“I really enjoy my work. I learn every day,” Mejía says. “We managed to materialise dreams. But above all, our work makes sense because we know that our effort benefits coffee families.”

Mejía says the different positions she’s experienced at the company has given her multiple opportunities to contribute to the wider community, and this, she says, fulfills her as a person.

Mejía has watched Buencafé evolve and transition since she started in the staff development division in 1986, one month after graduating as an industrial engineer. A year later, Mejía was promoted to Head of Information Technology, and then to Managing Director, before serving as the company’s General Director since 2009.

“I have accompanied the history of this organisation for 33 of its 45 years of life,” Mejía says.

But as is the case for so many Colombians, coffee was entrenched in Mejía’s life from a young age. She grew up drinking filter coffee, but says from the moment she tried Buencafé’s freeze-dried coffee, she was a fan. Even now, Mejía carries sticks of Buencafé coffee in her handbag when she travels.

“The smell of coffee marks the beginning of each day’s activities. In my region [Manizales in the state of Caldas], coffee has been the pillar of development,” Mejía tells Global Coffee Report. “I grew up in a region where coffee is at the heart of the economy. It is the conversation topic. It is hope. It is pride.”

Mejía is passionate about keeping that conversation alive through Buencafé’s partners and customers. Since 1927, Colombia’s coffee institution, the FNC, has worked to uphold the economic and environmental sustainability of coffee, and improve the quality of life and income of Colombian coffee growers. Considered one of the biggest rural non-government-organisations in the world, the FNC owns and works with several entities to help secure the wellbeing of Colombian coffee growers and their communities. This includes Cenicafé, the Manuel Mejía Foundation, Almacafé, Cooperatives Committees, and Buencafé – all of them working in an inegrated way.

FNC established Buencafé in 1973 to add value to the most celebrated product of the country, and generate further welfare for coffee growers by transforming green beans into freeze-dried soluble coffee. The profits from the exported products are invested into benefits for 540,000 Colombian coffee growers’ families to help secure the present and future of the coffee activity in Colombia.

Mejía says Buencafé has become a leading premium soluble coffee supplier due to five key pillars: the fact that it uses quality raw 100 per cent Colombian Arabica coffee, sophisticated and careful slow roasting, specialisation in freeze-drying, expertise in logistics, and the connection to its people – the producers.

“We feel proud and motivated by the fact [we are] working for Colombia’s coffee growers in a producing country where more than two million people work around this product, a flagship for the country,” Mejía says.

Buencafé has specialised in freeze-drying coffee for the past 45 years. It has the only freeze-dried coffee factory in Colombia, and is one of the largest in the world under the same roof. Today, the company can process 13,500 tonnes of concentrated coffee extract and freeze-dried coffee each year, with raw material purchased from coffee growers throughout Colombia.

During the freeze-drying process, the coffee extract is frozen at -50°C to avoid the loss of aromas and attributes of the fruit. When subjected to a vacuum, less than one 1000th of the atmospheric pressure, Mejía says it is possible, by adding marginal heat, for the water remaining in the frozen extract to pass directly from the solid state (ice) to the gaseous one (vapour), a process known as sublimation.

“The fact that the product remains at very low temperatures and without contact with hot air [in vacuum conditions] allows the delicate aromas to remain in the freeze-dried coffee grains, thus generating a beverage of excellent features and quality that has earned international recognition,” Mejía says.

Buencafé’s concentrated extract is also considered one of its most popular products, commonly used as a base in ready-to-drink beverages.

Buencafé exports its production to 60 countries on five continents, with its main clients in Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Buencafé provides its customers with holistic solutions in all stages of product development, from developing an idea to delivering a final product anywhere in the world. This can include personalised labelling to complement customers’ retail offering or for industrial purposes. 

“Russia and the UK are the largest soluble coffee consumers in the world,” Mejía says.

According to 2018 LMC International data research, the freeze-dried proportion of in-home soluble sales in Russia grew from around 40 per cent in 2005 to more than 60 per cent in 2013 as urban incomes rose and consumers sought more expensive and higher quality products.

A 2016 Nielsen Global Premiumisation Survey says the premium sector is experiencing strong growth in several markets around the world, and is outpacing total growth for many categories of fast-moving consumer goods. According to the report, between 2012 and 2014, the premium segment grew 21 per cent in South-East Asia, more than double the rate of the mainstream and value tiers (eight and 10 per cent respectively). Premium products grew 23 per cent over the same period in China. In Latin America, growth in the premium segment outpaced total fast-moving consumer goods growth in every market except Mexico over the 12 months ending June 2016.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts the global middle class will increase from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 4.9 billion by 2030, with the bulk of this growth coming from emerging markets, particularly Asia.

With more money available in the middle class, Buencafé says many people are already trading up for products and services they couldn’t previously afford. In addition, globalisation has given consumers access to a broader assortment and access to premium products, including freeze-dried coffee. According to the LMC International Global Markets for Soluble Coffee Report for Western Europe, freeze-dried coffee has a large soluble market share in Switzerland at 80 per cent, while in Germany and France the share is around 50 and 45 per cent respectively. In the US, where soluble coffee has in the past been viewed as a “budget option”, freeze-dried coffee is now estimated to account for 12 per cent of the soluble market.

“Australia and other countries, such as the US, that previously believed soluble coffee was of poor quality, are finding rich coffee alternatives like ours, of excellent raw materials, cutting-edge technology and the best flavour, combined with the practical lifestyles that consumers in different countries demand,” Mejía says.

To help strengthen that message and  respond to a new world of demanding consumers, Buencafé set itself the task of understanding how it could better respond to a premiumised world. Buencafé presented the challenge to its team of technical experts and advisers. More than four years later and an investment of several million dollars, the result is Sensoria, a new cutting-edge technology present in all stages of the production process of freeze-dried coffee.

Sensoria, a reality as of 2019, will give Buencafé more versatility to expand its portfolio with a new family of full-tasting and high-quality products, and more diverse cup profiles. This technology will help extract and preserve the aromas and flavours from roasted coffee.

While Europe and East Asia (Japan and Korea) dominate freeze-dried soluble consumption, Buencafé says demand has been more rapid in the emerging markets, such as China, India, and the Middle East. This is largely a result of “third wave” or even the “fourth wave” coffee roasters launching freeze-dried soluble products made from specialty coffee or single origins.

“We feel proud and motivated by the fact [we are] working for Colombia’s coffee growers in a producing country where more than two million people work around this product, a flagship for the country.”
– Constanza Mejía, Director of Buencafé

As such, the FNC and Buencafé understand the demand from global markets and will use its new Sensoria technology to expand its product offering throughout international markets. Mejía says Buencafé is poised for this growth with recent enlargements of the factory to increase production and guarantee the availability of products year-round.

To further support this growth, Buencafé will use 2019 to focus on its customers and how they can play a role in the industry’s value chain. Buencafé will also focus on blending its coffee with other functional products and ingredients that are good for health and consumer well being, and capitalising on the popularity of cold brew and the “fashionable” bubble coffee.

“The world market is increasingly demanding in terms of the products that are consumed, so quality, safety, and impact of processes on the environment [must be] taken into account when purchasing them. That is why environmental, product, and management systems certifications have become a seal of guarantee, consistency, and trust for consumers of Buencafé products,” Mejía says.

Twenty years from now, Mejía hopes to be in a space surrounded by a lot of nature, cultivating a garden, or an orchard, perhaps with some grandchildren. As for Buencafé, Mejía envisages a company that continues to remain relevant with a range of innovative premium products and a culture that connects the brand even more so with consumers.

“I [still] feel like I have a lot to give,” she says. “We want to permeate the society that surrounds us with our optimism, with the certainty that an open and friendly attitude makes the problems look different.”

Those challenges include Colombia’s production capacity growth, the emergence of new markets, customer satisfaction, and the social, environmental, and economic sustainability of the sector. Mejía says it’s been difficult to find ways for Buencafé to deliver good results in various economic scenarios, for the company to project itself into the future, and to contribute to the development of coffee growers, workers, and the region. However, Mejía is most proud of how Buencafé has managed to reinvent itself, “because the setting of its creation is very different from today’s and tomorrow’s.

“The key has been to learn from difficult times, to look at challenges with optimism, and to know how to interpret where we should go, without losing our essence and our north,” Mejía says. “We want to be increasingly better in what we do, that this be a place where people want to work and contribute, that we continue building for the wellbeing of coffee growers and the country.”

Images: Julian Madrid

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