Interview: Roberto Vélez Vallejo

How can the country boost production and exports of Colombian coffee?

ROBERTO VÉLEZ VALLEJO: The country is currently working on a number of different plans of action. The first one is the research and development branch of the FNC, the National Centre for Coffee Research. The centre has developed coffee varieties that are more productive and resistant to diseases such as rust and coffee berry disease, which adapt much better to climate variability, even at the regional level.

Since 2008 we have developed an ambitious renovation plan by planting almost 4bn trees and about 700,000 ha of coffee. With better agronomy and a more modernised coffee field, the country has substantially increased the density of trees planted per ha and reduced their average age. This has raised productivity from 10.2 bags of coffee per ha in 2009 to more than 17 bags per ha by the end of 2015, which has helped boost coffee production.

In terms of coffee exports in 2016, Colombia has taken important steps that have helped to diversify and increase exports. The export of coffee beans of qualities different from Excelso export grade was authorised in order for the producer to receive a fair price. The country has also modified standards of Excelso exports and has even allowed the export of small quantities of coffee. Lastly, we must constantly work to enable producers to access new markets, both for standard coffee as well as value-added coffees, including special and sustainable ones, which translates into higher income for producers.

What steps should be taken to increase the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP?

VÉLEZ: There is still a significant amount of land prone to agricultural uses that is not being exploited. This is a critical first step that must be taken and is a running theme in the development of this country. Certainly, these areas should be developed sustainably in terms of the environment, respecting the rich natural resources of Colombia. Greater scientific research and technological development in all agricultural segments and for all kinds of crops are urgent necessities. In fact, the Colombian coffee industry is one of the best examples of what can be achieved when productivity and competitiveness are combined.

We must also encourage transitional change in the country and stimulate the formation of new generations of agricultural entrepreneurs, who will bring innovation and new impetus to the agricultural sector. The future is not only in the cities, but also in the countryside, as it is the source of the food supply.

How competitive is Colombia’s agro-industry, and how can agricultural yields be enhanced?

VÉLEZ: There has been significant progress in the Colombian agri-business sector, but there is still room for improvement. In regard to the coffee sector, scientific research and technological development within Colombia have been important competitive advantages over other coffee-producing countries. This knowledge is transmitted to the producer through the Extension Service, one of the FNC public services most valued by coffee growers. Another competitive advantage of the Colombian coffee industry is the institutional and organisational capacity of the sector.

Despite these competitive advantages, the Colombian coffee industry faces major challenges, such as a shortage of pickers and the need for a generational shift. One measure we are working to implement is a partial mechanisation of the harvest, but without sacrificing the careful selection of beans that has given Colombian coffee its popularity in global markets.

As for public and private investment in the sector, in 2016 it has remained highly favourable, financing the renovation of coffee plantations at preferential lending rates and delivering new useful fertilisers to farmers affected by the El Niño phenomenon in 2015.