MEET: Valentina Duque, Horizonte’s Colombian coffee trailblazer

In our quest to connect coffee growers and coffee lovers around the world, Horizonte Coffee works with some remarkable individuals. Valentina Duque, the founder of Siruma Coffee, is one of them. 

Far more than simply being a supplier of some of Colombia’s finest green beans, Valentina is a pioneering businesswoman in Colombia’s male-dominated coffee industry.

She began her career at Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers before becoming a Q-graded cupper in 2010 and spending almost five years at Starbucks learning the trade. Based in the city of Manizales in central Colombia, Siruma Coffee opened its doors in 2016.

Locally, Siruma’s mission is to support and showcase small-scale Colombian growers from unexpected corners of the country, while internationally the company supplies clients in the USA, Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Valentina’s local network is impressive: Siruma partners not only with individual farmers and regional cooperatives, but also with growers in post-conflict areas to source coffees that are usually off-limits because of the travel risks involved.

On our recent trip to Colombia, Horizonte sat down with Valentina to chat all things coffee.

What does the name of your company – Siruma – mean?
Siruma is a word from the language of the Wayuu people, who are the indigenous people in the north of Colombia. Siruma means “heaven”.

How did Siruma Coffee come about?
I studied industrial design but I’ve never worked in that field. Even my thesis was about coffee! After working for the national federation and Starbucks, I thought that starting my own company was the only way I could do what is best for the coffee growers themselves. I’ve seen many things in the coffee industry, but the most important is that if we don’t support the coffee growers by paying them properly we’re not going to have coffee in the future because they’ll start growing crops that are more profitable.

What exactly does Siruma do?
We export coffee. We roast coffee. We do a lot of quality and educational workshops. And we sell our own roasted coffee locally – because if we export very good coffee, it’s also important to show Colombians what a very good coffee is. Colombia pretty much exports 100% of its coffee production, so what we drink here is the leftovers. In Spanish, we call it pasilla. The quality is terrible! So Siruma has a small coffee shop in a local restaurant where people can come and drink our coffee in the proper way.

What’s so special about Colombian coffee?
Colombia is unique because of the size of the farms – 95% of coffee growers farm on less than one hectare. The country’s topography means that access to many farms is really difficult, but it also means that even in a very small area you can find completely different cup profiles. Colombia is famous for its fully washed coffee, and for producing coffee all year round. Depending on a farm’s altitude and latitude, they will harvest either at the beginning or the end of the year.

Are Colombians big coffee drinkers?
Colombians do not drink as much coffee as they should. There is a saying, “Coca-Cola mata tinto.” Meaning “Coca-cola will kill a coffee” – in other words, that you prefer to drink Coke rather than tinto (coffee), which I think is an awful idea.

Myself, I have coffee all the time. I can’t live without it. My favourite is the traditional Colombian fully washed coffee: very soft and with a very good body with high acidity balanced with a lot of sweetness. That’s what I drink every day. I use a Chemex or V60 drip machine, and I always have it black. No milk, no sugar, no nothing.

What is Siruma’s take on direct trade?
If I ask the buyer for a certain amount of money, it’s because I’m going to pay more to the grower. And the buyer gets all the receipts to prove that has been done. But just as I’m not hiding the coffee grower, I’m not hiding the client either, which is why I took Horizonte to visit the farmers you’re buying coffee from.

If you start working in coffee and you really like it, you never leave. It’s like a family. But the coffee business is built on trust. Sometimes it’s difficult for new people to get into the business because you have to build that trust.

I always say that the coffee business is like a kitchen, because it’s very small. Everyone knows everything, not only in Colombia but also around the world. Whatever you do well, everyone knows. And whatever you do wrong, everyone also knows.

How Siruma has partnered with Horizonte?
In terms of coffee, we’re supplying some very different Colombian coffees – high acidity, very sweet, a lot of flavour – so that Horizonte can show coffee lovers some of the totally unique cup profiles available in Colombia.

Horizonte is also aligned with Siruma in wanting to help the coffee grower.

The most important part of the business is to pay the grower the right amount for a very good coffee. For instance, we recently built a new post-harvesting facility for one of our coffee growers. Siruma, Horizonte, the local cooperative and the coffee grower himself all gave a bit of money. That is the most beautiful part.

Tell us about the challenges of being a woman in the Colombian coffee industry…
Firstly, in Colombia it’s difficult to start a business. We don’t have a lot of financial help. The banks won’t lend you money until you’ve had your company for more than three years. But if you’ve survived for three years, you probably don’t need a loan!

Secondly, if you are a woman, it’s even more difficult. It’s changing slowly, but the coffee industry in Colombia is still very macho. When you are a woman, people often ask, “Where is your boss? Where is the owner?” They expect a male owner.

I always say I am the boss.

But it’s not only in the field, it’s also in the big coffee companies. Because you might start a family some day, they don’t like having women in certain positions. Even at the table, men will be served first, and the women last.

Sometimes I think it’s a cultural thing and that I shouldn’t be angry with them, but sometimes it’s super-frustrating.

In another life, what would you be doing?
Probably working for an NGO, helping those in need in Colombia.

What do you do for fun?
I have three cats. I do a lot of yoga. I meditate. I read a lot. But most of my time is spent on my business. I’m very privileged because I do what I love so it doesn’t feel like work. If I’m not on the farm, I’m roasting coffee. If I’m not roasting, I’m reading about coffee. I suppose my life might seem a little boring to people who don’t like coffee!

Where do you think the coffee industry is going? How do you see the future?
That is very difficult…. but I think we are not going to have a lot of coffee in the future. I think the volume will go down, partly because climate change will affect the areas we can grow coffee. Also, if we do not support the coffee grower with a fair price, we are not going to have coffee. We are asking the growers to work hard to produce better quality, but the price is still very, very low. I think it isn’t possible to live with the coffee price right now.