Meet the 2018 Sustainability Award Winners: Manos al Agua

Meet the 2018 Sustainability Award Winners: Manos al Agua

WWater is everybody’s business: imbalances in access to water affects both economic stability and environmental sustainability.

RICHARD STILLER interviews ANDREA MORDÓ, Trading and Business Development Coordinator for the Federacion National de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC) and leader of the Communication Committee for the Manos al Agua project, in the first of two SCA News interviews with the 2018 Sustainability Award Winners.

The Project category of the SCA Sustainability Award celebrates innovative projects which expand and promote sustainability within the coffee world. Manos al Agua, a program of FNC, won the 2018 Sustainability Award in this category for their work on intelligent water management at the farm and landscape level in Colombia’s coffee sector.

Nominations for the 2019 Sustainability Awards, which will be presented in April 2019 at Re:co Symposium in Boston, are open until December 14, 2018.

Richard Stiller (RS): What is Manos Al Agua? How would you describe the project?
Andrea Mordó (AM): We first began the project in 2013, but we’ve recently finished it – we had our final event this past June (2018). The project was in five regions of Colombia: Nariño, Cauca, Antioquia, Caldas, and Valle de Cauca. Our initial partners were Nestle Espresso, Wageningen University, the Dutch government, Semicafe (research center), and the FNC.

Half of the project was focused on creating the technology to improve the water quality and to reduce water waste in households and during the harvest. The social components were super important as well – they made up the other half of the project.

We had to focus, so we selected farms that are based within 100 – 200 meters of the river basin as they have the biggest effect on water quality. In the end, we worked with 11,000 producers, with five departments looking at 25 river basins.

RS: Why focus on water management?
AM: Sustainability is such a broad category – we used water as an integrating factor to achieve a broad range of sustainability goals for the project. It’s not to say that water is everything when it comes to sustainability, but water touches everything, so it kind of is!

A lot of coffee regions and farms are located up the mountain slopes in Colombia, so when the rivers reach the cities, [the city residents] often state that the coffee farms polluted the water. We tried to focus on this and analyze what the actual problems are as well as how we can improve the overall quality of the water. Colombia produces mainly washed Arabica, which also plays a major role in water processing on the farms.

In the beginning, it was very hard to reach the farmers as they pointed out that there was enough rain – why then focus on water? In our second year, Colombia suffered from El Nino, which caused a massive dry season for coffee farmers. This caused the quality of the coffee to diminish. It was at this point that farmers became interested in the topic of water.

RS: El Nino and the lower coffee quality helped to bring the attention to the idea of “intelligent water management”?
AM: Exactly. It is very sad that only through El Nino attention was brought to the topic of water but, both during and after El Nino, we were able to reach farmers really well due to their increased interest in water management. In turn, their increased interest meant that we could use the Extension Service – established by FNC a long time ago – to extend the team for this project even further. We added one bio-engineer, one social worker, and one water extension to the team, which helped us to dive deeper into various topics with the farmers. This also helped us to find creative solutions with the farmers, driving further interest in the project. It also led to the creation of 29 community groups to raise awareness of intelligent water management principles.

RS: That’s a big impact! What kind of community groups were formed?
AM: There are two examples, but one that stuck out to me was a quite shy woman. She started to work with us and later became a leader in her community. She collected all the plastic bottles at the river basin close to her community, then had the idea to build a church out of the found bottles. Four more women joined her in these efforts and they managed to build a church for ceremonies and services – all made from plastic bottles.

The other example that came to my mind is a reforestation project, in which we were involved. The community decided to plant trees to produce materials to create fabric. The trees are important in two ways: they act as a second income generator while also improving the river basin environmentally. The fabric was used to produce hats and bags which helped them gain a better income in the community, specifically for the women in the community. This was a particularly interesting example for me because it was in a very machista (chauvinist) area of Colombia, where the labor is very clearly divided between men and women. We were focused on coffee and water management, but they are now earning money selling hats made from the trees we planted together. That was an additional unexpected positive result!

RS: One of the things that struck me most about Manos al Agua is the sheer scope of work you did as a part of the project – it’s not just water management, it’s things like reforestation and education.
AM: Manos al Agua is very big, but it had five principal components. One component, for example, was the promotion that water is everybody’s business, so we focused on an understanding and learning platform. We did this with the help of the Cultural Ministry, but also by reaching out to kids to teach them about water and tools that can be used to improve water quality. This part of the project was very successful.

Another focus was water for sustainable coffee farming. Here, we investigated how different technology and its use can help improve the water quality. We noticed that several farms disposed their water directly into the river, so we brought filters and explained how they can help improve the water quality. We did this not only on farms, but also within the communities. For example, one teacher told us that after installing a water filter at the local school fewer kids missed school due to sickness.

RS: After five years, you’ve collected a lot of data while tracking the success of the project. What was the most exciting result you found?
AM: For me, the most exciting result was the river basin water analysis, as our overall focus was to improve the water in the river basins. To do this, we analyzed the river basin water at two points: upstream and downstream. Out of the 25 river basins in the project, 20 basins had clear improvements in water quality across different measures, which included things like fish biodiversity.

The five rivers that didn’t show the same increased water quality are used by other industries and we estimate that our project had positive effects which were outbalanced by other users of the river. We’re going to be publishing our findings across 16 different reports on how to replicate these improvements on our website in the coming months, in Spanish and (some) English.

There were also social effects, too, that we noticed during the third and fourth year of the project but we aren’t able to present the results of these efforts scientifically. To do this, we would have needed to measure things before we started but we didn’t realize we’d have those impacts so we didn’t know to measure them!

RS: The SCA Sustainability Award in the Project Category recognizes projects that last longer than three years – Manos al Agua began in 2013, so it had been going on much longer! – but it was awarded at a time when the project was already scheduled to end. Did winning the award have a positive effect on the project, despite the timing?
AM: Yeah, I think it helped a lot, because after we got the prize we were contacted by other big companies and players in the industry. They saw how important Manos al Agua was and how much impact we had in the field. They could see that similar projects in different countries in different regions could improve water quality as well.

It was like a snowball effect: the industry was made aware of the topic of water and the impact we were able to generate. They also realized that FNC was working directly with the coffee growers on sustainability – not only in environmental approaches but across a wide variety of initiatives through broad international cooperation. We’re excited about agreements and announcements with other companies who will start working with us on the topic of intelligent water management after seeing the work we did through Manos al Agua.

RS: Thank you for the conversation and the insights!
AM: You are more than welcome.

ANDREA MORDÓ led the Communication Committee for Manos al Agua for the past two years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics (University de los Andres, Colombia) and a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship Studies (Undersiteit van Amsterdam, the Netherlands).

RICHARD STILLER is a Chapter Manager on the SCA Membership Field Team.

To find out more about Manos al Agua, please visit or follow them on twitter (@manosalagua).