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Cecilia’s Mentor, Paul visiting her in Costa Rica with his family

Written by Cecilia Genis, former Mentee with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

My name is Cecilia and I am a fourth generation coffee producer with a farm in beautiful Cachí, Costa Rica. I want to share my journey as an entrepreneur and tell you about a wonderful and supportive mentoring relationship that has helped me to get to where I am now.

I worked in education for 18 years, but after my daughter was born in 2001, I needed a job that would enable me to balance work with spending time with my new baby. My mother asked me if I wanted to help her on our family’s coffee farm, which was established around 1920 by my great-grandfather. It has 98 hectares of coffee (and 79 hectares of protected forest), which produces an average of 300,000 pounds of Arabica coffee per year, most of which is exported to roasters in the UK, USA, Greece and Taiwan.

I was unsure at first about working on the farm because I had no agricultural experience and I didn’t even drink coffee! But I decided to put on my first pair of boots and learn everything about coffee production from bean to cup. Now, as the General Manager, I am responsible for planting new varieties of coffee, supervising the micro mill to ensure the quality of coffee and marketing to increase sales.

Although my role was going well, I started noticing that there was always garbage strewn amongst our coffee fields. From plastic pop bottles and candy wrappers to worn-out sofas and even old fridges. I was getting really annoyed because even though coffee is a very resilient plant, the number of hours and cost of labour to clean it up is not productive. I thought if I could set up a recycling collection centre, I could clean up the coffee plantation. I had heard about the Mentoring Women in Business Programme through the Women’s Coffee Alliance of Costa Rica, which my mother and I are involved in, and decided to apply to pursue my idea with the support of a mentor.

I was accepted into the programme and matched with my mentor, Paul, an Associate Director of Project Management at a large pharmaceutical company in the  United States. When I first met him through Skype, my initial surprise was that he didn’t work in anything related to recycling! That didn’t matter at all once we started working together though, as he was able to provide great support for the start-up phase of my business. He always had a new angle on how to look at things and he helped me put my feet on the ground and be realistic about what I can do, and how I can do it, with the time that I had available for the project.

My mission became to create a sustainable recycling collection centre in the Cachí valley, along with a solid environmental educational programme for the community. With Paul’s guidance, I decided to start small and develop a pilot project on my farm and in the town, with the goal of recreating it on other coffee plantations in the future. Together, we wrote a business plan and created a strategy to implement the project.

However, as the year progressed, I faced setbacks and felt that I was not able to complete my project in the way I had hoped. The grant proposal I had applied for was denied and that was a big let-down because I imagined everything that I was going to do with the grant money. Paul offered his support and through our discussions, we decided that there were other ways to proceed and this setback should not stop my project.

So, a few bins were set up in front of the church right next to the town’s soccer field and during Sunday mass the priest announced their use. These became the town’s first recycling bins! The farm committed to picking up the recycling waste once a month and transporting it to the nearest collection centre. Encouraging people to use recycling facilities also means changing behaviours and attitudes towards waste disposal so I started visiting schools to teach children about recycling and its environmental benefits. I now work with a number of schools in the area, which promote recycling and participate in the community campaign.

In addition, an unexpected and wonderful ending to the programme was that Paul and his family decided to come to Costa Rica for holidays! I showed them the coffee farm so he could see everything that we had discussed online throughout the year. Paul’s constant motivation has been excellent for me and it was so exciting to meet him in person!

I will continue to persevere and work on my recycling project until I manage to carry it out as I have envisioned. When I look back at everything I have done, I realise how much I have learnt this past year. The learning has not only been good for my recycling project, but also for me in my business endeavours as I am now much more self-confident.

Now, after receiving my graduation certificate from the programme, I feel even more motivated to continue working on my project at the coffee farm. Thank you Cherie Blair Foundation for Women for this very positive and productive year and for connecting me with Paul and the other inspirational women entrepreneurs in the programme!

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