In October 2019, once the Zeri conference in Manizales (Colombia) was over and my farm visits completed, I made a trip to Natucafé in Antioquia. Marcela, the daughter of the family business, picked me up at the airport, and after a brief stop at her home in Medellín, we continued to Andes, in the center of the coffee-growing region of Antioquia. I had not come to see the family's seven coffee plantations with their three million coffee trees, or to taste their coffee or anything like that; no, I had come for something completely different.
After spending the night in Andes, early in the morning we headed to the heart of the company: the processing plant. Marcela and Karen, who is in charge of marketing, gave me a guided tour while Father Rigoberto observed in the background. I was very impressed by the plant, especially the two huge tanks in which the mucilage, separated from the coffee cherries, was stored. It remains in these tanks for 10 days until all the solids have settled to the bottom. The liquid is then sent through hoses to something that is an absolute rarity in the coffee world: a plant for the production of coffee mucilage concentrate and products based on this concentrate. And that is why I was there!
But before rummaging through my memory and my notebook, I prefer to let Karen, Marcela and her father, Rigoberto Franco have their say. For the purposes of this article, I arranged an interview with them, which we conducted in writing.
Rigoberto, on your website there is a quote from you: "I created Natucafé at the beginning motivated by the desire to decontaminate, since in the coffee production process we generate large amounts of mucilage that pollute the water sources in the area. At that time, and based on the analysis of the Coffee Mucilage Concentrate, which had such a high amount of antioxidants, we decided to develop healthy drinks based on coffee mucilage concentrate." When did this ‘eureka moment’ happen in your mind that changed your view on mucilage?
Rigoberto: It all started in mid-2011.
Your neighbours, as you told me, were sceptical at first. Why and how did this change over time?
Rigoberto: The coffee industry is a traditional industry, which has not changed much since its beginnings. We farmers are traditional and stubborn. We like to do things the way we have always done them because it allows us to feel secure. But I, on the other hand, think that companies and people must evolve with the world, otherwise we will become obsolete. That is why we must implement changes and improvements in our companies that allow us to improve not only with the product we offer but also to give back to the earth everything it has given to us. And what better way to do this than by mitigating the environmental impact that our industry generates with a by-product such as mucilage.
How did it start and how did it evolve from there? I guess there were quite a few ups and downs.
Rigoberto: The production of coffee mucilage concentrate is something we are still perfecting. As I mentioned before, you can't take anything for granted in life, we have to be innovating and improving our processes in order to deliver a product of excellent quality. We must be making in processes and equipment. It's not easy and it's not cheap but nothing in life is impossible.
What were the biggest challenges along the way?
Rigoberto: Almost the whole process was a challenge. There was not much literature or information on the use of mucilage. Some research talked about the generation of biofuels from mucilage, but nobody spoke about consumption and its benefits. So we had to start from scratch in the design of equipment and infrastructure to process it, as well as in the technical information that will allow human consumption.
Was there anyone who believed in you and supported you?
Rigoberto: The common denominator was people who called me crazy for believing in this project. But I also counted on the support of friends and family.
It is a big step to turn mucilage into mucilage concentrate. But it is an even bigger step to turn the concentrate into a delicious drink or the base for a drink like your Vital+. Who supported you or who did you collaborate with to create the recipes, source the ingredients, find the right packer, etc.?
Rigoberto: I am a coffee producer and I have been in the coffee business for more than 40 years. However, during the process of setting up Natucafé and designing the +Vital drinks, different engineers and technologists came to the company and I hired them to help me to standardize the production process of the coffee mucilage concentrate as well as the design of the different formulations of the +Vital drinks. Once they were ready, my daughter Marcela helped me with the brand design, logos, packaging, marketing and commercialization of the +Vital drinks.
A venture like the production of a marketable mucilage concentrate requires investment. Did you have to finance everything out of your own pocket or was there financial support at some point?
Rigoberto: A project like this requires a lot of investment, which I did out of my own pocket. Obviously with financing from banks, but they were credits that I had to pay for with my work.
Production is limited to the harvest season. What would be your maximum production in one season?
Rigoberto: Yes, because mucilage is a raw material that is only obtained from ripe coffee beans, so its production is directly linked to the coffee harvest. In a year of good coffee production we can produce between 20-22 tons of coffee mucilage concentrate.
Depending on altitude, harvesting time, Brix, etc. there are differences in the quality of the mucilage. So I guess you have to be very selective in which mucilage to use for the concentrate and which not to use. If this is not one of your business secrets, could you explain how you do the separation and what your criteria are?
Rigoberto: Coffee mucilage concentrate behaves just like coffee. Depending on the variety of the coffee plant, as well as the altitude at which it is planted or, as you say, the degree of ripeness of the bean, directly influences the final result. In our early days when the concentrate did not meet the characteristics to be categorized as suitable for our beverages we labelled it as batch B. It was not a lot of kilos, but we had some of that stuff. As we have improved our processes, the amount of this type of concentrate has become almost nil. Nowadays I can tell you that we use 95-97% of the mucilage we produce at Hacienda La Arboleda.
How long can the concentrate be stored for?
Rigoberto: The mucilage can be stored for more than 5 years as long as you guarantee its hermetic conditions in order to prevent it from being contaminated by microorganisms.
Let's move on to the products themselves. What are the benefits of
a.) The concentrate?
Rigoberto: Coffee mucilage concentrate is a raw material that provides flavour, nutrients and antioxidants.
b.) Functional beverages?
Rigoberto: These are beverages with high antioxidant content, of natural origin and low in calories. Thanks to their antioxidants, they can contribute to improving the health and quality of life of our consumers.
Coffee mucilage concentrate is a new product. For that: what are the possible applications of the concentrate?
Marcela: In the food industry, as mentioned above, it is a raw material that provides flavour, nutrients and antioxidants. It can be used in the cosmetic industry for its high content of chlorogenic acid and in the pharmaceutical industry for its high content of antioxidants.
How do you find, or try to find customers?
Rigoberto: It is an arduous path, because the first thing to do is to educate the consumer about the raw material and its benefits. It requires high investments and efforts in advertising and marketing.
What are your arguments for someone to use your concentrate? What are the benefits for (potential) customers?
Marcela: The customer has to be educated. You have to educate the customer, you have to show them the results of the studies we have done on the concentrate, so that they understand its antioxidant capacity. And once they understand the amount of antioxidants in our products and the benefits they have for the body, they decide to buy. Customer testimonials are also indispensable.
What are the marketing challenges beyond the novelty of your products?
Rigoberto: Believe it or not, novelty is a difficulty as such, because as it is quite a little known raw material, there is a certain resistance on the part of the consumer to try it. Also, unfounded truths about mucilage from our ancestors generate resistance to consumption. So there is a lot of education to be done.
All your products are approved in Colombia as "food save" products. Is that correct?
Karen: Yes, our products have the sanitary registration granted by Invima in Colombia.
Are they also safe for children?
Karen: Yes, from the age of 4 years old, because although the caffeine content is 0.21%, it is preferable that children under this age do not consume caffeine.
What are your plans for the near future?
Marcela: Developing new products using coffee mucilage concentrate and continuing to explore the Asian market.
Thank you all for your time and best of luck!
Last but not least, I would like to add that my colleagues and I have made, and continue to make, cascara tea with added mucilage concentrate as well as baking trials with the concentrate. The concentrate always gives the final product a touch of extra flavour, a touch that makes all the difference. And we've never served a cup of Vital + to someone who wasn't completely delighted. Try it out!