Kenia Ubeda, general manager of UCCEI, a Root Capital client in Matagalpa, Nicaragua
Kenia Ubeda never thought she’d be running a coffee business. “I was an agronomist and a coffee farmer,” she says with a smile on her face. “I didn’t know the first thing about commercializing coffee.”
But the community leaders who tapped Kenia to found and run UCCEI, a farmer cooperative in the coffee-fueled town of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, knew she had what it took. And in 2009, Kenia rose to the challenge and became UCCEI’s general manager, overseeing a business currently sourcing from over 900 smallholder farmers in the region.
Today, under Kenia’s leadership, UCCEI is booming. The cooperative’s two enormous warehouses swell with rows upon rows of white and red sacks of coffee, and over 80 seasonal employees work in near synchronized harmony loading truckloads of beans shipping to roasters across the globe.
Top: UCCEI employees load truckloads of coffee to ship to roasters; Bottom: UCCEI employees Roberto Torres and Victorino Adams
In return for their high-quality, specialty coffee, UCCEI provides farmers with higher prices, technical trainings to help producers increase yields, an internal credit fund to help members invest in their farms and their families, and programs focused on improving health and education. Working with UCCEI, Kenia reports, some farmers have as much as doubled their production – and their incomes.
But running UCCEI hasn’t come without its challenges.
“It was hard enough learning to manage the business,” Kenia says. “But doing so without any money, any financing…it was very difficult. Thank goodness Root Capital came, and provided us with our very first loan of $300,000 back in 2010. They trusted us, believed in us, and now we have a $1.5 million line of credit from them. That financing is so important.”
Today, Root Capital provides 80 percent of UCCEI’s external financing, and as we’ve increased our lending, we’ve also provided Kenia and her team with customized financial training on topics ranging from improved cash flow management to strengthening internal controls. “UCCEI is where it is today thanks to Root Capital,” Kenia says.
In addition to financing challenges, Kenia has also been up against significant cultural barriers from day one. “Producers used to say, ‘she’s a woman, that’s not going to work,’” Kenia relays. “As a woman working in this role, you have to have heart, strength and courage to continue on. Most of the producers we’re working with are men, and I’ve had to be very firm.
“Thankfully,” she says with a knowing laugh, “being firm comes pretty naturally to me.”