I’m Not the Hero. I’m Just a Piece of This Puzzle.

Thaleon Tremain co-founded Pachamama Coffee to connect growers directly with customers in the U.S.

Walk into any major coffee chain in North America these days, and chances are you’ll see walls plastered with photos of raw beans and the farmers who harvested them in faraway lands. For Thaleon Tremain, it was important to create a direct connection between growers and consumers that went beyond décor. So with partners in five coffee-growing countries around the world, he co-founded Pachamama Coffee.

Pachamama (“Mother Earth” in Quechua) is a cooperative owned entirely by coffee farmers who sell their best Arabica beans online and in cafes and farmers’ markets across the U.S., middlemen-free. We recently chatted with Thaleon to hear more about Pachamama’s story and its commitment to empowering farmers and consumers alike.

How did you find your way into the direct-trade coffee scene?

I grew up in Ohio, practically failed Spanish in high school, and I never imagined I would be working for coffee farmers 30 years later. But here we are.

My story started as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia in the ‘90s. That’s where I learned about international development work and started to look for ways to help solve some real-world problems.

You can’t help someone much by digging a ditch in Bolivia, but if you worked for them in America selling their coffee, you might actually be able to help them. So I left the Peace Corps, thinking that it was going to be business that could make a bigger impact. Coffee was a no-brainer — there is so much money in coffee and there was a market for it.

How did Pachamama’s farmer-owned model came into being?

It seemed like the people who worked the hardest got paid the least and had the least amount of power. But if you could flip things around where suddenly they became owners of a value-added process — roasting and selling their coffee — and were able to connect with me and my friends back in America, then everyone would win. They’d capture a much bigger share of the money compared to what they were making at the time. They just had zero — I mean zero — connection to the consumer.

I thought, why can’t I just go on the internet and buy coffee from farmers? This was what we were asking ourselves in 2000. It’s that connection that needed to be made. The logical next step was for farmers to move closer to the consumer, who is willing to pay more than $15 per pound for great coffee — even more, if they can be assured that the farm community benefits from their purchase.

I thought, why can’t I just go on the internet and buy coffee from farmers?
Thaleon Tremain

Tell us about your work with the local cooperatives that make up Pachamama. How has that evolved over the years?

Pachamama is really a story that should be told from the bottom up: I only entered the picture after these farmers had invested decades organizing themselves.

We connected with a couple of leaders, one in Peru and one in Costa Rica. In Peru it was Raúl del Águila Hidalgo who helped organize these farmers so that they could export their coffee and sell it as Certified Organic and Fairtrade.

You go out to these communities and you see how the organizations begin at that level and grow over time. As communities started to grow, a co-op would form in the local community to pool their resources to buy a truck and cut out the middleman — the guy they call the coyote — who has a truck and buys their coffee at very low prices.

Once they’ve organized themselves locally, regionally, and then nationally, they could trade more directly, until the point where they can’t go any further — because they’re just selling raw coffee as a commodity, subject to market pricing. You’d see all this coffee flowing out of the country but the money stopped right there for the farmer. It’s still a commodity — they’re not roasting or branding it. The biggest challenge was gaining access to the end consumer, where the value of their coffee is at its greatest.

That’s where I came into the picture to say, hey, I’m on the other side of the ocean — I want to buy this coffee from you but I can’t. Let’s work together and roast this coffee over here so that we deliver freshly-roasted coffee to consumers. I’ll help you sell it. I’ll work for you.

How do you see your role representing the growers in the U.S.?

I’m not the hero. I’m just a piece of this puzzle. We look at ourselves as a collection of people trying to connect as many customers as possible to those farmers. The platform is there. The farmers built it. It was their investment. The Peruvian farmers joined up with farmers from Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ethiopia. Now you had five groups coming together in 2006 in California, just starting to sell coffee out of a garage.

What’s the most important thing for you in how you collectively run the business?

Our vision has always been to reach the end consumer and bypass all the stuff in the middle. When you buy Pachamama coffee online, you’re paying those farmers. They get $20 a pound versus $2.

And it’s not just more money; there’s also a sense of pride. The farmers are telling their own story. When you own a brand, you begin to earn your financial independence. It’s really important for the farmers to have a platform where they can connect more directly with consumers — and that’s what we’re trying to do.

And it’s not just more money; there’s also a sense of pride. The farmers are telling their own story.
Thaleon Tremain

How does your website play into your vision?

We want to connect with as many at-home brewers as possible, so we really want to grow our web presence and our subscription base. We want to invest in the website and growing that connection.

Using WordPress makes it very easy and affordable to make a small investment and literally connect our farmers with consumers in a matter of 24 hours. That’s what we did when we started our first subscription website in 2011.

We also have a couple of cafes that are doing well and we’re probably going to roll out a few more in the next few years. Both our website and the cafes support the basic concept of going direct-to-consumer and forming long-term relationships around a unique brand.

Considering how complex it must be to work with partners across six countries and three continents, what made you power through the challenges over the years?

I’m happy that we’ve survived. I don’t know how we pulled it off. We probably should’ve failed 20 times, and came close a couple of times. But things always came around at the right time: the right people were there. It’s enough to keep us going.

Our customers, the people who are buying our coffee, are just passionate about this. This is a hard business, and I don’t think I could’ve done it if it were just for me, just for my sake. That wouldn’t motivate me. I find it empowering that I’m a steward — not the principal, and not the owner.

Both our website and the cafes support the basic concept of going direct-to-consumer and forming long-term relationships around a unique brand.
Thaleon Tremain

Third-wave coffee has seen incredible growth over the past few years. What changes have you observed in this scene since you started out?

In the 15 years or so that I’ve been in the coffee business, I’ve seen a lot of change. People are very interested in where the coffee is coming from. The farmers are often on the package, and that wasn’t the case before. There’s a lot more farmer focus.

Young consumers especially want to know more of this story. The story has become valuable, and I think Pachamama helped to do that. But what you also see in the last five years is how it begins to get co-opted by bigger companies who want to just spin the story. It’s not hard to fake it. People can go down there and take good pictures and videos and talk about “direct trade” — but direct trade is a marketing term. So we’ve seen a lot of confusion over the years.

I’ve seen higher-quality coffee, and people willing to pay more money for it. However, as the value of coffee has gone up, often less money goes back to the farmer — the value is increasingly in the packaging and the branding and the story, which requires significant investment. But that also makes us more valuable — that’s the idea. The real value in coffee is usually realized in the equity, or stock value, of the roaster-retailer. For example, Starbucks has a market value of more than $75 billion today. The shareholders benefit the most. Farmers should be shareholders, but they are not.

When you think about a Pachamama Coffee drinker, how do you want them to feel after finishing a cup?

You want to feel great, you want to feel fulfilled. There should never be bitterness. It should always be a sweet cup of coffee. You can’t deliver a great story and great impact if the coffee doesn’t taste good.

So number one: great coffee, great aftertaste. And then, if the brand means something — if drinkers feel that this coffee is worth a little bit more because it was branded and roasted by Pachamama, a company owned by farmers, then we’re accomplishing what we’d wanted: something that is much more than just a cup of coffee.

Want to explore Pachamama’s coffee and read more about the cooperative’s story? Head over to their WordPress site.

Related articles

I Inspire Women to Keep Wearing — and Doing — What They Love

Holly Kjar launched an online business to empower and give back to women.

Maeband Holly Kjar

I Didn’t Realize that I Could Be a Voice for a Population of People

Stephanie Land found her first audience on WordPress.com and worked her way out of poverty and into a book deal, word by word.

Stephanie Land

Built for every dream.

No matter what you want to do, we’ll help you build it right here.