Grassroots coffee company bonds Bainbridge Island with Nicaragua

Lee Robinson shows off freshly roasted beans from the Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. (Photo by Hannah Myrick)
Lee Robinson shows off freshly roasted beans from the Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. (Photo by Hannah Myrick)

For most Seattleites, the morning commences with a run to the closest coffee shop, to get the day going and to get their energy up. But what’s the back story behind the coffee you’re drinking? How about the farming, picking, roasting, shipping, grinding, selling and all of the various processes that take you to that first sip of satisfaction?

On the island of Ometepe off the coast of Nicaragua, a sister island to Bainbridge Island, the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association (BOSIA) is bringing that story to the lips of their customers.

The connection dates back to 1986, as the Iran-Contra scandal broke, revealing that the Reagan Administration had been selling weapons to Iran in order to secure the release of hostages and illegally fund paramilitary groups in Nicaragua.

Bainbridge Island resident Kim Esterberg came up with a plan to help solve the problem of Nicaraguan political instability. He wanted to develop a sister island relationship to create “lifetime friendships across language, cultural, and economic lines.”

Seattle already was a sister city with the Nicaraguan capital Managua and Esterberg traveled to there with the Seattle Sister Cities delegation.

On that journey he ended up discovering a new source of coffee beans now beloved on Bainbridge Island.

“We asked ‘what can we do for you’ and they said ‘we have all this coffee but we can’t do anything with it,” explains Lee Robinson, the BOSIA treasurer for 17 years, describing the group’s first interactions in Nicaragua.

At the time U.S. had a imposed embargo on Nicaraguan goods, which many Bainbridge Islanders were politically opposed to. By 1991 the embargo had been lifted and they could legally start buying the coffee and importing it to the U.S.

BOSIA bought every bit of the Ometepe crop they could, as long as it was shade grown and certified organic — using money they raised through donations of family and friends.

A view of Ometepe Island, which was formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. (Photo courtesy Emma Spickard)
A view of Ometepe Island, which was formed by two volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. (Photo courtesy Emma Spickard)

These days, BOSIA is continuously buying and selling Ometepe coffee, at the local grocery store, fire department, a few coffee shops and through various personal orders. When they pay for the coffee, all the money goes directly to the farmers. Their coffee is cheaper than other brands, because, as Robinson explains, “there isn’t a middle man.”

BOSIA has even hired an agronomist to help the farmers so that over time the crop evened out, and they would have an easier time predicting their crop output, and also understand the basic business and money side of their farming.

“It was an education for them as well, for them to learn how much it really does take for them to produce their coffee…They’re getting a little bit more business savvy,” explained Robinson.

Once the coffee is sold, BOSIA uses one hundred percent of the profits to fund projects back in the community of Ometepe. Robinson emphasized the fact that the people of Ometepe have to independently seek help.

“What they do is come to us with a proposal for how they want that money to be used,” Robinson says. “They have to give us a very detailed proposal, for how much it is going to cost and what the town is going to do as their contribution to this project.”

The first project ever proposed was to install a new water filtration system. BOSIA found a man who knew how to build gravity fed water systems and paid for the supplies, but from there, anyone on Ometepe who wanted water in their community or filtered directly to their homes had to set it up themselves. “So they had a stake in this process,” says Robinson — once again ensuring independence and self-assuredness for the future of the community.

David Mitchell, who splits his time between living in Ometepe and Bainbridge Island, discussed how the bond among community members strengthens over time due to these projects.

“It’s been remarkably successful in bringing overall community improvements and strengthening community activists, who working through BOSIA can get stuff done and motivate people in the community,” he says. “I think it’s probably improved the social fiber of the island in general.”

Each year, a few volunteer delegations from Bainbridge Island travel down to Ometepe, often participating in different projects. They’ve built schools, libraries and health clinics. They also send coffee delegations who learn the general processes of the coffee bean harvesting and processing before it is shipped.

A youth delegation from Bainbridge Island after a beachside soccer game with Ometepe Islanders. (Photo courtesy Emma Spickard)
A youth delegation from Bainbridge Island after a beachside soccer game with Ometepe Islanders. (Photo courtesy Emma Spickard)

Robinson had been on one of these coffee delegations as one of her first trips down to Ometepe, and discussed it with such enthusiasm that it sounded like a grand adventure.

“So you’re in this jungle and at this point in the year, the Howler Monkeys have their babies and they’re are all around up here,” says Robinson describing her experience on one such delegation, “and the babies are hanging onto the moms. And you’re trying to pick coffee while you watch these babies and you have this big basket. The locals can pick one basket full in about 15 minutes, but I think it took our entire delegation all day to pick a basket full.”

After the bright red coffee seeds are picked, they go through the process of soaking, drying, sifting and sorting in Ometepe, and then the green beans are shipped off to a roasting facility on Bainbridge Island.

This small tucked away roasting facility includes just the basics. It has stacks of large 152 lb bags on one wall, the roaster, scale and grinder within different rooms. The roaster, which resembles a huge kind of popcorn popper, can roast 50 lbs of beans at a time. The green beans go into a big drum that’s heated, and from there the beans roast, turn brown and pop up a little bit.

It’s a simple and compact facility, but it gets the job done.

BOSIA, has worked hard to keep up interest in the relationship with the younger generation of Bainbridge Islanders by sending delegations of high school students each summer to live with host families in different towns on Ometepe for two weeks.

They bring up school supplies, sports equipment, picture books and  other gifts to their host town, and while there they work on a variety of small construction projects.

Emma Spickard, who went on the trip for her second time this summer speaks of her adventures there with enthusiasm and wonder.

“You could be walking down the street and be related to half of the people on the block,” says Spickard, who describes a lasting bond with her host family and community. “Everyone’s doors are always open.”

By sharing a common commodity like coffee, not only has each island gained business and economic perspective, they’ve also received an education in different lifestyles and how that can be a true source of joy.

So when you take that first sip of your coffee in the morning and feel refreshed with new energy, remember that it might also be building the strength and knowledge of communities half a world away.

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2 Comments

  1. Hannah
    We were in Ometepe in March. When we mentioned to people we were from Seattle, they all commented about Bainbridge being their sister island.
    Did anyone mention at BOSOIA talk about what is going with the new canal through Nicaragua? It will dramatically effect the lives of people on Ometepe if it is actually happens.
    I hope your writing can build awarenss about this.

  2. Wide World Girl,
    Thank you very much for your comment. I did not hear anything about this new canal in my interviews, but I will do some research and am planning on passing this article on to BOSIA soon, so hopefully their awareness will be raised.
    Thank you!

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