Coffee Vs Gangs: a journey away from deportation and crime

On a return trip to Honduras to the Coffee vs Gangs project, we find a new group of students eager to make their mark in the world


The rural landscape of Honduras is lush and soft, wrapping around its people like a blanket. The mountains stand proud in the distance and deep lakes, forests and green fields spread out to the horizon. The people too are just as attractive – warm, chatty and tactile. They hug, kiss greetings and touch with an ease that’s alien to many northern Europeans, and it’s infectious. But behind all this is a ripple of violence that has cut through the country, startling its citizens and putting them on a road to an unstable and insecure future.

The drug trade has cornered Honduras, as it has every place it has visited, overwriting its Mayan past, its colonial history, its rich literature, food and music with a never-ending tale of death and crime. In the few decades since the country got caught up in the international drug trade and criminal gangs came to dominate the country, Honduras has faltered. It has risen to the top of international crime and emigration lists while its identity as a source of rich culture at the heart of Central America has fallen away.  

For young people growing up here it’s hard to see past the modern face of the country. Urban communities are broken, trust has become an expensive commodity and dreaming of a future involves dreaming of leaving. Schools and universities brim with talent but with the divide between rich and poor constantly increasing, for the majority, opportunities are few.

There have been notable successes though – coffee as an industry has strengthened and grown. It’s one of the biggest industries in the country now, providing a high-quality coffee product to customers all over the world. It’s a sustainable industry but one that many believes needs modernising. In a small way Kenco are leading by example in that regard. Now in its second year, the Kenco Coffee Vs Gangs project is thriving, its graduates building futures for themselves, its second intake of students already full of ambition.

The staff running the farm, perched in the highlands far from any city, are very proud of what they do. Proud of what they’ve built, proud that they are in their second year of training and proud that the 20 students that make up this year’s intake are so focused on building their own future.

Kenco have experience behind them now. The previous year’s graduates are deep into bringing their business plans to life after spending 12 months working with agricultural and business experts, following the Kenco programme. The year one students were pioneers in many ways as the viability of the programme was so untested. But it succeeded and each of the graduates has moved on to the next stage of their careers. Some have gone into the coffee business with land leased from Kenco on interest-free loans; others have set up other small businesses like bakeries, fish farms and beauty shops. Crucially, each of them are still strongly connected with the project and visit the school to meet with staff for ongoing advice or assist this year’s students get settled in. 

Aged from 17 to the mid-20s, each of the 20 new students has a tale to tell. They talk of gratitude more than anything else.

SofiaSofia, a 22-year-old single mother, stops her work to tell us her story: of a violent boyfriend, her elderly parents and a trip north to the United States that she hoped would bring her success. Instead, she ended up on the border, penniless, homeless, without even shoes and having escaped gangs and violence along the 2,000km route, she was picked up by the US police and spent three months in a detention centre before being deported back to Honduras.

Tears fill her eyes as she reflects on where she is now, the opportunity that has been offered to her and the chance to start again - and for what she has managed to leave behind.

EduardoThe youngest student, Eduardo is just 17 and talks of his time on the farm with pride. He’s worked on coffee farms before, alongside his father, working the plantations, picking the bean during the harvest season. But now he has a chance his father never had – to own his own farm. He’s excited and hopeful and, still a teenager has every opportunity to succeed.

JorgeJorge is a shy 25-year-old who grew up in a neighbourhood of a city that was held deep in the grip of gang crime. He admits that he was being pulled into this life himself when the chance to join the farm came along and is hugely grateful for the chance to escape. He says that were he not on the farm he would definitely be in trouble now, stealing, mugging, living a hard life with no future.

Despite the tales of their past there is much good humour here. Sitting out of the heat for lunch it’s refreshing to watch them talk and relax. They’ve bonded and work as a team, travelling on the back of a flatbed truck between the farm and the Kenco school, a refurbished small hotel in a nearby village. They return home at weekends and get paid a small stipend that brings them status within their families and communities. It’s clearly a fantastic opportunity and they’re grasping it with both hands.

Meet all the students here

As a social responsibility project Kenco’s Coffee Vs Gangs campaign has been incredibly successful. Setting out to give one group of students a chance to take a step up in life they have forged a second year while underpinning their work with interest-free loans and access to business support that most new businesses have no access to.

For more see coffeevsgangs.com or follow the story on irishtimes.com/sponsored/kenco