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Meet the local nonprofit changing lives with coffeeDC organization helps Colombian farmers switch from illegal to legal stimulants

Santiago Moncada, left, founder of Redeeming Grounds, and his brother Juan Camilo, RG's on-the-ground rep in Colombia, holding a coca plant

Redeeming Grounds' coffee is sold only online and in D.C. at Ebenezers Coffee House

A faith-based nonprofit in D.C. is changing Colombian farmers' lives and shaking up the D.C. coffee scene.
Caffeine is a drug, and we as a country are hooked. We need our fix; we half-joke about need a cuppa to jump start our mornings. We just can't make it through the day without our skinny, half-caf, no-whip triple no-water lattes and our iced Americanos.

Still, it's better to be hooked on coffee, not cocaine.

That's one premise behind Redeeming Grounds, a faith-based organization born out of D.C.'s National Community Church that helps Colombian farmers turn coca fields into coffee fields.  Coca, the plant used to make cocaine, has proven a source of stable income for Colombian farmers even as that country struggles with guerilla warfare and drug cartels.

According to Santiago Moncada, founder of Redeeming Grounds, he and cofounder Steve Thaler were on a mission trip to the guerilla war zone in Colombia in 2009 and the idea for Redeeming Grounds took root. "We were invited by a pastor to go and share the Gospel with the poor," Moncada says. On that trip, Moncada met a few farmers who were ripping out their coca plants and planting coffee instead. "We were inspired by the sacrifice they were making, their hope and vision for their community and their ambition."

Moncada and Thaler saw an opportunity to help those farmers keep their commitment to coffee by making their crops sustainable and profitable. They formed a nonprofit to sell the beans, and at the beginning of 2014, began importing and test-marketing the coffee under the Redeeming Grounds brand.

The coffee farmers benefit from working with Redeeming Grounds in several ways, Moncada says. "One is price. We pay them well—the most they can get. We also invest in their process and channel resources to them."

For example, the new coffee farmers didn't have a way to dry the beans before shipping them. "If you can't dry the beans, they mold," Moncado says. "[Not drying them] also makes them more susceptible to insects." So Redeeming Grounds sent them money to build a drying rack.
Redeeming Grounds has "lit a fire. We've gotten people really excited and we can't keep up with the number of farmers that are making the transition" from coca to coffee

Redeeming Grounds also sends 100 percent of its profits back to the farmers who grew the beans. "[The farmers benefit] on the front end and the back end," he says. The nonprofit is also looking at replicating its model in other coffee-producing companies, like Uganda.

In the States, the coffee is proving popular. "We initially imported 1,000 pounds," in early 2014, Moncado says. "At the end of August, [we imported] 10,000 pounds." The coffee is sold online on the nonprofit's website as well as locally (as beans and as brew) at Ebenezers coffeehouse on Capitol Hill, which, ironically, used to be a crackhouse, before NCC purchased the building in 2002 and reopened it in its current form in 2006.

Redeeming Grounds' mission may be to transform lives in South America, but it is effecting change closer to home as well.

Moncado explains: "We have a coffee cart project [in which] we prepare brewed coffee and distribute it at Metro stops for donations," he says. The three people who run those coffee carts at Eastern Market, Union Station and Navy Yard stations are formerly homeless and are being paid by Redeeming Grounds. They're also being mentored through the church and a partner organization, Pathways to Housing.

As for the farmers, Moncado says that the Redeeming Grounds model has "lit a fire. We've gotten people really excited and we can't keep up with the number of farmers that are making the transition" from coca to coffee. "We hope that continues to be a problem. [These farmers] are inspiring their entire community. People are coming from other regions to see [the transition] because they don't believe it."

Read more articles by Allyson Jacob.

Allyson Jacob is a writer originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the Innovation and Job News editor for Elevation DC. Her work has been featured in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati CityBeat. Have a tip about a small business or start-up making waves inside the Beltway? Tell her here.
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