Janitor off to Panama to start coffee co-op


UVic janitor Damian Reed custom roasts a small batch of coffee using a roaster he imported from Panama.

“It took nine years for me to find the perfect cup of coffee,” says local coffee entrepreneur and UVic janitor Damian Reed. Not that Reed was searching for the perfect caffeine fix; it just came about as part of his 12 years of work as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in Panama.

A year and a half ago Reed used his CUPE signing bonus to buy a roaster from Panama and start Custom Roast Coffees. Since then he has been selling to a couple of local businesses and to his coworkers and friends.

Now Reed is taking a one-year leave of absence from his job at the university so he and his Panamanian wife, Odalis, can sell their Victoria-based coffee business and return to Panama to start a coffee growers co-op.

“As part of my work I travelled the entire country helping people organize and direct congregations,” recalls Reed. “But it wasn’t until I visited the province of Coclé and participated in the coffee harvest that I found the perfect cup of coffee. I roasted it according to their directions and it was really different from anything I had ever tried.

“However, when I was living in Panama I was very upset to see how the farmers lived,” Reed explains. “The farmers with small farms were paid just an average of $1,300 a year for their crops. When I visited Panama in September I had a meeting with coffee farmers from the provinces of Chiriquí and Coclé. They described how trying to compete with big business was forcing them to sell their small farms or cut down the crops and abandon their land.”

Reed wanted to do something to help. He also wanted to give his wife, who is in poor health, an opportunity to be with her family and friends. And so he put his dream of a coffee co-operative into motion.

When they arrive in Panama at the end of January, Reed will use organizational skills developed during his days as a missionary to unite farmers in both provinces and enable them to sell their products together.

“I want to form a body that trains farmers to operate their own co-operative,” says Reed. “They already know their product, they just need someone to organize them and get them on their way to selling internationally.”

The co-op is seeking sponsors. Meanwhile coffee brokers in both Seattle and Victoria have expressed an interested in its products.

While the co-op is Reed’s primary project, it won’t support him financially for quite a while, so he may end up teaching English as a second language. A certified ESL instructor, Reed has already arranged a job interview in Chiriquí. He also has a lot of experience under his belt: he has worked as a translator for UVic linguists Suzanne Cook and Barry Carlson on a project aimed at helping the Lacandon Mayan Indian tribes preserve their language and culture.

Before he leaves town to start the co-op and teach ESL, Reed still has one big task—he must sell his coffee business.

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