Living in a rural Nicaraguan village, there’s a lot of time to read. At least, that’s how Michele Aquino felt when he lived in a tiny town outside of Jinotega in 2009–2010 working for the Peace Corps. But whenever the villagers would see Michele reading books, they’d get quite curious—it wasn’t a typical sight to see.
“Many people, whether they (were) children or adults, enjoyed looking over my books, even if they did not understand the words,” Michele says on his website. “Somewhat isolated from other gringos and left to develop project ideas autonomously, I decided I would get some children’s books and start letting the kids borrow them from me.”
Michele went on to establish what he called the the Grain Sack Library. He sourced books from nearby villages, and encouraged the local kids to borrow them. “I explained to them that if they took a book and did not return it, they could not borrow any other books…I thought for sure I would lose our books in a matter of days. But, NO! The kids came in little groups to the farm house, borrowed books, sat down to read with me, and then brought the books back because they wanted another! Jorge, El Mono Curioso was of course the most popular genre.”
Now back in the States, Michele has developed the Coffee Book Project: “The Coffee Book Project is a short narrative about the journey that a coffee bean takes from a seedling to a gourmet commodity. The story is told in a way that attempts to connect the reader (and coffee drinker) with the story of the people who grow, harvest, and process the beans in the tropics. This is an important story to be told! It is amazing how much of the coffee process is performed by hand. It is also quite interesting how the sale of coffee affects the economies of many developing nations.”
I caught up with Michele to ask him some questions about the book and the project. I also encourage you to spend some time cruising around Michele and Nathan’s website. It’s a super cool project, and we at Barista Magazine are proud as punch to support it.
Do all/some of the proceeds go to literacy projects in Nicaragua?
Our first goal is to finish the initial print run and assess how much interest we can stir up for this little, artsy book. We are posting all financial data on the website under the “transparency” section so people can see how the finances are being broken down. The goal is to support literacy and creativity among youth in coffee producing villages. Since I already have some connections in Nicaragua, we aim to begin there, but if the project grows in size, we hope to branch out. Perhaps the next location would be Rwanda (East Africa), where my wife currently works for the organization Partners in Health. Our commitment is that 33% of the profits will go to charity, which, when one considers that some books will be sold at a whole-sale price to retailers and others directly to consumers (online sales), equates to at least $1 from each book will be going to charity (suggested retail price is currently only $8.99 or three books for $24.00). Since this is a self-funded project, the first run of sales will give 33% of the profits to Nathan Majoros, the illustrator, and the final third of the profits go to me, the author. However, I will need to use any profits I generate to finance the printing of additional books. In year one, we may simply donate a sum of money to well established nonprofit that does literacy work (this organization is still TBD). We would hope to campaign for some donations to match whatever amount we are able to donate. If the Coffee Book Project evolves, we ultimately want to be able to donate crates of books in the appropriate language(s) that will become ultra-micro community youth libraries run by a primary school teacher or a responsible youth leader (this idea is based on my personal experience lending books to kids and the Grameen Bank community banking model created by 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus). The idea of creating a for-profit book to sell while committing to a generous charitable donation was inspired by the TOMS Shoes model.
What is your goal in publishing this book? What do you hope it accomplishes?
The primary goal was to create a short, accessible (both affordable and appealing to even those people who do not enjoy reading much), and creative book that is an easy to read narrative which aims to educate the coffee consumer with more of the steps of processing coffee BEFORE the coffee is roasted, which typically is happening after the green coffee beans are exported from their country of origin. So, we hope to entertain, teach about all of the work that people do by hand when processing coffee, and overall just give the coffee drinker more information than simply where the coffee came from. I have found that most coffee drinkers have never seen what a coffee plant/tree looks like and they do not realize some of the steps, such as the fermentation step.
Secondly, we obviously hope to increase access to reading materials for youth in rural coffee producing villages. I have seen first hand that there are not enough reading materials in the local schools nor in rural homes for kids to practice reading. The ability to read is empowering and even if kids learn to read, if they never use the skill, their level of literacy will remain low. Plus, I have seen kids light up with a huge smile across their faces simply by getting to listen to a Curious George book being read aloud in Spanish.
Your bio says you’re a food scientist. How did you get interested in coffee?
Yes, I have a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Food Science and I currently work for Dannon Yogurt. I became interested in coffee basically because people in the States drink it daily and when I arrived in my town in Nicaragua I lived on a coffee farm! I ended up having to convert a tool-shed above a wet coffee mill (beneficio humedo in Spanish) into a small bedroom/apartment for myself. In general, I am interested in foods that have a fermentation step, which includes coffee—so, that fact, combined with my slight addiction to caffeine sparked my interest in educating coffee drinkers for a good cause.
Where can people purchase the book?
The book is currently available online at www.coffeebookproject.com, although the printing will not be done until late April. After we have the book in hand we hope that some progressive cafes around the New York City and Philadelphia communities will partner with us to sell the book. I’m even willing to leave the books with honestly run cafes on consignment and just get the money if they actually sell. A list of participating coffee shops will be found on our website as well. I think coffee shop goers will really enjoy the original wood-block prints that we have included in the book!!