In our small education project in Argentina, we aren’t changing the world of education. We are making a small difference in the lives of around 20 families. It’s about quality, not quantity. The same goes for the coffee project that I want to engage in. The idea is not to revolutionise the coffee industry, but to engage in a small project that A. attempts to create some shared value in the coffee chain and B. perhaps serves as an example for those interested in a truly sustainable coffee business. To be clear, I am talking about the specialty coffee industry which is actually a very small percentage of the coffee market. Commodity coffee is a whole other kettle of fish.
There already exist systems such as ‘fair trade’ and ‘fair trade organic’ that seem to have lasting positive effects on coffee-growing communities. I won’t speak badly of the intentions of such an idea because they are surely good, but once a movement becomes large enough, it becomes susceptible to rule-bending and corruption. Particularly if they are based in countries where the corruption dial is turned up to a maximum! The idea is great in theory but quite different in practice. In Nicaragua for example, the amount of ‘fair trade organic’ coffee that they export is much more than the actual amount they produce.
I had a utopian idea of what the coffee world in Central America would be like. Mountains, biodiverse ecosystems, and a healthy connection between plant and human. I saw all of these in small amounts, but was also witness to poverty, degradation of ecosystems, monoculture, use of chemicals, and a subsistence style of life with a dependence on coffee as the breadwinner!
The thing about sustainable social change is that it is directly linked to culture. Culture, like tradition, is extremely difficult to change. People become accustomed to a certain way of doing things. It might not be the best and most effective way, but habits and traditions are fortresses with extremely high walls!
For example, in Central America, there are huge coffee estates that produce a lot of coffee, but the majority of coffee comes from small family farms. In each country, there is a different tradition in how the coffee bean gets extracted from the cherry. What I saw in Guatemala is that every smallholder farmer processes their coffee at their own private wet mill at their house. In Nicaragua, the farmers either pay for the process executed by a large privately-owned wet mill, sell their cherries to such a wet mill, or sell their cherries directly to what is called a Coyote. A Coyote is a person who visits the farm and offers cash to the farmers for their bags of cherries.
Selling to a Coyote means instant cash (which in many cases is desperately needed), but it also means a lower price for the coffee. This is the coffee that is only harvested once a year, so more often than not is the only income (that isn’t from other seasonal work) that the family has to live on. These farmers also have to pay pickers to harvest the coffee, so you can imagine the low wages that they offer for such work. It is becoming a tradition for many small farmers to sell their cherries to Coyotes because they need immediate cash. If they sell their cherries to a Coyote, they have no choice but to pay low wages to the cherry pickers. This habit is a tough one to crack!
I completely understand why this habit has become the norm. The rule of thumb in Central America is ‘don’t trust anyone’. It is no wonder if you look at the history of the place. When I was in Guatemala a woman that I was staying with told me of a conman who had recently conned a whole community. This guy planned and executed his con impeccably. The short story is that he convinced a whole community to invest a lot of money into the seeds and planting of Turmeric. The community was promised flights (which they paid for) to Canada to meet the buyers. The anchor point of the community trust in him was the visas that they also paid a lot of money for, that were printed in their passports. They were fake.
The community lost all of the money that they invested because the conman is now obviously nowhere to be seen. The only positive is that they have the product, but the product is useless if they don’t have a buyer. They have 90 tonnes of Turmeric. You can understand why this community will never trust anyone ever again!
This habit is becoming a tradition. If you can receive cash in the hand now, there are plenty of good reasons to take it! A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush! The coffee business is cut-throat. There are many opportunities for middle people to take their share of the pie and thus reducing the size of the portion for the people at the end of the chain. Sometimes it is the farmer who takes the hit because of a bad season so their harvest is halved or the price is low so their annual salary is also drastically reduced. The small farmers are the most susceptible to variances and fluctuations that occur within the market. Sometimes they make a loss at the end of the season. It is the people at the very end of the chain who are picking the fruit and maintaining the coffee farms who are living in true poverty.
There are many coffee roasters in developed countries that have good relationships with farmers. I applaud them as they are doing their part to grow and maintain relationships, attain knowledge as a process with the farmer, attempt to improve the quality of the coffee so that the roaster can pay a higher price, and demonstrate to their customers (cafes and coffee consumers) that they are doing their part for positive development!
There is a small problem with this. It is also a very difficult problem to combat. The owner of a coffee farm may be receiving a good price for their coffee which is great news. The problem is that most of the owners are paying subsistence wages to those harvesting the coffee. Many of those workers are transient and travel to the coffee farm to work for the entire harvest. There is no union for coffee workers. They are slaves to the wages and conditions that they are presented with and there is no option to negotiate. If it means putting food on the table for your kids, you take what you can get!
Another cultural problem, particularly in Nicaragua, is that they are educated to follow and to serve. The Nicaraguan president, Ortega, is a dictator. Everything is carefully observed by the watchful eyes of the government. It’s either shut up and get into line or watch out! A submissive culture exists that runs deep because of its turbulent history. The easiest and safest route is obedience. Critical thinking is not part of the social curriculum! The system trains people to get in line. It sounds horrible but when you grow up in this environment, you know no other way!
Say that I am a coffee buyer who is interested in buying coffee from a farmer. I say to the farmer, “if you get your pickers to only pick the ripest of fruit (this means they pick less), then the overall quality of your coffee will increase and I will pay you a higher price”. It seems like an obvious choice to make, but maybe not for the farmer. He can either get cash for his coffee cherries from a Coyote right now or take a risk.
What are the risks? He has to pay more for every pound of coffee picked because when you pick only the ripe fruit, you have to be selective and you don’t pick as fast. Immediately the farmer is paying more, for fewer cherries. It is also a slower process. Because the unripe cherries are left on the tree, they can’t be picked until they are ripe, which means waiting. This also means retraining your pickers who have been picking a certain way for their whole lives. The farmer also has to trust whoever it is processing the coffee. They have to do a good job of processing the coffee so that the quality is reflected in the product. This process might take up to a month as it also has to be packaged and tested for quality.
So, what would you do? Take the traditional route and sell to a Coyote which will guarantee you a price at a time when you need the money or, take a gamble, which involves waiting for a month and putting a whole lot of trust in people you might not know that well? If I lived in that situation, I know what I would do!
So, the journey towards shared value in the coffee chain is not an easy one. It’s not as simple as offering more money for a better product. There is a long process of investing in the building of relationships, international cooperation, and a lot of education. The education includes everyone from farmers, pickers, buyers, importers, exporters, café owners, the staff, and even the coffee drinkers.
From my perspective, there has to be a lot of investment in terms of time, money and energy at the end of the coffee chain. It is our responsibility as consumers to understand and even demand that the basic human needs of people within the coffee chain are covered. It is a very simple concept on paper, but extremely complex as a problem to even begin to address.
I’ll be honest. If you asked me about the wages and living conditions of the people who pick the coffee that I am selling in my coffee shop, I wouldn’t have an answer. We know that the farmer is getting a decent price, but we have no information about the pickers and farmworkers. There lies the problem. For a coffee shop, the beginning of the coffee chain is literally and metaphorically worlds away.
So, this small energy-filled gem, which is the number one food export product in the world, sustains 25 million families. You could say that this coffee represents the full range of outcomes in a capitalist system. It has a dark side that continues to exploit humans and ecosystems all over the planet, but it also has an unbelievable force that has the potential to change millions of lives for the better.
There is absolutely no reason why we cannot create a chain of value that respects each contributor as a deserving human. That’s what it comes down to. Us humans are unlike any other species on the planet because we can collaborate in large groups, and we have imagination. We can imagine a whole chain of business that spans from one side of the planet to the other, and that’s exactly why we pay so much for a cup of coffee, but there is a fault in the human operating system.
The imagination that allows us to create this long and complex trading system also creates a massive distance between us and the people at the other end of the chain. Empathy comes easy to us when we are in close proximity to another person but our ability to feel empathy towards people who we can’t see and don’t know is limited. I guarantee, if you could see the person who picked your coffee, if you could shake their hand and know their name, you might ask the question about how much value that person receives.
We have a responsibility to every single hand that touches this beautiful little bean from the first step to the final step, in this amazing journey that is coffee.
Watch this space…