Developing a Development Approach for Coffee

by Andrew Sargent, Michael Opitz, and Jan von Enden

Nearly a decade after the coffee crisis of 2000/2001 and the subsequent introduction of several industry efforts to address its causes, consequences, and related issues, poverty and environmental degradation continue to be widespread among the 20 million smallholders for whom coffee farming is an important livelihood strategy. The challenges are immense—for example, due in part to poverty and environmental degradation, it is uncertain whether global production will keep pace with rising consumption—yet resources for addressing these challenges are relatively scarce.

For this reason, the entire coffee sector has an interest in ensuring that projects, programs, policies, and sustainability initiatives are designed to maximize impact and address the core development problems facing the sector—and that scarce resources are used in the most effective and efficient way possible.

The coffee industry recognizes that these problems exist and thus currently supports several sustainability initiatives, each employing a different approach. But how is one to determine which initiative—if any—to support? How can individual actors and the industry as a whole ensure that resources are used effectively and that the initiatives being supported are truly addressing the problems we all observe?

Underdevelopment is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. The industry can thus begin to answer these questions by increasing the level of complexity with which it engages in development, employing a high degree of introspection, analysis and critical thinking to sustainability initiatives, and involving multiple stakeholders—especially the farming households that are often the focus of development interventions—in the design and implementation of its programs. We can begin to demonstrate such introspective and critical analysis by applying it to a key stage from which all sustainability and development programs should start: problem diagnosis.

First, some definitions. Let’s define development very simply and generally as the process of improving wellbeing. This can have economic, social, environmental, psychological, and other dimensions, and can be applied to individuals, households, communities, countries, or other entities.

The fact that development is a process is also important to note. This process can either occur naturally or as a result of public policies or other external factors, but often requires those experiencing development to play a key role. Development, therefore, is empowerment: it is about local people taking control of their own lives, expressing their own demands and finding their own solutions to their problems. The goal of development interventions is thus to create conditions so that development can occur, and/or to catalyze, accelerate, or improve the process.

Problem diagnosis: why does my head hurt?

There are severe and complex problems in coffee growing communities, evident in deforested hillsides, substandard housing, low life expectancy, and low educational outcomes. In response, members of the coffee industry have developed and institutionalized initiatives to address these problems. But to what extent do these initiatives actually work towards solving these problems—and to what extent are existing initiatives even capable of solving them? Do the most common initiatives address the root causes of communities’ and individuals’ problems, or only some subsidiary cause—or worse yet, their symptoms? Have we analyzed the real needs of each community in a participatory manner, or are we just doing what seemed to work last time, what we do everywhere else, or worse, just doing what we’re good at?

Do we take Aspirin, or stop hitting our head against the wall?

Let us think of problems as having three principle components: the problem itself, the causes of that problem, and the effects or outcomes of that problem. If we want to truly solve a problem, it’s not too contentious to argue that we should attempt to address its root causes. If our problem is a headache, one solution is to take some Aspirin. But if the cause of the headache is that we’ve been hitting our head against the wall for the past hour, taking Aspirin might not be the most practical and effective solution.

The same goes for development approaches. If the problem is deforestation, and one of the primary causes is in-migration of poor populations from the highlands who clear land to plant subsistence food crops, will a reforestation initiative solve the problem? If education levels are low and one of the major causes is that households are not sending their children to school because they cannot afford school fees, will building a school solve the problem? If farmer incomes are low, and one of the principal causes is that yields are a fraction of what they could and should be, will certifying farmers Fair Trade / Utz / Rainforest Alliance / 4C solve the problem?

To better direct our efforts and resources towards really solving the industry’s most pressing development problems—and yes, determining solutions to real development problems is a lot more difficult than not hitting one’s head on things—the industry can start by more deeply analyzing the problems that we all observe. The process of determining the causes of a problem is not terribly complicated; in fact it is something we all know how to do quite well.

All it takes is asking why—over and over and over. The children of coffee farmers in Guatemala are not going to school. Why? Because their parents cannot afford school fees. Why? Because coffee farming is their most important livelihood activity, and it doesn’t provide them enough income. Why? And so on.

The complicated part comes in determining how all causes are related and subsequently identifying the root causes of a problem—and then figuring out how to adequately address those root causes in a way that has a good chance of solving the problem. For example, Guatemalan households cannot afford school fees because coffee farming does not provide them adequate income. Why? Because they have very small landholdings so can’t produce much, but also because their yields are very low and they lose a lot of production to broca. Oh and also, they are dependent on intermediaries, which itself is because they aren’t part of a functioning cooperative but also because intermediaries provide credit, and smallholder farmers have no other way to obtain small-scale loans. Oh and by the way, each household has an average of five children between whom it divides its land every generation, so landholdings are getting progressively smaller. And farmers are also being affected by climate change and major increases in the cost of fertilizers, labor, and food.

Thus it is evident that each of the causes of a problem—small landholdings, low yields, low organizational membership, limited credit access—has causes of its own. Figuring out the underlying root causes of a problem—and thus how to truly solve the problem—can take a long time. Adding further complexity is that the problems facing coffee farmers vary across space, time, and population group. In addition, theories about root causes and cause-effect relationships differ from person to person—and especially between those designing programs and those the programs are intended to benefit.

A picture is worth a thousand words 

To help manage this complexity, those in the development field have designed several tools. The relevant tool for problem diagnosis is called a problem tree. This is also something that doesn’t require a PhD—one just draws a picture of a tree and considers the trunk the problem, the branches and leaves the effects or outcomes of that problem, and the roots the causes. By asking a series of why questions about each cause, one can begin to determine the nature of cause-effect relationships and eventually identify the root causes of a problem. And armed with adequate funding and qualified personnel, one can design an initiative to address those root causes.

To illustrate, let’s review one component of a problem that HRNS encountered in an ongoing project that currently benefits 2,000 small-scale farmers in Southern Tanzania, and its representation in a problem tree format.

Farmer income was low for several reasons, one of which was extremely low coffee yields. Why were yields so low? Because farmers were unaware of simple and appropriate husbandry practices that could drastically improve yields, and because trees were up to 70 years old and unproductive. Why were farmers unaware of improved production practices? Because the governmental agricultural extension service was ineffective and unable to reach thousands of independent farmers spread throughout the countryside. And why were trees old and unproductive? In part because high quality seedlings that were more productive and resistant to Coffee Berry Disease were unavailable in the project regions.

Determining limited availability of seedlings and inadequate agricultural extension to be key root causes of low productivity, HRNS responded by supporting the establishment of a network of private nurseries and the institution of a system of farmer-led agricultural extension within and among the 40 farmer field schools and four farmer organizations that it created in the project. Farmers thus received training from their peers through an inexpensive and efficient participatory extension system, and had access to high quality tree stock to rejuvenate their coffee plantations. As a consequence yields more than doubled on average—with some farmers increasing their productivity fourfold—and household income grew accordingly. Additional interventions not described here in commercialization, post-harvest treatment, and credit access allowed household income to further increase.

Let’s get complex about development

Members of the coffee industry operate with a high degree of complexity in nearly everything they do. Cuppers have determined that there are sensory properties of certain coffees that you can classify as coriander seed. Buyers and roasters have developed ways to optimize quality by manipulating varietals, post-harvest processing, blending, roast profile, grind, and brewing. Traders engage in covered call writing to hedge their inventories, and importers support triangular lending to reduce the risk of providing credit to smallholder farmer organizations. The industry is complex, yet is often painfully simplistic when it comes to development, pursuing a certified coffee = good, non-certified coffee = bad approach, or an increase coffee quality, and you increase quality of life approach, or an education is important, so let’s provide scholarships approach.

Perhaps it’s time the industry get complex about development too, applying its in-depth analysis of the determinants of quality, the optimal blend, and the optimal roast profile to combating poverty and environmental degradation in coffee growing communities. Let’s debate the optimal approach to making coffee farming more remunerative to farming families, ending food insecurity in coffee growing communities, and using development resources wisely. Let’s develop the development approach—note the singular—for coffee.

How shall we start the debate? 

Based on 20 years of introspection, critical thinking, and analysis, and a willingness to question and alter our strategies, the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung has developed a development approach that we hope will contribute to this discussion. It is our belief that development interventions in the coffee sector should simultaneously address multiple constraints to development; promote well-functioning farmer organizations as the key vehicle to empower farmers; improve knowledge, capacity, and operations at both the farm/household level and the farmer organization level; engage multiple stakeholders in all stages of projects and programs; use interventions to influence the public policies that affect the coffee sector; and base decisions on evidence, not on opinion.

A project that HRNS currently implements with 35,000 smallholder farmers in Uganda illustrates this approach.

A problem diagnosis like the one described above revealed that there were multiple constraints to the coffee livelihood, related to production, post-harvest processing, marketing, commercialization, and credit access. Productivity was low, trees were old, and disease pressure was high; farmers were drying coffee on the ground and quality was low; farmers were in a weak market position, selling unhulled cherries at the farm gate, and had no access to formal sources of credit. HRNS determined that only by addressing these multiple constraints simultaneously could it hope to make coffee farming more remunerative and reduce the incidence of poverty in project communities—and that addressing each constraint individually without addressing the others would not allow it to maximize the impact of its intervention.

We identified one of the root causes of the multiple problems facing these farmers to be the lack of a well-functioning farmer organizations that would allow farmers to more efficiently receive and disseminate production and post-harvest training, lower costs by creating economies of scale, improve market power and thus market access, and allow individual farmers to access credit. The intervention thus created nearly 600 farmer field schools and around 40 farmer organizations. It supported the establishment of internal control systems to ensure these organizations remained responsive to the needs of their members.

Knowledge and capacity was low at multiple levels in the project regions. Farmers needed support in production, post-harvest treatment, commercialization, and democratic participation. Farmer organizations needed support in management, administration, commercialization, and democratic governance. Only by focusing support at both the farm and organization levels could HRNS hope to help position farmers to confront the multiple challenges they faced.

Multiple stakeholders were involved in all stages of project design and implementation. Farmers themselves, representatives from local, regional, and national governments, foreign and domestic non-governmental organizations, locally active international institutions, and important donors contributed to the problem analysis and to steering the project intervention.

The undertaking serves as a case study to inform important public policy discussions at the national level. Representatives of the project now play a role in further developing Uganda’s national coffee policy, and the project is being used as a model for similar programs to benefit smallholder farmers in other countries and contexts.

Thorough monitoring and evaluation generated data on baseline conditions, measured incremental changes in these conditions throughout the project, and will provide HRNS and participating stakeholders with an estimate of the project’s impact once it concludes. This evidence provides a sound confirmation of the project’s original logic, and will allow the experiences generated in the project to inform other interventions and stakeholders in other contexts.

A complex intervention? Yes. Difficult to explain to the average consumer at the point of sale? Absolutely. But to devote scarce resources to initiatives that would not address the root causes of the problems facing coffee farmers and inform subsequent interventions in other contexts may leave the coffee sector facing even more dire challenges in the future.

Andrew Sargent began his coffee career as a volunteer with a cooperative union in Honduras, and subsequently worked for four years as a coffee trader in the west coast office of InterAmerican Coffee.  Andrew began working in the North American office of the Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung in 2010 after a series of consulting assignments with E.D.E. Consulting, CARE International, and Oxfam America.  He holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

Michael Opitz joined Neumann Kaffee Gruppe in 1992, after six years with the German Agency for Development Cooperation GTZ. For many years he was General Manager of E.D.E. Consulting, before taking over the management of Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung as Chairman of the Management Board in 2005. Michael holds an MSc in agricultural economics from Wye College, London University, UK and a degree in agriculture from the University of Göttingen, Germany.

After having managed the operations in the regional offices in Asia and Central America for almost ten years, Jan von Enden joined the Management Team of Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung in Hamburg, Germany, in 2010. Jan’s main activity consists of further developing the Monitoring & Evaluation strategies and concepts of the organization and harmonizing instruments applied in project implementation. Jan holds an MSc in Agriculture, Environment and Development from the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, UK.  East Anglia, UK.