Addressing Hunger in the Coffeelands: The Next Great Sustainability Challenge in Specialty Coffee

By Michael Sheridan

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of working with smallholder coffee farmers in Central and South America as a project manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Our projects have helped farmers increase coffee productivity, improve coffee quality and raise coffee incomes, but one thing they haven’t done is eradicate seasonal hunger. My experience with this issue over the past three years suggests there is no easy fix. It also suggests there is steadily growing interest within the industry in trying to address it.

I have had countless discussions around the issue of hunger in the coffeelands over the past few years with roasters, importers and other industry members. I would characterize their engagement as concerned, thoughtful, committed and seeking—seeking answers to two persistent questions: What causes hunger in the coffeelands, and what can be done about it?

What Causes Hunger in the Coffeelands?

When people hear the term hunger, they often think immediately that what is needed is more food.  While increased availability of diverse, nutritious food is an important part of the equation, increasing the incomes with which smallholder families purchase food can be just as important. Based on my experience, I would say three of the leading causes of seasonal hunger in coffee communities are low coffee productivity, land constraints, and limited diversification of agricultural and economic activity.

Low Coffee Productivity

In 2011, CRS concluded a three-year project involving more than 7,000 smallholder farmers in Mexico and Central America. One of our partners in Mexico was a cooperative with almost 1000 members that has been selling organic and Fair Trade Certified coffee for more than 10 years.

During my first meeting with the cooperative, its leaders told me they wanted to focus their energies on roasting. After analyzing the numbers, they agreed that the export of double-certified green coffee was not economically sustainable. As the conversation wore on, I came to understand how the cooperative its conclusion – the average level of productivity among the cooperative’s members was just 250 pounds per hectare. At that rate of productivity, they were probably right – they didn’t have a future exporting green coffee.

Land Constraints

Investment in farm renovation and rehabilitation can dramatically increase household income for smallholder coffee farmers, but land constraints may limit the effectiveness of this approach as a stand-alone strategy. By definition, smallholders have little land available to work. In many cases, they simply do not have enough land to live from coffee farming alone.

We are just starting work on a new project in Nariño, Colombia, where average smallholder productivity is high (more than 2000 pounds per hectare) but average farm size is low: just 0.9 hectares, with 0.6 on average planted with coffee. That is about an acre and a half of coffee. Imagine having to coax most of your annual income out of a coffee plot that is not bigger than a large suburban back yard – one that lies on a 45-degree pitch. Even with optimal productivity and quality premiums, it is unlikely that you will generate enough income on that amount of land to meet even the basic needs of your family of five or six, to say nothing of the kinds of reinvestments necessary to stay competitive in a specialty coffee industry whose standards for quality are on the rise.

Limited Diversification

In this context, the best hope for sustainable livelihoods and food security for smallholder farmers is a highly diversified farm, with agricultural activities preferably combined with off-farm income sources. Over-reliance on coffee creates a perennial lean season that has been part of the coffee farming experience for smallholder farmers in places like Guatemala for many years.

In response to the increasing specialization of the coffee trade and the incentives provided by rising prices, smallholders have steadily shifted resources from staple food crops to coffee. This means that farmers produce less food for their families and rely more on the income they generate from the sale of their cash crops to purchase food in local markets. But a market-driven strategy for household food provisioning usually doesn’t work for smallholders if coffee is the only cash crop. In the absence of diversified production and other reliable sources of income at other times of the year, smallholder farmers struggle to stretch their coffee income from one harvest to the next.

What Can Be Done to Address Hunger? 

All hope is not lost. Here are just a few ways that the duration and intensity of the hunger season in the coffeelands can be reduced.

Increasing Coffee Productivity

Over the medium-term, the most reliable approach to increasing household income in places like Mexico, where it is not uncommon to see coffee shrubs more than 60 years old, may be massive investment in rehabilitating coffee farms. Individual roasters and importers are already getting started.

Let’s return to the example of the Mexican co-op whose members produced just 250 pounds of coffee per hectare and who concluded that roasting represented the only economically viable path for the future. While I understood the conclusion, I also disagreed with it. I felt the cooperative’s surest path to profitability was not to change its business model, but to invest massively in renovating the productive capacity of its members. A number of the cooperative’s trading partners agreed, and began building into their contracts a 5-cent-per-pound premium for a co-op-managed renovation fund.

My conversations with roasters and importers focused on sustainability suggest that this practice is becoming more common. From a developmental perspective, it is encouraging since it aligns economic and social incentives all along the chain: the reinvestment that promises to increase coffee incomes and reduce hunger and poverty in the coffeelands also helps roasters source more high-quality coffee in a tight market.

Farm Diversification for Families and the Market

There are more diversification initiatives happening at origin right now than I can count. The most promising ones are built on a strategy that includes production for household consumption and the market.

Improving production for household consumption involves efforts to help farmers produce more of what they are already producing, and to diversify their production to include more diverse and nutritious foods. Often this means vegetable gardens to increase the availability of the kinds of foods that combat micronutrient deficiencies and contribute to create a balanced, nutritious diet: leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, beets, carrots, orange fleshy sweet potatoes, mushrooms, etc. And while most specialty coffee landscapes are not conducive to cattle farming, small livestock production is an activity that is compatible with upland farming systems and increases access to the animal source proteins that are so vital in early childhood development.

On the market side of the ledger, successful initiatives smooth income flows over the course of the year and reduce the reliance on earnings from the coffee harvest. Mostly, these have been agro-enterprise efforts that seize opportunities in local, regional or international markets for crops other than coffee. From our perspective, the agricultural products that are compatible with sustainable agroforestry systems are the most exciting, since they create additional economic incentives for farmers to maintain the coffee agroforestry systems that conserve biodiversity, sequester carbon and represent a stubborn bulwark against deforestation. These include fruits like citrus and avocado, nuts like macadamia and ramon nut, spices like cardamom and vanilla, and other perennials like cacao. These products have been sold fresh, as in the case of avocadoes. They have also been processed in ways that increase the products’ shelf life and allow farmers to add value to primary products. Prime examples include fruit preserves and dried fruit. Honey is another product that has been effectively incorporated into coffee fields as an additional source of income that also has been shown to have beneficial impacts on coffee productivity and quality.

Finally, it is important to note one corollary investment that can unlock enormous value for smallholders whether they are producing for the market or household consumption: drip irrigation systems. In water-constrained areas where farming is rain-fed, producers may get only one chance a year to harvest their staple food or non-coffee cash crops. With access to irrigation, they may get three harvest cycles or more a year, meaning more food on the family table and more cash in the family kitty.

Partnering for Impact at Origin

The common denominator in all the cases of effective reinvestment I have seen is that it is channeled through local organizations that are technically competent and socially committed. These have mostly been strong coffee cooperatives with a concept of service to their members that goes beyond marketing coffee. But they have also been local or international non-profits with strong local teams and a long-term commitment to the communities they serve. I believe there is still great potential for innovation in partnership at origin that can increase the impact and sustainability of reinvestment in coffee communities.

A generation ago, visionaries in the U.S. specialty coffee industry courageously embraced a sustainability agenda that put it at the forefront of the food and beverage sector. I am confident that a new generation of industry leaders at origin and in the marketplace can rise together to the persistent challenge posed by seasonal hunger in the coffeelands with the commitment and creativity necessary to address it in meaningful ways. It will take more information on what is happening at origin and more rigorous data about what is working.  And it will require new kinds of collaborations within industry and beyond. Based on my own exchanges with industry leaders, I believe the will to do so—and the understanding of how to do it successfully—is building.

Michael Sheridan has been working on coffee for CRS since 2004, and has worked with smallholder farmers in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador. He is currently based in Quito and writes for the CRS Coffeelands blog at