By Willy Foote, Root Capital
For decades, SCAA members have made significant investments that support the millions of farmers at the heart of the global coffee market. These investments have helped strengthen livelihoods, conserve the environment, improve quality, and promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Yet something’s still missing. Past efforts have too often failed to address a critical sustainability issue: is the next generation of coffee farmers actually invested in growing coffee?
Without a clear response to this question, that ticking sound in the distance is more like a time bomb than a grandfather clock. As millions of aging farmers retire, they are looking to their children to manage their farms. However, many young people no longer see farming as a dependable source of income—not to mention a viable career.
Rather than following in the footsteps of their parents, far too many of the next generation across the world’s agricultural economies are permanently leaving the farm and migrating to urban centers, in hope of more promising opportunities. Many of these young people have been witness to their families’ hardships and the uncertainty that can come from the boom-and-bust cycles of coffee farming—volatile markets, erratic rainfall, decreasing yields, and endemic poverty. For them, migration is perceived not as a choice but as a necessity.
Until youth find meaningful economic opportunities in rural areas, they will continue to migrate. And for an industry that requires a secure, long-term supply of high-quality coffee, it is imperative to engage with and invest in the next crop of agricultural leaders. Sustainability strategies must be designed to grow rural prosperity by making farming a more attractive career option. By providing access to the best-in-class agronomic knowledge needed to improve profitability, as well as leadership and training in management, accounting, and marketing, the next generation can better view farming as what it is: a business opportunity.
Having witnessed the transformative power that rural enterprises can unleash around the world, there is a compelling case for the next generation to stay in agriculture. And while we cannot reverse the demographic trends and dampen migratory pressures overnight, I am inspired by what I have seen throughout the coffeelands.
Consider the well-known Nicaraguan cooperative, SOPPEXXCA, which has placed inter-generational inclusion and youth leadership at the heart of its operations. Recognizing a specific constraint that young coffee farmers face—the lack of available land and limited access to credit—the cooperative leveraged its internal credit fund to offer “loans for land” to over 30 aspiring farmers. Upon full repayment of the loans, land titles were transferred to the new farmers, who are now harvesting brighter futures.
Of course, the future of coffee is not strictly confined to farming. Many places along the value chain offer career pathways for youth employment and entrepreneurship.
In Rwanda, there is no better example of youth entrepreneurship than my friend, Angelique Karakezi. Raised in a coffee farming family, she was in high school when the 1994 genocide began. Angelique returned to school as soon as she could to study business and accounting. Within a year of graduating, Angelique became the general manager of a cooperative called Koakaka. She later moved on to advise dozens of coffee cooperatives across Rwanda on issues of management and governance. In 2008, she joined the Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Company (Rwashoscco) and, after working for six years as their chief accountant, she was recently tapped to become its managing director. Last year, Rwashoscco exported 32 containers of on behalf of its member organizations, and Angelique is now highly sought-after for her knowledge and experience in the sector.
Among the many challenges to the future of coffee, I believe none are more significant than making a career in the countryside truly compelling for young, talented people. We can deactivate the time bomb. The work we do with small and growing businesses at the farm level always fills me with a renewed sense of optimism. I truly believe that investments in coffee’s next generation may be the smartest strategy for building the long-term resilience needed to ensure that this amazing industry continues to flourish.
Willy Foote is the founder and CEO of Root Capital, a pioneering agricultural impact investor. After working on Wall Street in Latin American corporate finance, Willy undertook a business journalism fellowship in Mexico, discovering the challenges faced by farmers and the rural businesses that serve them. In 1999, he founded Root Capital to grow prosperity in environmentally and economically vulnerable places. Root Capital lends capital, delivers financial training, and strengthens market connections for small and growing agricultural businesses across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.