It’s been one year since the SCA set up the Price Crisis Response (PCR) Initiative, a one-year project tasked with producing a report of recommendations on both short- and long-term actions we can take to alleviate the crisis.
JENN RUGOLO sat down with the SCA’s Chief Sustainability Officer, KIM ELENA IONESCU, to explore one of the report’s assets, a map of the global coffee sector.
Jenn Rugolo (JR): The PCR’s forthcoming report was built on a participatory research process that was designed to ensure that the stakeholders– coffee community members –drove the research agenda in a number of in-person workshops and through peer review. What was the focus of these “convenings,” and what were you aiming to achieve there?
Kim Elena Ionescu (KEI): Our first meeting was in New York, and our first goal was to define the problem as we currently see it by looking at case studies of past events in our own history, and then by identifying short-term actions that, even though they may not be the solution, could help to take us in the right direction. Following this, a different group met in Berlin to discuss four key dynamics thought to perpetuate the current crisis, and to try and identify the feedback loops that drive the patterns we’ve seen over and over again. By doing this, we were able to hypothesize the “root causes” keeping the loops closed. And then we met in Brazil, for our third event, Avance, to map the system and identify points of leverage where we might be able to break those loops.
JR: Based on the map I’ve seen, that sounds like a really big task. Where did you start?
KEI: We gathered for two days – there were about 75 of us in total, in tables of 8 to 10 people – and had each group look at a “seed to cup” diagram. The first step was to just fill in who was missing, not thinking about who has more power or less power, or how information or money flows between the different stages. Just: Think about who else should be on here; whose role isn’t noted. And because of who was attending this event – which was, I would say, more than 50 percent coffee producers, with a heavy representation of smallholders from Central and South America – a lot of the roles that were identified were things I probably wouldn’t have thought to include, like agrochemical companies. The role of transportation came up a lot, banks, access to credit.
Some of these would pop up in all sorts of different places – which is really interesting – and it was a challenge to put on a piece of paper, connecting something like a bank to every single stage, because everyone has some sort of need for financing, even if they can’t get access to it. After we identified everyone that should be on there because they contribute to the map in some way, like an NGO or a delivery driver, we started to talk about and make connections between all of those roles, first to each other, and then to the roles on the seed to cup diagram. And once we started doing that, the conversation shifted to thinking about whose roles are minimized, and if they benefit or are disadvantaged by having their role minimized in the diagram.
The first group that comes to mind for a lot of people, or at least people who have been listening to the SCA for the past few years, is farmworkers. Farmworkers are not explicitly noted on the seed to cup diagram; it just starts with producers – like “a producer produces coffee!” – so that was one case where we could identify that their absence is associated with not having power. But when we condense coffee trading down to just the logistics of taking the coffee from the port of origin to a roaster, we’re missing a lot of roles. The importer doesn’t own the ship, they don’t drive it; that ’s actually the shipping company.
It’s more difficult to see the influence that traders have – especially in the case of multinationals who might be providing technical assistance and access to credit and grouping all of these other functions where, in fact, they do have a lot of power – because “trading” is reduced to the idea of physical transportation of coffee from one place to another. I think you could also argue it minimizes their value, too, but once we started identifying the concentrations of information and power, that’s what led us to questions like: “Is there some sort of advantage to be had with your role not being clearly articulated? Is there a measure of flexibility around what it is you do, and what value you provide, that impacts the responsibility you’re perceived to have?”
JR: The first thing I noticed when I saw the systems map is that it’s incredibly complicated and very clearly different from the seed to cup diagram you started with, precisely because it articulates these complex relationships. Why is it important for us to move from one to the other?
KEI : Yes, the seed to cup diagram is some sort of a very rudimentary tool that we use to explain something complicated in simple steps, but I didn’t really realize the power of it until we sat down and started talking about who was missing and what impact that might have. It brought up all of these questions and made me reconsider the fact that, while I think about it as a rudimentary tool, it is something that we use over and over again, and the story we told created the reality that we live in, or how much it has come to dictate the way we thought about coffee. Even the fact that it’s laid out from left to right, as some of us read; that we sort of “start” coffee in one place and “finish” it in another; that there are only relationships between those stages that are placed, in the original diagram, right next to each other. We know that even now, even in the current system we have – which is maybe not the one we want to continue in the future – that’s not actually how it works, much less how it should work.
JR: There are some who would argue that all of the research the PCR Initiative has done in the past year, like mapping the system as a part of the upcoming report, is not enough, that we’re doing too much talking and not enough doing. It’s all a little too academic.
KEI: One of the things about systems change as an approach is this belief that we can’t focus on individual parts: we have to see the whole and recognize that it’s complex, that change happens on multiple horizons and timescales all at once, that change is not linear. The report will have both short-term and longer-term actions there in its recommendations, if you’re looking for both of those. I also think it’s important to identify that the problem the SCA’s PCR is setting out to address is a very big problem, something that doesn’t have a simple or short-term solution. It doesn’t mean we can’t act in the short term, but it does mean that those actions aren’t going to be solutions to a longterm problem.
I have sympathy for people who feel, “I want to do something now!” and I would never say, “Don’t act now – wait for more information.” But I do want to make sure people know that when we’re recommending humanitarian aid, it’s not because humanitarian aid is going to solve the price crisis. It’s a problem of chronically low prices; it won’t be solved by humanitarian aid. But immediate food security, that’s a problem, too. It’s risky to dwell on short-term solutions – that we’re likely to congratulate ourselves on executing – because those solutions are, ultimately, solutions to a different problem or to one small aspect of the much greater problem that is unlikely to be solved in the short term.
JR: Do you think that the new systems map helps to get this message across?
KEI: I hope, at least, that it is a useful tool for explaining, or visually articulating, the complexity of the situation without having to read a report to understand. The system we’re trying to shift is a complex one and, because of that, the solutions aren’t going to be simple solutions either. When we were talking the other day, I said this wasn’t the flavor wheel, a pretty thing to put on your wall (although it is, in its current iteration, pretty!). I was thinking about it more later, about the similarity and differences between the two, and then I remembered: there aren’t solutions in the flavor wheel. It doesn’t say which flavor is better or which you should be looking for as a coffee buyer; it just creates a common set of reference terms and a shared understanding of what we are talking about when we talk about coffee and how it tastes. And I think there’s a corollary here – the systems map isn’t exhaustive and it’s going to keep evolving, but it is a better reference for the coffee system or the way supply chains function and what they end up producing. It’s not just the cup of coffee in the linear seed to cup diagram; they produce profits and they produce waste, carbon emissions, livelihoods for rural communities, dirty water. There are a lot of things produced by this system outside of the cup of coffee we see as the output of all this work that starts with farming, processing, and exporting.
JR: It sounds like there’s a lot of work ahead to shift the system, now that we have a better visual representation of it. What shape do you think this work will take?
KEI: Since the outset of the PCR, we’ve used an explanatory graphic to describe how we’re going to work over the course of the year, and the last stage of this graphic says: “Embed in the sector.” And it’s almost laughable that we throw this in there as the last stage like, “The end!”, as though it’s something we can do in a year. So that’s one thing I see stretching out way beyond the time horizon of the PCR itself, but embedding it in the SCA begins immediately: What research we do, the education curriculum we present. How does this manifest at our events when it comes to dynamics between buyers and sellers, and if that is an obstacle to creating a more equitable system, in what ways can we make them accessible or inclusive or present content that turns us in the direction that we feel the whole sector needs to go?
JR: As someone who has been working in this space for some time, did you have any unexpected learnings? Did anything surprise you?
KEI: I have had the challenge – and luxury – of thinking about the price crisis for the past year, but even I didn’t realize, maybe not even until the systems mapping workshop, quite how important the value distribution piece of this is. The narrative that launched this work was, “US$1/lb.? That’s criminally low; people can’t even cover their production costs!” But if the price suddenly goes up to US$1.50/lb., I don’t think our problems are going to go away. We won’t have guaranteed that we’re not going to be back in a situation where prices fall again and producers are under enormous pressure that isn’t being felt by the rest of the value chain, the rest of the system.
Part of the problem in solving this is that what we’re calling a crisis doesn’t look that different to what some people only see from their vantage point. Migration from Central America has been happening for a long time; it’s just that there’s more migration happening. People have been in debt for a long time; it’s just that they’re more in debt now. To those who aren’t living it, it probably doesn’t feel that different, but I don’t think I can say that we won’t be back here again if we don’t think about the value we can create in this system and the role of the grower in that. If we think that the grower’s share of the value is sufficient now, it is incumbent upon the system to justify it – because that’s not how the growers see it. Until producers feel that they know why coffee is being sold for US$5 a cup and they’re good with that, we can’t say we won’t be back here again. We can’t feel good about it.
Once we started to use the map to identify where we could break some of these closed loops, something we noticed was a concentration of resources and information. There are millions of producers, millions of consumers, but not millions of traders or roasters. There’s a lot of value and information, money, that is captured there. So now, our question is: Where can we shift the system? How can we work towards a more equitable value distribution?
KIM ELENA IONESCU is the SCA’s Chief Sustainability Officer.
While this map is still a work in progress at the time of publication, every draft prompts conversation, revealing new insights about how the coffee system does (and doesn’t) work. Read more about the design of the map – and see the final version when it’s released – on SCA News.
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