MIGUEL ZAMORA asks: How can the coffee industry provide a more equitable return?
Through work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the specialty coffee sector has made tangible progress in some areas – but so much remains to be achieved when it comes to having sustainable livelihoods in coffee communities. Labor and human rights issues are far from being solved; profitability and incomes remain insufficient. And that’s before we even factor in climate change, making it harder and harder for coffee farmers and workers to make a decent living. As we turn our attention to providing a more equitable return to farmers, a number of opportunities for NGOs to support meaningful systems change have appeared.
Harness the Power of Data
Companies and NGOs working with farmers have historically had access to lots of valuable information. This is in part because of the imbalance of power between companies and organizations based in the global north and producers in the global south. Information, for the most part, flows one way: from producers to companies. NGOs have an opportunity to change this and support farmers in accessing information that would allow them to make more informed decisions. For example, certifications have always received data from audits on coffee farms all over the world, data on compliance with different agricultural practices and in different scenarios. Data that, when aggregated in different regions, could help farmers better understand how well they are doing compared to other farmers in their region – things like yield comparisons, use of fertilizer and pesticides, or general production costs.
One of the challenges associated with leveraging data and information is data ownership. This shouldn’t mean sharing farmers’ information without consent or adequate compensation: NGOs must ensure that ownership and privacy issues are paramount throughout all conversations. But, if aggregated and shared thoughtfully, this information would be very valuable for farmers as well as companies and consumers. We could then communicate accurately about the sustainability journey of farms – and companies – sharing a story of rewarding farmers for their efforts to improve management practices while at the same time helping to protect diminishing resources for future generations. The future necessitates a smart use of technology to support farmers in gathering data more efficiently and using the information gained to make more informed decisions.
Apply Innovative Approaches
Individual projects and initiatives are not enough to create the change we need in the coffee sector. To create this change, all stakeholders much approach the issues at hand from a broader perspective. While initiatives that focus on specific supply chains (certifications, for example) are valuable to providing traceability and supporting specific farmers to improve practices, important sustainability issues (such as labor issues, gender inequality, and an unfavorable environment for the sector) are better addressed in combination with other approaches. Working together as a sector, companies, producers, NGOs, and governments have a better chance to design programs and influence policy that is context-specific to their local realities. We need to build and support existing initiatives like the national coffee platforms in Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil, Kenya, and Uganda. When they work properly, these platforms bring together all the relevant actors in their country’s coffee sector to address the most important sustainability issues from their unique perspective. Take, for example, the new Kenya Coffee Platform: in addition to facilitating discussions and policymaking through different initiatives targeting coffee farmers, it has also facilitated the alignment of a training curriculum aimed at both the public and private sector, creating efficiencies as well as increasing the reach and impact of training opportunities for farmers.
At the same time, when we work with farming communities, we need to realize that coffee is just part of the issue and of the solution. Farming communities depend on many products for their livelihoods; their farms are part of landscapes that could also be rich areas of biodiversity. By including other sectors in a community or jurisdiction and taking a landscape approach in coffee regions, we can have a more holistic impact on that region, where coffee plays a key role but is not the only product or service. Landscape approaches can be used to bring issues such as coffee production (and other agricultural production in the region), biodiversity, and social issues together in an integrated approach for specific communities.
Embrace Collective Action
We have traditionally focused on supply chains in our work; companies focus on their supply chains for the projects they support. But the reality is that not one single company buys all the coffee or all the products from a given region. As part of effective sector and landscape approaches, companies could work together in regions from where they all buy coffee. For the most pressing issues that the coffee industry and producers face (climate change, labor and human rights issues, profitability of farming), companies have a more effective path for supporting farmers by working together. Sustainability should be a precompetitive issue in coffee: the whole industry can benefit from it.
Collective action is one of the biggest opportunities that companies and NGOs can support. It offers the chance to have a greater impact than individual actions would have, at a lower cost. And it allows us to better support and enable farmers and workers to build more secure and sustainable livelihoods. For example, the Labor Action Network, part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, is formed by companies, NGOs, and local national platforms exploring collective action to better understand and address labor issues in coffee regions.
Global NGOs need to work on initiatives that are adaptable to different scenarios and regions: A farmer in Colombia is different from a farmer in Uganda; a smallholder in Brazil faces different challenges and opportunities than a smallholder in Indonesia. Within the same countries, farmers and farms have different characteristics which present different opportunities; our approaches need to reflect this. And they need to be flexible so as to create value to farmers independently of their situation. We have heard it many times: sustainability is a journey. Each journey is different depending on where the farmers are and where they could and want to go. We need to facilitate and celebrate those journeys. In the case of certifications, it means recognizing that the “one size fits all” approach to standards is not the best for most farmers. Similarly, voluntary sustainability standards need to adapt to different realities and focus more on measuring and incentivizing progress. Both the sector and NGOs should require more of this type of change.
Amplify the Farming Community
None of the above matters or creates meaningful change if it is just driven by companies and organizations in the global north. I believe the most important change that NGOs and companies need to implement in their work with farmers is around the balance of power in their relationships. We all talk about how we believe farmers are an important stakeholder. But, for the most part, we fail to allow farming communities’ (farmers and farm workers) voices to be as present in the discussions as industry’s, or to allow for their perspectives, needs, and opportunities to drive the sustainability work we do. Working with farming communities as equal partners brings a lot of benefits to the industry. It is the voice of the people fighting climate change in the field; the voice of the people that will secure the products for companies and consumers; and the voice of the people taking care of the forests and biodiversity. Our work can significantly benefit from their knowledge and wisdom. But this only comes from true partnerships that respect and value what farmers and workers bring to the table. Without it, we are destined to make the same mistakes of the past and reflect, years from now, on what could have been.
MIGUEL ZAMORA is the Markets Transformation Director, Core Markets at Rainforest Alliance.