#50: Development from the Bottom Up: Speaking the Language of Sustainability Across Cultures and Contexts to Improve Your Specialty Coffee Business | Expo 2018 Lectures

Straddling the humanities and sustainability, the panelists of today’s episode discuss how understanding culture and context improves approaches to sustainability. Drawing on experiences in Vietnam, Mexico, and beyond, they describe setbacks arising when producers and buyers speak different languages of sustainability, data collection is incomplete, and development “top-down.”

This episode shares tips to guide industry actors to think about sustainability differently, ending with steps for how companies can approach system change, improve their business, and create a stronger specialty coffee future.

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Table of Contents

0:00 Introduction
1:45 Introduction to the panelists and an introduction to sustainability
8:15 Sarah Grant on how to understand the language of sustainability across cultures and why it’s important to be a sustainability translator from a Vietnamese coffee perspective
21:00 Lucia Solis on how specialty coffee failing to translate the language of science and quality to the local context we end up not empowering producers.
36:30 Kate Fischer on how to build better projects that focus on quality by collaborating with and listening to producers
46:00 Nora Burkey on why not focusing on the local context and focusing on true sustainability from the ground up can lead to catastrophic effects for the coffee industry
56:30 José Luis Zárate on how it can still be sustainable to be a small producer in Mexico if we focus on understanding the concept in their language and helping them drive sustainability through their own organizational development

Audience questions

1:05:45 How do we balance bottom-up development with interrogating power structures that are in each place that we work?
1:09:45 Why can’t specialty coffee buyers pay sustainable prices for coffees that aren’t top specialty lots?
1:14:15 Mentorship and a succession plan is important for keeping impactful projects at origin going after the western Program Manager leaves
1:17:30 To what extent are organizations supporting producers at origin changing unhelpful power structures or reinforcing them?
1:22:20 Outro

Episode Transcript

0:00 Introduction

Heather Ward: Hello everybody, I’m Heather Ward, SCA’s Senior Manager of Content Strategy and you’re listening to the SCA Podcast. Today’s episode is a part of our SCA Lectures series, dedicated to showcasing a curated selection of the extensive live lectures offered at SCA’s Specialty Coffee Expo and World of Coffee events. Check out the show notes for relevant links and a full transcript of today’s lecture.

As we’re taking some time to work through our 2019 lecture recordings from Expo, we thought we’d take this time to share some absolute gems from 2018 that haven’t yet been released. Also, for more information on the upcoming World of Coffee lectures in Berlin this June, Visit worldofcoffee.org.

Straddling the humanities and sustainability line, the panelists of today’s episode discuss how understanding culture and context improves approaches to sustainability. Drawing on experiences in Vietnam, Mexico, and beyond, they describe setbacks arising when producers and buyers speak different languages of sustainability, data collection is incomplete, and development “top-down.”

This episode shares tips to guide industry actors to think about sustainability differently, ending with steps for how companies can approach system change, improve their business, and create a stronger specialty coffee future.

Please welcome our panel: Dr. Sarah Grant of California State University, Fullerton; Dr. Kate Fischer of University of Colorado Bolder; José Luis Zárate of True Roots International; Lucia Solis of Solis Consulting; and moderator, Nora Burkey of the Chain Collaborative.


1:45 Introduction to the panelists and an introduction to sustainability

Nora Burkey: Welcome everybody. Thank you for coming. I know there are so many other opportunities at Expo and so many things to choose from so thank you for choosing to come here. My name is Nora Burkey. I am the founder of a small organization called The Chain Collaborative. I founded the Chain Collaborative four years ago and our mission is to invest in what we call change leaders or local leaders in coffee communities to realize their own vision for development in their own community.  So, we’re going to be talking a little bit more broadly today about sustainability and development from the bottom up. It’s something that we all practice before we start. I’ll just have everybody introduce themselves.

Kate Fischer: So, I’m Kate Fischer. I’m an anthropologist and instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder and so, my research is in coffee and social issues and Central America and today I’m going to be speaking specifically about a group that I work with in Western Honduras.

Sarah Grant: Hi, my name is Sarah Grant. I’m also in cultural anthropology. I’m an assistant professor at California State University Fullerton and I study the coffee industry in Vietnam. I’m particularly interested in the transition from commodity coffee to Specialty coffee and how Vietnam is navigating that that complicated territory for the first time.

José Luis Zárate: Good morning. My name is Jose Luis Zárate. I’m from Oaxaca, Mexico. I work for a nonprofit organization through Roots International. Our work is for monitoring and evaluation and organizational development for coffee growing communities and organizations in Latin America.

Lucia Solis: Hi, and I’m Lucia Solis. I’m an independent consultant. So, I’m going to give the commercial perspective. I work directly with producers in Central and South America to do exactly what Sarah’s talking about. My clients are people that have mostly been working commercial coffee and they’re trying to move in the direction of specialty and so my job is to give them some of those tools through fermentation, through different processing techniques to control their flavor profile and move their economic bracket in a different way.

Nora Burkey: Thanks. So, before we get started again, we were a little bit late to the game of requesting translation. But for anyone that doesn’t know about the situation in Nicaragua right now, that’s where I live and so it’s something that touches me, but there are a lot there’s a lot of protests going on and some violence. There’s been some deaths so far so if anyone sees anyone else from Nicaragua just ask how they’re doing and also just a reminder to us that all throughout the world there are a lot of things going on right now, a lot of war and violence and I just wanted to kind of put that call out there just for us to think about it.

So, yeah, how did this sort of panel come about and why are we here today? All of us have been working in the sustainability sector in coffee and it’s something we think about every day and it’s you know, it’s something that is a confusing and complex topic and our job, we think, is to make that work and the work that we do more understandable. So, I’ve prepared just a little something I’m going to be speaking more off the cuff later on, but I just wanted to read off what we’ve prepared and kind of give you a sense of what this panel is going to be about. So, the language of sustainability and the word itself is cultural. It means different things to different people.

Doing sustainability work is about understanding that and ultimately building the power of producers to control their own outcomes in sustainability. That can be done by local institutions or by non-local institutions and can even be done in collaboration with non-producers but the work in building the power of producers and knowledge across the chain for a more sustainable future needs to be done well and it needs to be done based on intimate knowledge of producing communities and in collaboration with them. This is important because when sustainability is not done that way and it is top-down there are severe consequences many of which we are fighting today.

We are even calling fighting those things sustainability work. We need to recognize that much of the work that is often done in the coffee sector today is based on an old paradigm and refocus our efforts on building the power of producers and their organizations to create their own sustainability based on their own language of the concept. This may take some new ways of thinking for all of us producers and non-producers alike, but the outcome will lead to stronger and more empowered producers and businesses that can speak the language of sustainability across context. So, first, we’re going to have Sarah Grant speak. Wait, and she demonstrates through a case study from Vietnam how to understand the different languages of sustainability across cultures and why it is important to be a sustainability translator.

She provides an example of local organizations that are doing this translation work and having a big impact.  Wait a sec, wait a sec. I’m just going to say what everyone’s going to speak about and then you can all come up individually. Lucia Solis will demonstrate through her own work and experience that when we also fail to translate the language of science or the language of quality to the local context we end up not empowering producers. The good news is we can learn from other supply chains to change our approach to empowerment and communicate in the coffee supply chain. Kate Fisher offers through her work in Honduras an example of how to build better projects that focus on quality by collaborating with and listening to producers.

There are certain things we can ask when we recognize producers also have something to teach us and our companies. I will speak after Kate and demonstrate through an example that took place in our not so distant past how think how doing things without understanding the local context or without collaborating with a focus on true sustainability from the ground up can lead to catastrophic effects and these effects undermine our industry to the point that it’s seen as not sustainable anymore to be a small producer. And lastly, Jose Luis will demonstrate his work in Mexico how it can still be sustainable to be a small producer if we focus on understanding the concept in their language and then work to ensure that they can drive sustainability through their own organizational development. So, thank you and we’ll start with Sarah.


8:15 Sarah Grant on how to understand the language of sustainability across cultures and why it’s important to be a sustainability translator from a Vietnamese coffee perspective

Sarah Grant: Hi. Thank you for being here and also thank you Nora for bringing us all together to have this conversation about sustainability from probably a different perspective than some of the other sustainability panels. I think we’re actually back to back with one of one of them right now. So just a little bit about why I am interested in sustainability from a cultural anthropological perspective and how it fits into my work in central Vietnam. It’s probably no surprise to you that Vietnam is still the second largest producer of coffee in the world. It’s also probably no surprise that they’re pretty invisible at the expo here.

Vietnam doesn’t exactly have a big presence in the specialty coffee world. That doesn’t mean that they’re not moving in that direction as a producing country. It just means that there’s a lot of limitations, there is a lot of funding, kind of murky restrictions around what’s possible in a country like Vietnam and part of that is the history. Vietnam is a relatively new coffee producing country. There is a colonial history. The French planted coffee there in 1856 and it became a colonial cash crop in the late 1800s but obviously, the war has a really big impact on the coffee industry there. The American war, the French Indo-China war in Vietnam obliterated what is now the primary coffee-producing region in central Vietnam and that has a lot of implications for how people think about sustainability in that country, especially coffee producers and one of the reasons I wanted to bring up the war today is because a lot of potential buyers of specialty coffee in Vietnam don’t have background in this history.

So, when they use the term sustainability and there’s not a perfect direct translation but the closest translation that you might come up with in Vietnamese has connotations to environmental sustainability specifically around the use of dioxin and agent orange in the central Highlands coffee-producing region. So, when someone says we want to create a sustainable coffee industry for Arabica production in this part of Vietnam, sustainability translates in a very, very different way. So, producers aren’t having the same conversation as potential buyers and agronomists who might be coming to Vietnam to explore the possibility of specialty production. And then, of course, the post-war Economic Development context is also very, very important to understand. So, the coffee industry as we know it in Vietnam today is actually quite new.

Coffee wasn’t really replanted until the 1980s and it was part of a larger Eastern Bloc communist investment project. Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, Cuba agronomists from then Czechoslovakia have invested a lot of money in developing the industry into what we know it today and in 1986 when the Vietnamese economy opened up to foreign investment that’s when you have the large multinational corporations, the big four sweeping in and starting to develop the industry in a direction that’s pretty commodity oriented and that history is really important too because coffee producers in Vietnam as we know them today, all they know is 1986 Nestle. 1986, sort of the introduction of Folgers for example into Vietnam and that’s what the history of coffee is for a lot of producers who are there now.

So, the possibility of specialty coffee production is relatively new and when a buyer comes in and isn’t aware of this complicated three-part history, it’s very, very difficult to translate what a Western company is envisioning for specialty production and what’s actually happening on the ground. So, one of the main points I want to make today is that to develop a sustainable coffee industry in Vietnam requires a deep understanding of these histories and how producers experience these histories in their everyday lives. For example, this history might mean a resistance to engaging in what we might see as transparent coffee practices. Being transparent and signing papers has a long complicated history in Vietnam. Signing your name to a contract, signing your name to a certification scheme might implicate you down the road because there’s a history of having your name abused and circulated in ways that can put your family in prison.

So, that history actually means a lot when you’re trying to develop an industry that requires transparency. Not everyone in Vietnam wants to be transparent for these complex cultural reasons. But there’s also a large industry perspective on what sustainability is in Vietnam and what it can be. There’s a recent IDH report that uses a couple of really interesting quotes. I put one of them up here. So, while farmers are not formally organized into aggregated units, cooperatives exporters are able to leverage their relationship with collectors and aggregators to form large schemes and then recent reports also make a case for consistent monitoring and evaluation and I’ve been studying the language of sustainability projects in Vietnam quite a bit and this is a sort of language that again is a very top-down approach to sustainability.

So, when you have someone evaluating what’s wrong with Vietnam, what’s missing from the Vietnam coffee industry, especially when it comes to developing Typica for the first time or working in wet mills for the very first time you have a lot of producers who are being told what they’re doing wrong and how they should be doing it from a very Western perspective. That’s not new in the coffee industry, but it’s a limitation for developing the industry in Vietnam and this kind of language about consistent monitoring, of course brings up that surveillance history that so many families still hold very familiar and very dear to their hearts. It wasn’t a pleasant 30-year post-war history to be surveilled by the state.

So, you have these coffee producers who are being told that if we if we can just monitor you better and if we can control what you’re doing better, you’ll be more sustainable and being told what to do again links back to those complicated histories of colonialism, but also post-war development. So, for the rest of the talk, I want to focus on producer perspectives in Vietnam. I’ve been conducting a handful of ethnographic interviews over the past probably eight nine years at this point and sort of watched a lot of a lot of producers transition from commodity coffee into specialty coffee, which is a lifelong project.

It’s not easy to just say, you know what I’m going to abandon everything. I know about coffee and try and get into the Arabica game because you can see the price differences. So, for a producer they often use the term it’s phức tạp or it’s complicated because no one really knows what a sustainability certification is and the most common sustainability certification in Vietnam is Nestle’s 4C. That is probably the only one most producers know about. So, when the term sustainability is used, people link it to Nestle and they link it to commodity coffee. So, the idea of having sustainable Arabica production in the highlands 1,500 meters and above of Central Vietnam is foreign to most of these producers and then of course education is the key. But a lot of these workshops are inaccessible and here’s where we start to see a couple of small organizations specifically one called La Viet Coffee, another called Philanthropy trying to make sustainability translatable, commensurable in Central Vietnam.

So, education is key, but these workshops have to be locally produced. It doesn’t help if a large multinational corporation pops in for two days to do a training workshop and it’s not properly translated into Vietnamese, or maybe it’s translated but the cultural concept of sustainability isn’t translated and this also brings up a really important point about the conflation between environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability because those terms, also the concepts are used interchangeably a lot when training workshops are being held in central Vietnam. So, being clear about what kind of sustainability you’re talking about is the only way that Vietnamese producers are going to grasp what investment opportunities exist around sustainability and what the long-term implications of a sustainability project are. Are you talking about soil sustainability? Are you talking about being able to send my child to University in a larger economic sustainability context or are you talking about social sustainability and gender equity?

So, leaders within the specialty coffee industry and Vietnam are taking on the task of translating this to a broader Community by experimenting with long-term sustainability initiatives rooted in education and the term for sustainability bền vững is typically associated with economic development, but small coffee NGOs and La Viet Coffee, which is a small company that has been probably at the forefront of the specialty industries development in central Vietnam. They’ve been translating sustainability by using the English term. So, instead of trying to come up with a matching Vietnamese term for sustainability they’re just using English and calling it sustainability. Putting sustainability in English on their packaging, in their workshops and saying let’s not even try and get into the murky territory of trying to translate this. Let’s just do it from a western perspective because that’s how we’re going to attract potential buyers for our coffee once we get to you know, 86 points and above.

So, La Viet has developed a handful of sustainability workshops that are mostly rooted in wet mill training. So, as I said wet mills are few and far between in central Vietnam. The coffee is there but the processing is not and most of the value that’s lost in Vietnamese coffee is coming post-harvest and I think La Viet Coffee has done a whole lot of branding work in some ways and we all know how important branding is when you’re talking about sustainability and coffee and La Viet is the company that, of course they have the resources to do this. They’re already established. They have plenty of investors and they’re just trying to come up with a model that will makes sense to Vietnamese domestic consumers. So, instead of thinking about selling their Typicas elsewhere, outside of Vietnam. They’re working on developing a domestic market first and trying to create a sense of what sustainability means in a local market.

I think I’m almost out of time, so I just want to end here. I’m a cultural Anthropologist. I don’t work in the industry. I have no particular vested interest in the industry except that I care about a lot of the producers. I’ve been working with over the past decade and time and time again, I think what’s lost in the industry is conversation with a lot of these producers is this idea that sustainability is cultural and I know Nora mentioned this in the introduction but I can’t stress enough how important it is to think about the notion of sustainability as not being one big umbrella that you can apply to any particular country, especially a country where the industry is quite new and like every coffee producing country out there has a complicated history. So, sustainability is cultural and outside sustainability initiatives should consider a lack of commensurability not as a barrier or a challenge to working in a particular country, but think of it as an opportunity to work from a bottom-up perspective instead of imposing notions of sustainability on local producers. Thanks.


21:00 Lucia Solis on how specialty coffee failing to translate the language of science and quality to the local context we end up not empowering producers.

Lucia Solis: Hey everybody. I’m Lucia.  Can you hear me? And I’m here to give you a little bit of that kind of inside out perspective in the work that I do, and my background is in wine making. I studied at UC Davis winemaking and then I worked in Napa Valley for nine years before starting in the wine industry. So, I’m coming at it from the perspective of another industry that has turning an Agricultural Product into a beverage that we consume, and my role is really in the application of science. So, on the one side, you see these one liter fermentation and this is a facility in France where yeast strains are developed to work. Some of them application for beer, some for wine some for bread all of these different industries that use fermentation to impart flavor and to add value to the product and yet in coffee, I started this work three years ago and there really was not that view where the fermentation was a place to add value. So, what I do is I take the science from what’s done in the laboratory and then apply it at the real scale. So, this is a five ton fermentation in El Salvador for a client of mine and saying how do we start to give producers tools that are already available in most of the other industries that we are very familiar with and what does it mean to empower these producers?

Well, what I realize when I started this work is that most producers don’t cup their own coffee. So, my clients that are trying to move from commodity to their specialty industry. They really weren’t aware of their baseline and what their coffee really tasted like so I saw that was a big disconnect, needing to have that understanding first because if we don’t have this baseline then we really couldn’t move forward. I also realized that in the coffee industry because we have this roasting step. There’s a lot more lax with the hygiene of facilities. If you go to a winery or a brewery, they are some of the cleanest places you will ever see. The tanks are pristine, the floors are clean. everything is beautifully, actually I’m going to go back to this picture of Cliff Lede Vineyards where I worked. This is a really common view of the wine industry. Wineries are beautifully clean and when you go to most mills, if most of you have visited wet mills there’s not that concern for cleanliness and me again I think that comes from, well coffee is roasted, it’s going to be okay.

Nothing’s pathogenic. Nothing’s going to hurt us, but we’re not valuing this fermentation step as an ability to create flavors that could impact, either reduce the quality of the coffee or improve it. We’re only looking at it as a risk. Most producers think of the fermentation as I want to hurry up and skip this step because I don’t want my coffee to spoil but they’re not thinking well if we can make really bad flavors in the fermentation tank couldn’t we also make really good flavors as well like this is a place where you’re having an impact. So, instead of reducing the risk, let’s harness that potential. So, that’s really what I focus on is spreading these tools and fermentation is one place where we can add value, yeast is a place where we can add a tool to the toolbox to create these different abilities for producers to differentiate themselves.

I think right now a lot of the power is held in the roasters to buy some green coffee from Guatemala and then put their roaster stamp. Was it roasted by Intelligentsia? Was it roasted by Blue Bottle? And that’s how most consumers find that added value, but we can move further or closer to origin and have producers themselves have some of that differentiation and not just leave that in the hands of roasters.  So that’s again by my focus and I noticed that difference in coffee versus where I worked in wine, that a lot of the demand for coffee was coming from the consumers and coming from the roasters and kind of being pushed onto the producers where in the wine industry. So, this is that my model of how I saw things working in the wine industry, I’m sorry in the coffee industry. So, the question is what are consumers willing to pay for coffee? Maybe they’re willing to pay three or four dollars for coffee. So, then that tells a roaster okay, if the consumer is willing to pay three bucks for a cup, this is how much I need to have my roasted coffee for which means this is how much I’m going to buy my green for which means this is how much it needs to cost when it’s landed which means this is how much it needs to cost when it leaves origin which means okay, I’m going to pay the farmer 14 cents and its really pushed back based on what the consumer is willing to pay.

In the wine industry. it’s completely different. We start the opposite way. We start with how much does it cost to grow this grape. So, if you work in Napa Valley, your farming costs and the cost of land there would mean you buy a Cabernet Sauvignon for maybe $15,000 dollars a ton. One ton of grapes $15,000. That is what the market will allow. That’s what it costs to have land there. That’s what it costs to employ people to work the land etc. If you go, I think three hours to like the Central Valley and you go to Lodi or someplace like that one ton of grapes, which again makes the same amount of wine one ton, it’ll cost you $500 because land is cheaper. It’s a lot hotter. The quality is not quite there. So, based on how much the grapes cost then it’s up to you as the winery to say do I have to sell this bottle for $10 or do I sell this bottle for  $500 and then you find your market and then it sort of moves forward but it starts with how much do the grapes cost and what I saw in the coffee industry and what to me is not sustainable is really starting from the outside in saying what are people willing to pay and then we’ll work backwards.

And the other thing that I’ve seen from the direction that makes it really difficult is consumers are not just driving the price by saying like this is what I’m willing to pay for coffee, but also saying well, these are the flavors that I like. So, something that I’ve seen that’s really popular right now are you know the natural flavors and some of my clients that have come to me have come because a roaster has told them they really like naturals. They would buy more of their coffee if they produce this certain flavor profile. Well, my client is a producer in Guatemala and it’s really humid. So, when they tried and they do normally wash coffees and so when they tried to do naturals, they invested in the raised beds, they invested in the labor to continually turn the coffee and it just all molded because it’s a rainforest. It’s not the dry Highlands in Africa.

So, a lot of again the direction was coming as feedback from consumers saying this is what we want to see instead of from the producer saying well, this is what we can produce, and this is what is available to us. So, that’s where I work with them to say we can get those flavors in a different way. But my point here is just to talk about you know, where is this demand coming from and where is a pressure coming from for producers and for farmers creating this coffee? And so, that was one of the lessons that I think we can really learn from the wine industry is saying in the wine industry producers have the most power. They dictate what their product is going to cost based on how much it cost them to produce it and they dictate the style of what the flavor is going to be of their product based on their conditions.

Napa Valley climate is really different from Washington State, from Germany, from France and that’s what dictates the flavors, not the market. They’re not really listening to consumers saying what kind of wine do people want to drink. Some places are, some people do say, “Oh, there’s a trend towards lower alcohol wines. Let’s figure out how to make those or there’s a trend for natural wines. Let’s figure out how to make those.” But for the most part it’s really from the producers out. and again, what I’ve seen in coffee is everybody’s kind of giving all of these pressures and feedback to farmers.

This lot is just to illustrate. I’ve done this work in 13 different countries. I work with very different, diverse of producers in very different climates, very different starting material, very different resources and most of their concerns are again very risk-averse. It’s very much how do I make sure that someone will still buy the coffee? How do I make sure that I don’t ruin this coffee before it goes out there. There’s a lot of pressure because it’s the producers role to create these lots and then the green buyers roasters and consumers just say, well, I don’t like it. I don’t buy it and then kind of move on so there’s really a disproportionate pressure on one side of the market even though we talk about being a chain and working together. From the production point of view. I don’t see that risk being spread out across the chain. I see it really concentrated on one end and this is another example of a mill that I’ve worked at and this is a very typical view of a mill where it’s seen as a process.

So, this is a place where a volume of cherries is converted to green coffee. That’s sort of the mentality of most commercial coffee. Volume, throughput, getting it from one end to the other. But I try to focus on I don’t think the industry is going to change and I don’t think producers are going to be empowered until the mills look more, not like wineries because it’s a very different product but when there’s a value towards hygiene, towards thinking about what’s being produced here and not just looking at it as volume but saying all of these different processing steps impact quality. So, this is my other model of in the wine industry. The most important thing that dictates the price is the fruit. How much does it cost to produce it? What is our… And you know what that’s something that’s really interesting that I realized in working in coffee is a lot of producers didn’t know their cost of production. they didn’t know these numbers were not right at the tip of their tongue the way they are in other Industries.

So, again depending on how much your fruit costs that tells you… If you have a $500 dollar fruit from Lodi. You’re probably not going to barrel-age. Each one of these barrels is about $1,000. So, if you have $500 fruit, you’re probably just going to ferment in a stainless steel tank, maybe bottle it really quickly and get it to market. Whereas if you start with $15,000 fruit from Napa, then you’re like, okay, well, we have more money. We know this is going to be a really nice bottle of wine. So, we’re going to invest in aging it 16 months in new French Oak. So, also the price of the fruit and. It’s intention dictated we’re going to do different things with this fruit. Another contrast that I see in coffee, there’s not a lot of different tracks. The fruit comes in and we treat most of it the same way. There’s not as much intention to say this is our best fruit. We’re going to treat it this way. This is something else we’re going to do this way, and there’s not that differentiation of products. Most mills that I work at are really optimized to do one thing really well and to do that at volume.

So, that’s what I work with. That’s another tool that I tried to give to producers to say you can have a differentiation of products by treating them differently and not necessarily having to plant new varietals without necessarily having to expand in other ways. Using the tools, we already have let’s explore this area and another thing I think we can take from the wine industry is there’s a really strong culture of research and agriculture with universities like UC Davis, universities in France. There’s a lot of effort into learning about cultivars and right now WCR is doing a really great job but they’re new. There’s not a lot of resources like that available to coffee as much as there has been to wine and another word that is very triggering for me is the word terroir where I feel that in the wine industry terroir is used to empower wineries and we use it to. pay more. Say well, I really like a burgundy and I want to pay for that because I have these associations with that or I love the Napa Valley or I want some wines for a Barolo, but for some reason in coffee, I’ve seen it used the other way.

I’ve seen it, “Oh, that’s from Brazil. I’m only going to pay X for a coffee from Brazil. I’m only going to pay X from Vietnam,” and just having these associations and again, I think terroir is a really interesting and important component to the conversation. But the way that I’ve seen it used as a tool to keep producers and say I’m not going to pay more because I have expectations from this place already and for me, sustainability like Sarah was saying, there’s so many ways you can apply it and it can mean so many different things to people. So, my personal definition and what I work with for sustainability means that producers can keep producing coffee. So, it’s not just about can we keep the environment clean? Can we use better methods for farming? Can we pay decent prices? It just, for me creates a culture of if this isn’t a viable industry a lot of my producers are planting other things. They don’t want to plant coffee and for me that’s not sustainable.

If there’s no raw product. The rest of the chain is really in danger. So, for me sustainability means creating an environment where we can share information and where producers want to continue to produce coffee and this is just a map of Napa Valley again where I worked, and you can see here that it’s a really dense population. I mean from top to bottom that’s probably about 25 miles and there’s more than 300, 400 wineries right next to each other and all of these wineries, they’re not necessarily competing because that method doesn’t work for them. So, by being so concentrated they realize that if someone’s going to come to visit a winery, they’re probably going to visit more than one and so they work together to make the area be a place that people want to visit and they do that by sharing information and having worked in the Napa Valley with other wineries it’s very common to go into other wineries and to ask them about their process, ask them about did you try that piece of equipment? Did you like it? Did you try this instrumentation?

No, I didn’t like it or yes I thought it was great and together you can get better more quickly. In the coffee industry, I’ve noticed that there’s such a fierce competition for limited resources that there’s not as much a culture of sharing. People are very guarded with their information and if something worked really well for me, I don’t want to tell you because you might take business away from me and I think ultimately that’s not sustainable because that hurts and it keeps people from having this access. So, I hope that that’s something that we can learn from, from the wine industry where we can, sharing information everybody can get better more quickly, and that’s all I have. Thank you.

36:30 Kate Fischer on how to build better projects that focus on quality by collaborating with and listening to producers

Kate Fischer: All right, so I’m going to take us back to anthropology and I’m going to talk a little bit about a specific project that I have been working with and helping on and learning from and using it to think about what does it mean to really listen in a very literal way and how even when that’s your job you can still screw it up? So, this is an organization in Western Honduras. that’s mostly men and it’s very small farms. These are about two manzanas, this is less than two hectares. These are these are not huge farms. They’ve got three to eight thousand trees on them. They’re not doing a whole massive amount of volume and so most of the mills are shared between neighbors and between families. They are very small wet mills and I’ve got some pictures of those coming up and they are not lots of Technology. They are not even usually running water except from a hose. Sometimes there’s electricity, sometimes there’s not and so the interesting thing about the way that this particular project and business works is that there are two payments and so you get the first payment when you hand in your coffee. So, it’s dried to between 15 and 20%. There’s not a really great way to be able to tell that. There’s not a whole lot of moisture readers so you get around a dollar generally at that point and then the coffee does its thing. It eventually makes its way to the US and is sold wherever it’s sold and then you get the profit from that. So, if it’s sold it at 450 minus the costs it’s going to depend on how much you end up receiving.

So, you get a payment during the lean months when cash flow is a problem and the idea is that people will not have to go to pretty predatory money lenders that are going to charge them upwards of 40% interest which is basically going to crush everything that you’re going to get for the next one and just continue in that cycle of having to make payments. So, with the quality project specifically this is the model that exists, and our goals were first of all, what are people even doing? And one thing that any anthropologists will tell you after their first semester is people will tell you one thing and they’re doing another thing, and this is not because they are liars where they’re trying to trick you. It’s because people don’t realize what it is that they’re doing, or they don’t know every single step, or they don’t pay attention to it or they have a very particular way of understanding their own processes.

So, people tell us one thing. This is where I’m going with the like getting things wrong part and actually be doing something else and so what is even happening? How do people make decisions about when coffee is ready to wash? How did they make decisions about when it’s dry if you don’t have any kind of moisture meter and you’re just using your fingers? What are you feeling for or listening for or tasting for? So, that’s the initial phase and it’s been going on for three years and we’re still learning new things and then over the long-term the goal is really to get enough data that is specific to this region and this is also a part of the challenge as we know with coffee is that there’s data out there when it’s shared. It’s great that Hawaii’s got all of this information about how they process coffee, but that is really not relevant or barely relevant in a place that’s very high and is very, very cold and very damp and very overcast most of the time, even in the dry season.

So, data that is from that particular region from themselves and then how do we or is there a correlation and a connection between that and the final sale price, what the flavor qualities are. Is somebody doing something that you can learn from? So, again with this sort of sharing information that Lucia was talking about and the idea is not that I’m going to come down to be like this is what you have to do but here’s all the information we have. You can decide now based on your workflow and your goals and your everything else where you want to invest your time and money. Do you want to put in a solar dryer? That’s been the first thing that we’ve seen people doing that that’s been really useful because it is so dry and so wet and so people have pretty much unilaterally decided to install those. Maybe other things are not as important, or maybe you don’t care, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I mean like if this is what I’m getting for my price and I’m okay with that, I can be okay with that and so, like I said, we are working in places that are rural. They’re not that far.

It’s like an hour from Marcala, which is a major coffee center by pickup truck but not everybody has a pickup truck and the cost of gas to get down there and to bring your coffee down there, there’s a lot of issues. So, just looking at what this means to listen. Both of these were shown to us as examples of selective harvesting and so again, we ask people how do you pick so we’re selective? Okay, great, when you pick you are selective? Yeah, absolutely and I mean I have dozens of pictures of all kinds of variations of skittles here where everybody says you’re being selective and that’s true to a degree but what does that actually, actually mean? And so, if you are going to show up for three days and be there you’re going to learn one thing. If you’re not able to be there during the picking or something like that, you’re showing up later. You can’t tell once it’s out of the Cherry what exactly it was not easily and so a lot of this has been how are people picking? What are the issues?  If you’re hiring pickers it is really freaking hard to convince them that they should spend way more time to get way less volume for which they’re going to get paid less money.

There’s not a whole lot of motivation there if you’re if you’re the picker right. That doesn’t work, so try and understand it looking at other examples of how other people pay pickers or who does the picking. What kinds of sorting methods are possible. So, there’s been some experiments with flotation, and you know, just having a place to do it even. To find a physical space to sit there and sort after picking is a challenge and I put kids to work doing it.

What does that do? So, we’ve got that issue where we’re like yeah, we totally understand selectivity and then we would show up at the right moment, which is also a challenge, and this is what we would see. So, we all were speaking literally the same language. In this case Spanish and absolutely not understanding each other. So, it’s cold and wet. That the top yellow up and down is the relative humidity. It goes up to 100%. I live in Colorado. This is very stressful for me that it gets above 30% ever and it never gets below it. So, I stress bit. But the air temperatures and the soil temperatures are really close, but they are cold. That’s under 10 degrees Celsius and so just this past harvest there are people who had stuff and it took it a month to dry. It wasn’t molding. It was anything wrong with it. It was just slow.

So, we have very limited space. How are decisions made? A lot of times the decision was made to move it because you run out of space and you say is because it’s done but really, again, you’re not lying, you’re not trying to pull one over on the buyer, on me but if there’s a window in which we can judge the [42:38 inaudible] to be finished you might pick on one side or the other depending on what your workflow looks like. So, all of this is to say that there’s no good answers and not everybody can spend months and months and months, but if you can have somebody on the ground who really does listen to these things and not just listen, but watch and not judge and just try to figure out what’s happening then any kind of programming that you come up with? This is not something that’s impossible to replicate. If you know Mayra Orellana- Powell, this is her project. Yes, she’s an amazing, incredible woman, but it’s not impossible to do what she’s done with this and then some of the other associated projects that are all about making the community more viable in the long run.

So, projects for teenagers and women and horticulture and all sorts of other things. So, how do people invest their time or money? They need to know what it is that they are doing collectively first and then my job and the job of the other people in the quality project is to try to parse that out. Are there connections here? And so, are new statisticians out there who want to volunteer. I’ve got some work for you.? But to try to figure out what is actually happening because it’s amazing to me that we know so much about total dissolved solids and this and that and all the things that happen when it’s one degree different on the brewing side, and we really still don’t understand what’s going on in growing and processing so, there we go.


46:00 Nora Burkey on why not focusing on the local context and focusing on true sustainability from the ground up can lead to catastrophic effects for the coffee industry

Nora Burkey: But, I just wanted to bring it back to the main question of why we are here and promoting, supporting bottom-up development versus top-down and so that’s just sort of the main question for this panel is why the coffee industry should support bottom-up development and so the first question I asked is well what’s wrong with what we call top-down development and I’m just going to give an example from our sort of as a not-too-distant past which is a kind of example of top-down development and the catastrophic impacts of that. So, go back a little bit 30 years to basically end up  in the 1980s 1990s when the debt crises in many developing countries, many in Latin America, in Africa led to specific policy prescriptions by development agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank or what we call the Bretton Woods Institutions and essentially the idea in order to continue to support these countries or to reduce their debt or to continue to give aid to these countries.

These policies were created, and countries had to comply with certain rules from lending institutions in order to receive continued aid and those rules were really geared towards essentially reducing inflation at all costs. So low hiring interest rates, the privatization of industries was required. Deregulation of industries was required. So, essentially just growing free trade in various countries. And so, the impacts of this are widely studied. There’s a lot of resources and our handout, digital handout. We’ve included a ton of resources for you to look into but these were these are called structural adjustment programs and a specific impact on coffee where the developing countries were encouraged or forced to grow cash crops like coffee and so the idea was that instead of growing their own food, they would become net importers of food and exporters of coffee or cash crops and so, the idea was well, what are these countries good at.

They’re good at cheap labor, that’s their advantage, their comparative advantage. Rich countries, we’re going to give you things you need like food and you’re going to give us things we want like coffee and that’s going to make you richer. So, more coffee, less food grown for yourself more store-bought food. But this didn’t just happen in coffee? Lucia has told us a little bit about, also rice until the 1980s as an example, most rice eaten in Haiti was grown in Haiti. Between 1985 and 1995 Haitian rice production dropped from a 110,000 tons to 80,000 tons and within two years small-scale Haitian rice farmers could no longer compete with cheap subsidized US rice imports and by 2006 three out of four platefuls of rice eaten in Haiti were grown in the US and so you see this with corn, you see this with other food crops. So, it’s just evidence that these countries, Haiti is also an exporter of coffee. Developing countries have become net food importers and their small-scale farmers have had to now grow exports as opposed to feeding their own population and what are the impacts of this?

Well, almost a billion people are chronically malnourished, another billion are always unsure from where their next meal will come, and this is just the impact on food security from these top-down development agency prescriptions. So, you can find examples of horrible impacts in education, healthcare, the GDP of many countries has decreased. Inequality has exponentially increased. So, this is just something, an example of what has happened to food security of essentially small-scale farmers. and this is all… Food security in recent years has sort of become hot topic in the industry for sustainability. I have seen it decreasing in relevance in the in the coffee industry although it’s still very relevant. But in 2013 of cost the SCAA published a blueprint on hunger in the coffee lands and studies from Central America revealed that a significant percentage of farmers experience food insecurity at some point during the harvest production cycle each year and so, we see that sustainability solutions now for the industry are these programs for food security, organic gardens, home gardens teaching farmers how to farm and you sort of say to yourself, but I grew up in Philadelphia. I don’t know how to farm. I don’t even like farming very much and suddenly It’s my job as a development professional to teach someone who has farmed all their life to grow their own food and to feed their family and there’s something super backwards about this but it’s because farmers that have been growing food for  generations were now told well the development approach you should take is stop growing food, start exporting, start paying for your food and now you know these top-down models that have been imposed on farmers while now the industry is being asked by nonprofits and by farmers who will need to invest in food security.

So, now we’re sort of paying for the mistakes that we made before when we chose to do top-down development. So, the organization that I run, the Chain Collaborative our goal is, it’s not too it’s not to not cooperate. It is not to not give our advice to our partners as Northerners, but it is to listen to farmers and to local leaders and understand what are the solutions that they see as relevant and so, this is a photo of from our partner community in Uganda. It’s called Nyamigoye Parish, it’s in the southern, South Western District of Kanungu and this is a storage center that they have built that we funded for this year and it was their solution, their group of unorganized farmers in Uganda and they said we want to organize. We want higher prices for our coffee and the first thing we think we need to do is build a storage center because our farmers have nowhere to store their coffee. So, they’re selling it to middlemen. They’re also not storing it properly. It’s getting damaged and so we said great. Then we started to do the research to put into the grants we were writing and what did we find?

In a report from the European Commission Joint Research Centre between 1995 and 2005 post-harvest losses exceeded food aid delivery in both eastern and southern Africa. So, due to improper and sort of a lack of access to storage facilities for food or agricultural products post-harvest losses were incredibly high meaning there had to be much more food aid. So, what if we actually invested in post-harvest solutions and storage. Maybe Africans could feed themselves at a higher rate and we could reduce our food aid and then we also found that a 2016 National survey of smallholder farmers and Uganda conducted by the consultative group to assist the poor, 80% of farmer stated that they wanted to keep money aside for crop storage but only 22% were able to do so due to limited financial means. So, this is something that farmers wanted but were unable to do and the reason I bring this up is because this is not something, these farmers didn’t go to get a masters as I did in International Development.

They just knew they needed this and then when we did the research after that we found out well, there’s research to back up what they’re saying. But the cost of us just asking somebody what they thought was a good solution was 0 and the cost that’s put into a lot of research to find the right solutions by development organizations is incredibly high. So, it’s not to say that we shouldn’t do research, but it is to say why don’t we ask first and actually you’re going to find that they’re right and this is what they need and there’s evidence to prove why it’s a good idea. So, to end I am sure it wasn’t as quick as I thought it would be, but you know again, why should we support bottom-up development? And also, I guess we should ask ourselves do we think as businesses? Are we really doing that. And I think most of us think that we are but what kinds of questions are we really asking of our producers? Who are we talking to? You’ll go to any development organization and the word grassroots has become like the word gourmet.

It means nothing. You’re going to see the most top-down development agency saying they support grassroots development. So, just when we really think about what it is. What development it is that we are supporting and what sustainability efforts are we supporting? But is this relevant today? Of course, 30 years ago. I gave an example, but the World Bank, although 10 years ago in a report on development and agriculture of the solutions to rural poverty that were highlighted only one involves small-scale peasant farmers continuing to farm. So, you have a large development organization obviously, very powerful essentially telling us it is not sustainable to be a small-scale farmer and it’s not really a solution to World poverty and as an industry, we depend on 25 million small-scale farmers. So, this should mean something to us and we really should question this and say we want to make it sustainable to be a small scale farmer and we want that to be a solution to rural poverty and so I urge us to, the first thing that we do to ask a small scale farmer how they continue to farm is talk to them and then do what they say.


56:30 José Luis Zárate on how it can still be sustainable to be a small producer in Mexico if we focus on understanding the concept in their language and helping them drive sustainability through their own organizational development

José Luis Zárate: Well in order to save a little bit of time, I’m not going to use my presentation. So, I would like to apologize too because I am going to read because I don’t want to forget what I want to say. So, as you know, I’m not a coffee producer but I have been working with coffee producers for the last 18 years trying to understand the biggest challenges they face in their work and how they define sustainability and I have seen how many cooperatives in Latin America have sought to make a transition from the production of conventional to Specialty coffee and I remember when I started my career in coffee in 2000, one of the first things that they had to learn were concepts that didn’t exist in their language such as a specialty coffee, sugar, and coffee organic, for tray, gourmet, direct trade, micro lots and sustainable coffee. All these terms were confusing for them and it was difficult to know what was more important quality, certification, environment, incomes etc. but the most confusion was to understand between all these qualities which should be included in the formula to prove that they were sustainable coffee producers.

In the year 2000, the summary of the coffee expert workshop promoted by the Commission for environmental cooperation made it clear that from the perspective of the producers, the main objective of their businesses is not to preserve habitats or sensitive ecosystems or to avoid the use of agrochemicals.  All this is very positive, but the producers for them, the main objective for their businesses is to earn a living. So, although some things kept changing since this report, the world’s coffee has become much more sophisticated. The spectrum of the coffee and the specialty coffees has diversified, and the demand of higher quality and consistency has grown.  But, unfortunately, the quality of life of the producers continue to get worse.

After 18 years of becoming promoters of the sustainability concept the producers continue to expect that the incomes they receive for their product will cover their family basic needs, allow them to have money to increase their investment and have money to save.  That is something that is not happening. Growing coffee is a means of subsistence but it is not a means of earning a dignified living in many places in the world. Today the accepted remuneration for coffee production vary considerably but it’s possible to say that currently, Mexico is between US$75 to US$90 US per bag of 100 pounds of green coffee. However, many direct costs to producers and producer organizations at origin are still not included in this formula such as family labor, local transportation, coffee amortization, equipment and tools and other that are necessary to improve the production and quality such as internal control for certification, training, etc. and as an example all cooperatives that I know invest some money in business and organizational development, but it’s not enough. Cooperatives are businesses, but they aren’t run that way or seen that way for the coffee industry.  Many jobs from agricultural technicians to managers are done on a volunteer basis or are paid very little. They work 14 hours per day or more.

Currently, there are businesses models that track outstanding quality coffee from the best origin regions. Sometimes through direct trade, micro lots or options and also apparently some families end up receiving good incomes for their coffee. They can only sell 10, 20 % of their product in these conditions and the rest is sold in conventional market conditions because this isn’t just a niche market. It’s very small and it’s not for everyone. What many people don’t know is that the vast majority of small scale producers can sell their coffee because they are members of a cooperative. They are members of a community and the community is a unity.  But once they begin to differentiate themselves by their capacity for selling micro lots they stop being part of that unit because they sell their coffee out of the cooperative. Sometimes for a year, two or three. So, we need to think critically about micro lots and niche market markets in coffee because they are not synonymous of sustainability.

There are people who don’t believe that producing coffee is not the business for producer because they say if producing coffee is not profitable why they are continue growing it. But, in Mexico some cooperatives already defined the concept of sustainability. I have heard many producers/leaders say that it’s neither possible nor ethical to speak of sustainable coffee production when the lie of the producers is not sustainable. In 2000 a study carried out in Veracruz Mexico showed that coffee producers for them, the most important thing in plots is not necessarily coffee. This study found that in a typical coffee plot there are more than 136 species of plants, insects, mushrooms, reptiles and other animals. Many of them are edible. In addition, they have trees which would serves as fuel or build houses, tools or other objects, coffee production is impossible to [1:01:40 inaudible], at least with current incomes, but agroecological production systems allow producers to obtain medicines, food, fuel, work and family coexistence.

So, considering sustainability from this live reality cooperatives at origin are shifting the way they think about production and sustainability. They are [1:02:06 inaudible] the idea that coffee is the most important thing. For a coffee person family Mexico for example, the new parody of the concept of sustainability must include people’s quality life. This means being able to produce or buy enough food, being able to pay their health expenses when it’s necessary, living without fear of insecurity and violence so that they can keep their families together without having to emigrate means not to depend exclusively on income from coffee to support a family and finally they need the guarantee that in the value change of coffee they are treated with equity and justice and that the profit margins for each person in the change are fair and ethical.

So, producers need to learn how to become better producers. Everybody says that that’s true, but they also need the financial resources and administrative support in order to build resilient organizations. So, what the coffee industry can do in order to help. One- cooperatives are businesses. just like any other business that require efficient leadership and communication. In other words, they need organizational development. The industry can support projects related to this area and second sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s also about livelihoods and it is necessary to objectively and critically investigate the real cost of producing coffee and do something about it. Thank you very much.


1:05:45 How do we balance bottom-up development with interrogating power structures that are in each place that we work?

Nora Burkey: Alright, so some time for questions.

Attendee 1: Hi, so this is a question for kind of each panelist. So, when we talk about sustainability, it has to include kind of people at the margins. So, how do we balance bottom-up development with interrogating power structures that are in each place that we work?

Sarah Grant: I think this is a bit of a cop-out answer, but I think understanding what the power structure in a particular place is because I think those power structures are very, very different. In Vietnam you’re talking about a socialist economy that’s very market-oriented and power there exists in this very specific way that’s I’m sure very, very different from the other case studies. So, I mean I think first is knowing what the power structure is and what space you occupy within that power structure before you even go about thinking through what is inherently top-down and yeah, that’s my starting point.

Nora Burkey: Yeah, I would just say quickly with our partners. I think it’s a conversation that we have that’s open because there’s power structures for Uganda for example that I don’t understand that our partners do and there’s power structures that I’m dealing with that our partners don’t understand and I do so, navigating that together for particular projects is something that we constantly deal with. Just, for example a school project that we did. There was different power structures between, it’s a really religious community that wanted the school to be run by the church and the government doesn’t allow certain types of schools, doesn’t support certain types of schools if they are built by the church. But, you know, they had to sort of navigate within their Community those power structures and also what the community wanted. On my end we’re not a religious organization and the power structures that I’m managing, raising money, I can’t necessarily as easily raise money for a church-run school. So, you know we had to have that conversation of what’s more important to you and what is it that you want and be open about making kind of decisions within those power structures that exist. So, it’s a very practical example, but discussion is the key.

José Luis Zárate: Well, in my personal opinion, coffee is super complex and there is not one solution. It’s situational so the most important thing is trying to understand what is the context of the community and partners around these coffee-producing organization or business and trying to fire a solution together. But sometimes in my perception the coffee industry is forgetting that everybody is our partners. So, we have responsibility about this business. It’s not just the responsibility of one people, one person I’m sorry and it’s freaky to listen to this concept of chain of value but we are not in the same chain of value. There’s different chains of value and the changed value in which the producers are is a small one, so we have to think on that. If we say that we are together it is because we are together.


1:09:45 Why can’t specialty coffee buyers pay sustainable prices for coffees that aren’t top specialty lots?

Attendee 2: First of all, thank you. I really enjoyed everybody’s presentation and there’s sort of two themes that I’m going away with and I wanted to share my thinking on that and I kind of want to ask the industry to think about these things. One is the theme that I first picked up on is we’re talking about relational coordination within the coffee industry and I don’t know that there’s awareness of that concept enough. The small-scale producers who don’t speak English rarely have a seat really at the table, like really seriously have a seat at the table and the farm workers aren’t even talked about hardly at all. There’s beginning to be some conversation and even small scale producers need to pay some farm workers and/or have their families unpaid. So, I’d really like to encourage us to start thinking about that. How do we get all those voices heard so that it’s maybe not top-down bottom-up, but we’re all together with a seat at this table and then the other thing that I heard everybody mention was there’s specialty coffee and there’s commercial grade coffee and very few people can sell 100% of their coffee at specialty prices.

It’s not all cupped at 88 and above and people are willing to pay for the quality coffee but not necessarily for a sustainable coffee at that price. But, even when the commodity coffee is picked, and the farm workers and farmers are treated respectfully. For all of that coffee why pay more or not have a bottom price for all of that coffee? And I know there’s this return on investment concept. How do you other than just it’s the right thing to do? I would love to hear the industry give ideas of what would be the return on investment for you. Tell the producers what you want, and then maybe we can have that conversation together. I know that’s not really a question, but if you had any comments on that or if you’ve seen that conversation out there, and I’m just missing it. I’d love to hear about it. Thank you.

Kate Fischer: No, I mean, I think we’re here because that conversation, it happens in certain spaces and then it becomes like preaching to the choir. You’re all here because you care about this and then where’s everybody else? Like obviously there’s 8,000 events and that’s where they are but you’re all here choosing to hear this and so I’ve a lot of things I could say on all of that. One is yeah, I mean absolutely there is no specialty coffee without commodity coffee and we spent a lot of time and this doesn’t make any sense that if you are more selective at some point in the process and you sell more of your coffee to the commodity coyote then you have less volume for specialty but the score is higher so your price is higher and that just makes zero sense. If you haven’t been to one of these sorts of things which is expensive to get to and you need a visa, and you need to speak English and you need to do all of these other things and even the conference’s that happen in “origin” can be expensive and then yeah, just thinking about this, what should people do. I have often kind of thought and this is a serious overgeneralization that it’s the half in, half out. that’s the issue.

Either get all the way out and don’t ask questions and just buy it or get all the way in and it’s when you’re kind of in and you show up sometimes and you’re interested and there’s kind of a relationship but it’s not really a true relationship and like this year you want a natural and next year you’re not sure and you want maybe a mild sort of honey and then you’re kind of going back and forth. That’s where it gets very stressful and also maybe the issue is saying maybe the customer should not be in charge of things.

The customer’s always right, no they’re not actually. and even if they are, why did they get to decide it and I don’t know, I know there’s a whole lot of rules about talking about price and this is my personal dream world in which everybody ignored those rules and maybe just agreed that there we should all have $8 cups of coffee. We can’t do that because that’s price-fixing, but we can think about what would it take to sell that and maybe if you just can’t buy a $2.00 cup of coffee, figure it out. I don’t know. That’s treading on the line of what I’m allowed to talk about, but I do wonder, the customer doesn’t really care half the time to know who you’re selling to. So, really can they taste the difference between ’84 and ’87. Some of them can.  A lot of them are like, oh good. It’s coffee, let me put some milk in it.


1:14:15 Mentorship and a succession plan is important for keeping impactful projects at origin going after the western Program Manager leaves

Attendee 3: Hey, I just wanted to say I’m Peter I live here trying to do the direct import. I just want to say thank you once again. I think it’s very humbling, but she just stole the question I was going to ask is the disconnect between and I think that’s what you’ve done like the work you’ve done in Uganda. The work you’ve done in South America and then Vietnam and then for Mexico. I think for me it was, what would you say the breakdown is and I really feel it’s the communication between the producer and the buyer and if you look at basically what you’re really doing, you’re not going and creating, the stores was not there or anything. It’s just that you’re able to communicate effectively to the people who are there and one thing that I want to encourage you is they’re great people like you who go there and make an impact but the day you decide to come back and live with your family that process breaks. So, one of the things that I would really encourage is that maybe pick a local right.

Try to pick a local and mentor him through the process and especially this would be the youth. You might find the most hardworking person because I’m one of the ones who are trying to move back to Kenya because when I see what you’ve done, but I know there’s a huge disconnect. I love that this country is so efficient that I don’t have to think about other things and all I need to do is maybe speak to a way that people can understand me but that’s not something they understand. So, that’s what I just wanted to just share with you, and you know the mentorship and the succession plan. Bake that in because how I realize my grandmother who was illiterate but read the Bible, is those a missionary who came and listened to her and translated it and that’s why they are a lot of Christians in Africa who don’t speak English and I think that’s the same concept. I would actually just encourage whenever you go maybe try to audit those things into the local language, but grow them into and see what fits in based on the buyers.

Kate Fischer: Yeah, I mean this this stuff isn’t easy Sarah and I have PhDs in a field that is essentially how to talk to people and we get it wrong and so, I think part of it is also not being afraid of failing at it as long as you’re really trying and coming at it from a real place and also recognizing that there’s tons of information on this stuff out there and  going back to, we lost Lucia but coming back to her point about sharing and not being afraid to share, “Oh, this has really worked,” and some things translate super well across contexts and some things have to be absolutely pinned to that one place. You’re not going to know what that is unless you talk to other people who have done it and share all that knowledge so, maybe a little less proprietary on some of that stuff might be good.

Nora Burkey: Yeah, and just lastly to your point about having local mentorship. Yeah, absolutely that’s the key and I think very unfortunately often, we come here to SCA as representatives of the people that we really wish could be here in our place but yeah, that’s something we do, and I would love to connect with you. If you also have advice on how to improve the mentorship that we do. So, yeah come talk to me.


1:17:30 To what extent are organizations supporting producers at origin changing unhelpful power structures or reinforcing them?

Attendee 4: Hi, my name is Megan Montgomery. I’m a graduate student at the University of Montana and just finished my fieldwork in Oaxaca working with a Cooperativa called Uno Cafe that works with AMSA but have a general question for all of you in the work that you’ve done in different contexts with these organizations that are trying to understand those power structures, political, economic, ecological that really constrain what people can do and respond to those. To what extent do you feel even these organizations with the best intentions really are just replicating those power structures and to what extent they are pushing against them to try and change either because it’s just not realistic to push against them or don’t have that kind of concept of what a bottom-up model really would look like. Just kind of struggling with that in the data that I’m sifting through right now.

José Luis Zárate: I’m sorry. Probably I didn’t understand very well the question, but I just want to say that Oaxaca, if as you know, Oaxaca you know that Oaxaca is another country. We had 16 different languages in the state, 16 different ways of thinking so even if it’s good to have a model and to have certain guidelines that can guide an organization is important to think in the context because another way you are not going to be successful. Is that something that answer your question or not?

Attendee 4: Kind of yeah to the extent that I guess the organization that I was working with, it is Oaxaca and they work at a statewide level in all 16 different sort of ethnic groups or identities within the state and every region has their own contextual abilities.

José Luis Zárate: Yes. Well, I need something that is not going to change in the short and medium term. It’s a long process. I’m talking about development and development is something that takes a lot of time and investment in many senses. So, I know that probably for you some of the changes can look super slow but in Oaxaca and in other parts in Mexico and Latin America create this level of changes, it’s a success. It’s a big success and suddenly something is going to happen. So, for example in Veracruz Mexico, and I put some examples about that. I started working with an organization in Veracruz and they started at the same level that some other cooperatives in Oaxaca, but right now they are super successful, and they develop their organization. They have this vision to create a different structure in which they have really good skills in terms of leadership, communication, teamwork. So, it’s going to take time, it’s going to take time and in some cases they are going to fail. That’s a reality too. I know some people that they were growers, coffee growers were many, many years. Their whole life and they have to stop because it’s impossible to leave from coffee and also because their cooperatives didn’t grow and in the good direction.

Nora Burkey: Okay, I’m going to have to go to something else right now. But yeah, no I would just say for me that’s a constant question, sort of reproducing the same power structures or you know doing things that I think is that really against kind of what I believe that I would just say even for coffee businesses that want to make change. I think this system that we live in in order to be profitable, for us in order to raise money. it’s like you had to play the game even though you hate it and I think that that’s a challenge and so I think kind of policy change and understanding that actually maybe to be sustainable in this industry means that the way things are now having to totally change because it’s not going to be profitable for anybody to be sustainable actually. We need to stop saying there’s a business case for this because there actually isn’t unless business changes and the way we do business. So, that’s my last statement, but I have to go so if anybody else wants to keep talking, please do.

1:22:20 Outro

Heather Ward: That was Nora Burkey, Lucia Solis, José Luis Zárate, Dr. Kate Fischer, and Dr. Sarah Grant at Expo in 2018. Remember to check our show notes for a full transcript of this lecture and visit worldofcoffee.org for tickets to this year’s event.

This has been an episode of the SCA Podcast. Thank you for joining us!

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