Each year, we earmark $1 from each pound of Iridescent sold for a special project fund. Projects vary year-to-year, but the overall concept stays the same: a focus on increasing the resilience of coffee farmers and their communities. Last year, we used the funds to host Climate Change Adaptation Workshops with some of our producer-partners. This year, we’re using the Iridescent money to fund three projects that will increase farmers’ access to the market.
Access to the market has historically been limited for most coffee farmers. A lot of it has to do with the origins of the coffee trade—coffee was one of the products, like spices and metals for example, that drove European countries to seek power in foreign lands during the colonial era. In some regions, coffee was already under production as a crop, but in many cases, colonial powers intentionally introduced coffee and set-up the trade infrastructure to source it from these equatorial regions to Europe for consumption. Which is to say that, even from the beginning, coffee farmers had little information or choice about where their coffee was sold and consumed. This information imbalance persists in the coffee market today, and means that even when there are many potential buyers for their coffee, farmers often don’t have the information, infrastructure, or communication tools needed to assess the value of their coffee, make informed economic decisions about their farm, or reach new prospective buyers.
There is no “best” way to remedy this imbalance and no quick path to changing this systematic issue that, in many ways, is at the heart of the challenges faced by the coffee industry. Our relatively small project budget is not going to fix the problem, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to shift this balance in the supply chains where we have some influence. This can mean changing our own practices, like getting actionable information back to farmers when we cup their coffee, and, as is the case with Iridescent 2018, it can also mean direct investment in our producer-partners. This year, the Iridescent funds will go towards three projects that increase market access:
1. A portion of the money will go towards the construction and outfitting of a cupping lab in Embu, Kenya. Kenya has a somewhat unique setup for buying and selling coffee, and the system as it exists today often results in farmers and farmer organizations selling their coffee and not receiving payment or feedback on it until after the coffee is sold at an auction. The feedback—on quality tiers, defects, cup scores, etc.—is often not very detailed and does not substantially help farmers understand what to do differently with their harvest for the next season in order to receive higher prices. This, along with their inability to choose, or even talk with whoever bought their coffee that year, in combination with the fluctuation in auction prices, puts many Kenyan coffee farmers at a disadvantage.
One of the ways to correct this particular imbalance is to give farmers more feedback on
the quality of their coffee—specifically what practices they can change to increase the volume of their harvest that gets sold in the highest price tiers. In order to facilitate this type of information access, Peter Mbature, manager of the Kamavindi Estate in Embu, Kenya and quality director of the Kushikamana group in the Mt. Kenya region, is using Iridescent project funds to help construct and outfit a cupping lab on his property. With this lab, Peter, a recently-certified Q grader, wants to teach farmers about physical and cup quality analysis of coffee and how they can use it to get a better understanding of the practices on their farm. He also plans to use the lab to host members of the Kushikamana group and other area farmers and school children to help foster an interest in growing coffee, and buyers to increase the ease of forming direct partnerships rather than relying solely on the auction system. In Peter’s own words, “If a farmer doesn’t know the cup quality of their coffee, first they can’t have bargaining power. They can’t say my coffee is good, my coffee is bad. So they need to first understand the quality of their coffee to be able to negotiate for better prices. Then, it’s also not possible for them to improve quality because they don’t know where the problem is. It makes it more of a gamble to invest more in the coffee to bring it to specialty level because you don’t know what you need to do. So, the lab will minimize the risk of loss for the farmers and so that they will invest more knowing what they want at the end of the day.”
2. The farmers of the newly-formed Jabanto group in Ethiopia will use their funds to rent an office space, purchase office equipment, and, most importantly, set up internet access. Somewhat similar to Kenya, Ethiopia also has a centralized system for buying and selling coffee called the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (or ECX). Last year, the Ethiopian government changed their rules to allow smallholder farmers to sell their coffee through the Exchange directly and traceably, as well as to export on their own. Previously, only cooperatives had these privileges, and so many smallholder farmers had to sell their coffee through these cooperatives. With these new changes, some smallholder farmers are choosing to remain members of these cooperatives (for myriad reasons), while others want to sell and export independently.
Being independent, however, also presents new challenges. In order to tackle some of these challenges together, about 30 farmers from the Gedeo zone have joined together to form the Jabanto group. One of the biggest challenges for this group is lack of access to communication infrastructure. While many towns in the Gedeo zone have broadband internet access, most coffee-producing areas do not, which makes selling and exporting coffee very difficult. In order to address this challenge, Jabanto is using their Iridescent money to fund the rental and outfitting of a shared office space. Having a computer and internet access will not only help these farmers find additional buyers and facilitate the logistics of exporting their coffee, it will also give them access to national and international market information to inform their pricing decisions, information about new agronomic technologies, and the ability to communicate—in their own words—the stories they want to tell about their coffee.
3. When our quality control team evaluates green (unroasted) coffee, they’re looking at a number of characteristics: flavor, consistency, physical integrity, etc. Each formal evaluation produces a mini-report for that coffee that details those characteristics and also provides a numerical score that represents a composite of said characteristics. This scoring system is used throughout specialty coffee—although ours varies slightly—and often becomes the default for communicating about the quality level of a given sample of green coffee. This means that purchasing and pricing decisions, whether the buyer is making them based on that score alone or not, are often communicated to farmers that way—”We couldn’t buy your coffee because it was an 83” or “We will pay you a premium on top of the base price because your coffee scored an 88”.
While using a concise, quantitative, reasonably consistent method to communicate quality has proven a useful tool for some parts of the coffee supply chain, it doesn’t exactly translate into anything meaningful or actionable for farmers. Even when a farmer knows what their coffee scored in a given year, that number alone doesn’t indicate what was good or bad about the coffee. For example, maybe it had good flavors but a lot of underripe beans and therefore the farmer could know what to do differently—better picking, in this case—to get a higher score, and (hopefully) a higher price per pound.
That brings us to Angela Patiño Findlay, who, along with her husband Carlos, is working to develop new supply chains for Counter Culture in Nariño, Colombia. Angela and Carlos buy cherry from small farmers in Santa Maria and Santa Fe to process and dry at their family farm as well as work with Pastoral Social, the organization supporting the Borderlands associations, which produce our Kuichi, Urcunina, Cueva de los Llanos, and Nuevo Amanecer coffees. Angela’s primary role is cupping and evaluating the coffees, which, as discussed above, informs both purchasing decisions and, in a good supply chain, farmer feedback. Angela is an experienced cupper, but wants to learn more about how what she sees and tastes on the cupping table is tied to practices that happen at the farm level like picking, washing, and drying. To do so, Angela will be receiving Iridescent funds to take professional-level classes on coffee processing and formal coffee evaluation. She wants to use what she learns in those classes to think about what they can do at their lab in order to give farmers better information about their coffee and how they can make improvements to practices that will help them sell higher volumes of higher-quality coffee. She then plans to hold workshops for farmers to share more about the process of how a coffee is evaluated—in other words, how is that score determined—as well as how certain farm practices can impact that number, all with the goal of demystifying the coffee evaluation process and making it a tool that not only helps buyers make purchasing decisions, but also provides farmers with actionable information.