Helping Coffee Farmers Turns Competitors into Colleagues
Helping Coffee Farmers Turns Competitors into Colleagues
This post by Eril Mandell orginally appeared on Mercy Corps' Global Envision blog.
"If coffee farmers can’t adequately feed their families, they’re unlikely to be able to take care of the plants that produce the high-quality coffee beans importers want.
That’s one reason a group of competitors are coming together as colleagues in addressing hunger issues in coffee-growing communities. The Coffeelands Food Security Coalition is comprised of six coffee companies—Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Starbucks, Counter Culture, Farmer Brothers, S&D Coffee, and Sustainable Harvest—partnering to fight hunger and expand economic opportunities for coffee-producing families through its inaugural project, a three-year program in Nicaragua called "Empowering Food Secure Communities."
The coalition recognizes that challenges facing families and communities make it hard for farming families to thrive and to produce the best quality product. The coalition emerged from a long-time commitment by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) to prevent seasonal hunger and diversify income generation in the communities where they source their coffee. Global Envision interviewed Rick Peyser, Director of Supply Chain and Community Outreach for GMCR, about working with competitors to improve conditions in coffee-growing regions and challenges facing the industry. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Global Envision: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) has been involved in partnerships to address hunger in coffee-sourcing regions for many years. How does the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition differ from previous work related to this issue? How did past partnerships or programs contribute to the development of this program?
Rick Peyser: Other than disaster relief, the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition is the first pre-competitive initiative GMCR has participated in with others in the specialty coffee industry to fund a project focused on improving the quality of life for coffee farming families at the household level. GMCR's focus on food security projects in coffee communities over the past 5 years has led us to see the tremendous value in collaboration.
Food security, like climate change, clean water, and other pressing challenges, are too large for any single company to solve by itself. A broader approach is called for, and collaboration that brings together a variety of players in and adjacent to the supply chain makes sense to us.
In a recent interview with The Specialty Coffee Chronicle you discussed your many past roles with GMCR and in the coffee industry. What's been your favorite or most unique role? Can you speak about what factors over time have contributed to such a strong CSR focus for GMCR and the development of your personal passion in this area?
Perhaps my most rewarding role is the one I currently hold within GMCR - Director of Supply Chain Community Outreach. I have been with GMCR for over 25 years, and have always been drawn to small-scale coffee farming families - the source of most of the fine coffees we purchase and roast.
During interviews with coffee farmers in Nicaragua in 2007, one farmer after another in community after community told me that his/her family suffered from three to four months of extreme scarcity of food each year during what is known as "los meses flacos" (the thin months), which come after the harvest ends. Hearing this directly from farmers changed not only GMCR's approach to Corporate Social Responsibility interventions, but me personally.
I became convinced that before we could begin to address coffee quality, we had to address the issue of food security that is fundamental to health, human energy, and life. I also recognized that if farmers could not adequately feed themselves and their families, they were not going to feed their coffee plants that would ultimately provide us with high quality coffee that we rely on.
Since these interviews, GMCR has focused on helping farming families develop on-the-farm resiliency, with a primary focus on food security.
At the 2010 Sustainable Agriculture Conference you talked about a pilot project in partnership with CECOCAFEN in Nicaragua. How does the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition build upon lessons learned from partnerships such as that, for example? What has worked well? What has been a challenge?
Since 2007, GMCR has partnered with CECOCAFEN to implement a pilot food security project in northern Nicaragua. During a small 20-person "strategic summit" attended by coffee farmers, cooperative management, and local NGOs, two strategies were adopted to overcome these months of food insecurity:
1) Diversify farmers' coffee parcels to grow food crops for family consumption and additional income;
2) Grow and store basic grains.
CECOCAFEN offered families a broad menu of activities from which to choose for their own farm - everything from making marmalades to family gardens; from growing cacao to fruits and vegetables to sell at the local market. Last August I spent a week conducting interviews with farmers to hear directly from them what has really changed at the household level due to their participation in this project. For example, one family started a passion fruit project that is now providing them with twice as much income as their coffee. This has completely closed the window of food insecurity for this family, and has created employment opportunities for their small community. Despite these successes, it is clear that more is needed. So far the project has reached about 20 percent of CECOCAFEN's total membership of over 2,000, and it is continuing to expand.
This is the first coffee coalition that has the express goal of bringing coffee companies together to combat a really tough problem—hunger—in the regions where you source your beans. I imagine working with companies that are typically considered your competitors is challenging.
The reality is that “competitors” have become colleagues as we have approached the work of this coalition together as a group.
As members of this coalition, we have developed a high level of trust, comfort, and confidence in working together to tackle the challenge of chronic seasonal hunger in coffee communities. With this compelling focus, it has been far easier than I think any of us may have expected to work with our “competitors.”
What are the benefits of a program like this for GMCR? How does diversifying income for families in coffee-sourcing communities impact your supply chain?
GMCR is interested in helping coffee farming families become more resilient at the household level, to not just survive, but to thrive under all economic, social, and environmental conditions. Most coffee farming families are dependent upon coffee as their only source of income. In fact, many do not grow their own food, but instead, rely on income from coffee to purchase food. In a time of low prices, or low production, their food security is in jeopardy.
Food insecurity is only one challenge many coffee farming families face. In addition, there is often limited if any access to potable water, water for drip irrigation of coffee and vegetable gardens, and limited access to health care, education, financing, and more. At the same time there is an aging coffee farming population with increasing migration of young people to urban centers. If young people do not see a future in coffee, they will leave coffee and their communities."
To read the rest of this internview with Ricky Peyser, visit Mercy Corps' Global Envision blog.