We live in a region where packed coffee shops butt up against tech giants and global-health organizations at practically every turn. It’s a unique combination and one that’s sparking new ideas for how to leverage the international coffee industry for the greater good.
“Coffee can be a great way to stimulate economies,” says Kristen Dailey, executive director of Global Washington — a membership organization for Washington nonprofits working internationally.
Dailey points out that most coffee-producing regions are in developing countries, making the coffee industry — which is growing — an increasing focus for Washington nonprofits working on global poverty issues.
“The NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] we work with really do work to organize the [coffee] farmer for better wages, to form co-ops … so that [farmers] can really get the economies of scale going,” explains Dailey. She says these organizations aren’t just trying to combat exploitation, but to find ways poor coffee producers might benefit more from the coffee industry.
This weekend Seattle will host the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) annual conference at the Convention Center. It’s one of the biggest international coffee conferences in the world.
Samantha Veide, “Sustainability Council” chair of the SCAA, says addressing poverty among coffee growers and farmers and providing opportunity in poor, coffee-producing countries is crucial to her industry’s future.
“Many of us realize the very survival of the coffee industry relies on vulnerable communities around the world,” says Veide, “If we’re going to survive and thrive as an industry we have to address development issues”
In the past, Fair Trade certification — a process that guarantees farmers a minimum price and links them directly with importers, cutting out potentially exploitative middlemen — was considered the answer to ensuring global coffee producers a good living. But now, says Veide, it’s only part of a bigger picture.
“For a while we relied almost exclusively on certifications,” says Veide, adding that certification can’t address all the issues facing the global industry, including the rights of farm laborers, gender inequality and an extremely volatile market, “[Certifications] are not a panacea themselves; they are part of the solution,” she said.
Dr. Sue Jackels, who teaches chemistry at Seattle University and has been working with small coffee farmers in Nicaragua for more than a decade, couldn’t agree more. She’s used her chemistry background to help these farmers improve the quality, consistency and environmental sustainability of their coffee while also building a direct import relationship with the farmers who, starting this year, will supply coffee to food services and stores at Seattle University.
“The project that we’re doing now seeks to import coffee under conditions that improve the fairness of fair trade,” says Jackels who is also working with SU students to develop a brand for the Nicaraguan coffee, “Café Ambiental.”
Across town, the Grameen Foundation is trying to scale some of those same ideas — but across all of Latin America.
“The coffee sector is growing; demand is increasing day by day,” says Alberto Solano, CEO for the Americas at Grameen, explaining that Starbucks alone has plans for expansion around the world.
To Solano that means opportunity for rural farmers living in extreme poverty in coffee-producing regions. But getting those farmers growing coffee that will do well in a market that increasingly demands high quality and ethical sourcing can be challenging.
That’s why Grameen has developed a mobile technology — a comprehensive survey filled out via phone by community workers in coffee-growing areas — that helps pinpoint exactly where small farmers might need help, especially as they try to achieve “Fair Trade” or “Organic” certification or sell their coffee to a major buyer such as Starbucks (which partnered with Grameen on the project).
Solano says that successfully connecting farmers with markets is a crucial way to ensure that it’s not only big plantations that benefit from the coffee boom. But, he says, it’s just as important to connect consumers with the communities that produced their morning latte.
“There’s a human story behind each cup that people don’t really understand,” says Solano.
Not yet, but hopefully we’re getting closer.