June 21, 2016

The 20/20 Project: Why Sustainable Coffee Means Listening to Farmers


Specialty coffee loves sustainability – but it’s something that can be easier to talk about than to actually accomplish. Global market forces, poor infrastructure, environmental changes, and more can be barriers to eco-friendly and economically viable farming practices. And an even bigger problem is the lack of understanding as to what “sustainable” even means.

The 20/20 Project is tackling this issue head on in coffee communities in Asia and Africa. Their mission is to achieve sustainable and equitable coffee production that links the producer, roaster, and consumer. And, most importantly, they’re asking farmers what sustainable means to them.

In one small coffee community in Nepal, they’ve arranged for 10,000 Red Caturra coffee trees to be planted over the last six months. Soon they’ll begin training for the 300 farmers on climate-smart agricultural strategies. These initiatives should enable the farmers to producer larger quantities of higher-quality coffee – something which could bring about a lasting change in the lives of the community.

Read on to discover more…

SEE ALSO: Specialty or Marketability: What Are We Really Selling?

Farmers in the Kaski District of Nepa

Farmers in the Kaski District of Nepal build a polytunnel with The 20:20 Project’s guidance. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

How Sustainable Is Your Coffee Really?

There’s an appetite for ethical consumption, but it’s challenging to move from shadow to substance, from idea to impact. It’s true that “sustainability” has flavored the conversation in the coffee sector for decades – but this buzzword can, at times, have more of an impact on the marketing of the coffee than on the lives of the people producing it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t companies and organisations making a difference; in fact, there are many of them. However, the wide-ranging application of words such as sustainable and ethical often leaves people confused as to what they actually mean – and how much of an effect the business is really having at origin.

In Ireland alone, 36% of consumers indicate that they want to commit their loyalty to a coffee brand with ethical accreditation. Globally, Nielsen found that 55% of consumers are willing to pay more. A significant proportion of the market is conscious of issues with sustainability and so are looking for evidence of brands delivering real, demonstrable, impact. But it’s a struggle to find.

That evidence would be easier to spot if consumers knew what they were looking for. It would also be easier for organisations to achieve if they knew what it meant.


Pokhara, a city near The 20:20 Project’s site. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

The Need for Sustainability

Sustainable practices are not only wanted but desperately needed. Half of the world’s 25 million coffee growers earn significantly less per day than you or I would spend on a single coffee. It’s clear that it’s time for a change – and that we have the power to impact it.

There’s a chain connecting all of us in the coffee sector. At one end is the consumer and at the other the rural farmer who produces the bean that becomes our daily routine. But there’s a disconnect between the consumers’ end of the coffee chain and the daily reality for the millions of farmers in communities where coffee is grown. One end of the chain is resource rich; the other often resource poor.

Only by defining, and then demanding, sustainability can the chain can be improved.

Red Caturra coffee cherries

Red Caturra coffee cherries – the fruit of farmers’ work. Will they be the seeds for change too? Credit: The 20/20 Project.

Listening to Farmers’ Definitions of Sustainability

The 20/20 Project takes a new approach. It’s engaged with, listened to, and learned from the men and women who grow coffee. These farmers have told them their needs and, together, they are working to address them.

Where we, in high-income countries, talk about “sustainable development”, the smallholder farmers The 20/20 Project works with have no such phrase. But what we struggle to define, they articulate clearly.

They simply say that they are passionate about producing better and better coffee – but they also see the environmental and market challenges ahead. Climate change, diseases, pest migration, and price fluctuations all threaten supply and quality. This, in turn, threatens to force families out of coffee growing and into deeper poverty.

The farmers want their families to remain and have a future in farming. Like the rest of us, they need to provide for their loved ones, give their children an education, and look after the health of their communities. To do this, they need better skills, increased knowledge, better health, and more stable livelihoods that can provide for their families. They need to be equipped to adapt to a changing climate. They don’t call it “sustainable development”, but that’s what it is.

Meeting these needs and aspirations isn’t expensive, but it requires partnering with the farmers.

Red Caturra coffee in the new polytunnel.

Women plant Red Caturra coffee in the new polytunnel. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

The 20/20 Project: A Force for Change

The 20/20 Project was initiated specifically to work with smallholder coffee producers who grow coffee on less than three hectares and are living below the poverty line. Its aim is to effect the hopes and requirements of both ends of the coffee chain – in short, to create the sustainable farming that is so desperately needed.

Part of this is listening to, and working with, producing communities. But The 20/20 Project needs to do more than just listen; they also need the know-how and capacity to create change.

Fortunately, while the organisation may be young, it’s based on 140 years of experience in poverty-reduction initiatives in coffee-growing communities. They apply their expertise to address locally identified issues in a way that will realise a long-lasting impact.

The Nepalese Community Impacted by The 20/20 Project

Coffee production is in its infancy in Nepal. It’s also been slow to take off, being hampered by a changing climate that has brought with it pests, such as the White Stem Borer, which have devastated harvests in recent years. But it also has the potential to make a real difference to farmers’ lives.

On the shady side of a hill near Pokhara in the Kaski District of Nepal, at roughly 1,300 metres above sea level, there sits a small rural community. It’s one of the communities that The 20/20 Project has been working with.


This small village is part of the coffee community partnering with The 20:20 Project. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

The majority of the 300 farmers here grow small amounts of coffee, between 3 to 50 plants. But working in partnership with The 20/20 Project, they have recently planted 10,000 Arabica Red Caturra cultivar coffee trees.

The next step is for these farmers to receive training at a brand new educational facility. They will learn strategies to improve the yield and quality of their coffee. The training will also focus on both long-term and short-term approaches to mitigating the impact of changing climatic conditions.

These strategies are simple, straightforward, and cost-effective. Shade trees, for example, can be planted alongside the coffee trees to help maintain a controlled temperature in the understory, where coffee grows. And beyond the environmental aspect, there’s an economic benefit: the orange and lentil shade trees will also provide alternative sources of food and income for families.

taking soil samples in preparation for the coffee planting

Kyle Petrie takes soil samples in preparation for planting coffee trees. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

The 20/20 Project is also working with the community on initiatives specific to their needs. The families talk about wanting to be “healthy”, and about how they are affected by a range of diseases, conditions, and disabilities. In addition to the human right to health, healthy communities are more productive ones. As of such, health initiatives are essential to reversing this cycle of poverty.

Sunita Sunar is one of the people who have benefited from the initiatives The 20/20 Project has been working on with the community. After falling ill, Sunita, aged 26, lost her ability to earn an income, and with a three-year-old daughter to support, this was particularly difficult. But thanks to a partner organisation of The 20/20 Project in Pokhara, Nepal, Sunita has received the health care she needed. She is now employed in the nursery where the 10,000 coffee trees have been planted, and where she is learning new skills and earning an income to support her daughter.

coffee worker in Nepal

Sunita working in the coffee nursery, having recovered from her illness. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

Communicating Sustainability to Consumers

The 20/20 Project connects, in tangible ways, consumers in high-income countries with coffee-growing farmers in Ethiopia and Nepal. Their logo on a packet, menu or shop window indicates that the roaster or coffee shop in question recognises these benefits and is partnering in and financially supporting this programme.  

One of those Roasters, Stephen McCabe of McCabe’s Coffee, says:

“We used to work with other charities, but we felt we never had a direct link to where the money was going. The 20/20 Project is a fantastic way to have a direct link to a coffee community in its infancy. Working with them has been great fun, from hulling the first sample of Nepalese coffee on our boardroom table before roasting to seeing photos of the project each step of the way. It’s great to see exactly how we and our customers are helping to grow a small community of coffee growers at the foothills of the Himalayas!”

the 20/20 project

The 20/20 Project logo – a sign of sustainability, as defined by producing communities. Credit: The 20/20 Project.

The drive towards ethical practices in specialty coffee is one of the things that makes it so great. As the industry continues to evolve, we must continue to work to ensure producers reap the benefits of their hard work. This means we must listen to them, we must engage with them, and we must work together with them to realise their aspirations.

The 20/20 Project is named for equity, for future harvests, and for perfect vision. Here’s to seeing a truly sustainable future.

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