October 12, 2016

Opinion: Coffee Farming Communities Need More Than Direct Trade


Quick, what’s the most pressing issue for smallholder farmers in coffee-producing countries? Is it access to healthcare, educational opportunities, or credit? Could it be legal aid or a way to get their products to market? Or is it something more fundamental, like clean water or sanitary facilities which help lower the risk of preventable diseases?

If there is a single silver bullet to ending systemic poverty, it hasn’t been found yet.

In most cases, the causes of underdevelopment are many – and so the solutions have to be as well. We specialty coffee lovers are fond of direct trade. But while it can have a significant impact on a producer’s life, it won’t build much-needed infrastructure or train medical professionals.

One NGO has been working to support coffee-farming communities. Direct trade is just one of many approaches it takes. Here’s how its holistic model aims to make a long-term impact.

SEE ALSO: Interview: Is a Direct Trade Collective the Best Model for Small Farmers?


What’s the impact of development at the individual and family level?

A Multi-Pronged Approach to Development

If the causes of poverty are many, that doesn’t mean they’re disconnected. That was the lesson Global Brigades volunteers learned back in 2005.

Back then, the organization consisted of medical students traveling to Honduras to provide services for rural communities. Realizing that many of the illnesses they were seeing could be prevented if clean water and sanitary facilities were available, Water and Public Health Brigades were created to address these issues. The impact was double: preventable diseases dropped and students from a wider set of disciplines could participate.

Today, student-run chapters across six countries coordinate with in-country staff on development projects. They organize trips to Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, and Ghana, where they work within one of eight particular disciplines, including microfinance and engineering.


Doctors, students, and community members at a medical brigade in Honduras.

3 Pillars for Successful Development

The best of intentions doesn’t guarantee success. New schools without teachers to staff them, mosquito nets being used to catch fish… there are countless stories of development projects gone awry. To avoid this, Global Brigades adheres to three principles.

1. Data collection and self-evaluation: Before deciding to work with a particular community, team members identify its needs and how best to meet them. During and after the partnership, they then strive to quantify the effectiveness of what it does. The organization is not afraid to adjust or even completely overhaul its strategy if it thinks its resources could be better applied.

2. A holistic approach: Global Brigades discards the “one-size-fits-all” approach to development work. It knows that each community is unique and so has unique needs. One might already have a clean water system but lack sanitary facilities; another may have those facilities but need sanitary education. Rather than treat symptoms, the organization analyzes and then addresses the root causes of issues.

3. Community empowerment: Global Brigades doesn’t want to stay in the communities. Rather, it aims to work with them before sustainably exiting. To do so, it incorporates the community into all of its initiatives and equips local leaders with the skills and knowledge to maintain and expand these.

These three principles make it a better NGO. And they’re also what led it to direct trade.


Education, organization, empowerment – Global Brigades staff at work.

Development in Coffee Communities

It was inevitable that Global Brigades would enter the coffee game. Many of the communities it works with are coffee farmers. And with chapters all over the world, they had a ready-made market. The organization turned to Wisconsin-based specialty roaster Stone Creek Coffee for their expertise, and so Café Holístico was born.

The plan: connect the coffee farmers Global Brigades works with to the specialty coffee market, whose premiums would be a huge step toward sustainability.

Stone Creek Coffee visited El Zurzular, a community tucked high away in the mountains of Honduras. They returned with a mixed report.

Capital and Access: The Problems Facing Coffee Farmers

There was no doubt about the coffee’s potential; the farmers had the knowledge, skills, and climate to produce specialty. But the problem was a lack of capital and access – the same challenge that faces so many smallholder farmers across the world.

In particular, the community needed better processing equipment and the means to get their coffee down the mountain to dry mills. Creating solutions for these issues would probably take one to two years. Global Brigades readjusted its timelines and got to work.

And in the meantime, it turned to some established cooperatives in the Jinotega region of Nicaragua. A trial run in the autumn of 2015 resulted in 1,200 12 oz (340 g) bags of coffee being distributed to around 20 Global Brigades chapters, with more already planned for this year and beyond.

El Zurzular

El Zurzular community leaders with Stone Creek Coffee Roasters. Credit: Martha Gavinski

From Seed to Cup: Café Holistico’s Model

Café Holístico is another thread in the web of the Global Brigades’ model. First, Stone Creek provides farmers with above-market rates, technical expertise, and feedback from the cupping table (all of which are typical components of a direct trade relationship).

Global Brigades chapters then sell the coffee, by the bag or by the cup, to raise money for their brigade trips. And once in the country, they can both learn about and contribute to the sustainable development process. Meanwhile, Global Brigades’ teams in-country can help see that those brigades’ efforts are spent efficiently. They can also connect roasters like Stone Creek to even the smallest, most isolated farmer who would normally struggle to reach the specialty market.

Beyond Direct Trade

Coffee farmers tend to gather in mountainous, isolated areas, meaning that efforts at the national and regional level risk passing them over.

On the other hand, while the producer-roaster direct relationship might help a farmer invest in processing equipment, infrastructural concerns like community banks and access to healthcare are often still out of reach.

This is where Global Brigades’ focus on a holistic approach is important. It includes members of the community outside of coffee production. It looks at all of their issues, and attempts to find solutions to the root causes – solutions that the community can continue after the organization has left.

rural bank

Community leadership: a member of a caja rural, or rural bank.

Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway?

Microfinancing, engineering, medical support… should roasters and consumers concern themselves with these? Some will say no. They will say that they’re in the coffee business, not charity, and so that’s what they need to focus on. Improving farmers’ incomes will fix the rest.

However, this isn’t as simple as business vs goodwill – because healthier farming communities result in better, more consistent labor. Greater infrastructures means it’s easier to communicate with farmers, and better education means it’s easier for complex agricultural knowledge to be discussed.

There are many reasons to focus on holistic community development. And business sense is one of them.

Fairtrade was not the silver bullet people hoped it would be be. Nor, in all likelihood, will direct trade be – or at least, direct trade as we know it today. Can it start to take on a more holistic approach? Only time will tell.

Photo credit, unless otherwise specified: Global Brigades

All views within this opinion piece belong to the guest writer, and do not reflect Perfect Daily Grind’s stance. Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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