Direct trade, Fairtrade, single origin, relationship coffee, sustainable coffee, co-ops, small-lot, organic… Choosing the right relationship model with coffee producers can be hard.
But no matter the model, most roasters’ goals remain the same: get sustainable, high-quality coffee with a story behind it, while supporting coffee producers.
So we reached out to several roasters to find out their advice for building long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. Here’s what we learned.
Mike Murphy of Kokako and Daniel Kinne of Highlands Organic Agriculture Cooperative. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
1. Value The Relationship
Mike Murphy, Managing Director of Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters, tells me that relationships are key. “We value the opportunity to forge long-standing, mutually beneficial relationships with coffee cooperatives,” he explains.
Visiting the cooperatives has helped him to create better relationships. “We’ve focused primarily on establishing relationships with cooperatives in Papua New Guinea, as we have had the benefit of being able to travel there a number of times in collaboration with Fairtrade Australia New Zealand.
“It takes some time and a few trips to get your head around the geopolitical story of Papua New Guinea,” he continues. He recommends talking to the guide or cooperative leader, asking lots of questions, and trying to understand the “bigger picture”.
Daniel Kinne, Executive Manager of the Highlands Organic Agricultural Cooperative (HOAC) in Papua New Guinea, agrees. “Regular visits to exporters and co-ops by importers strengthens the ties and makes relationships stronger and business better. Knowing people at a personal level brings about respect and trust and I think this is important in any business that wants to grow and become better at what they do.”
Abel Kemi, a member of the Untpina Coffee Cooperative in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
It’s also important to pay attention to the differences between communities. Mike tells me, “Over 816 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, and there are noticeable distinctions between the various provinces, especially in the highlands.
“Some of this can be understood by looking at the way houses are built, communities are laid out, the types of crops that are grown to supplement income from coffee, and even the difference in sewing patterns and colours used on the local bilims (small bags used to carry personal belongings or goods).
“We spend a lot of time understanding the makeup and leadership of the cooperative, including the gender balance of farmers and the ways they are spending their Fairtrade premiums. We record (both in notebooks and by taking photos) these characteristics and they are noted alongside the typical coffee profiles that literally every other coffee roaster will highlight (such as plant varietal, m.a.s.l., processing methods, flavour profile, etc).”
A farmer in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
2. Communicate Often
Communication shouldn’t stop when you leave origin, either. Daniel tells me, “Building relationships with coffee companies is paramount in that it helps us to have open communication and in that way we better understand issues and challenges we face at different points in the supply chain.”
Roads are one of the biggest challenges facing producers in Papua New Guinea. Daniel explains, “For us in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, logistics on how we move coffee from farm gate to the port can be at times challenging on poor roads and under prevailing weather conditions. Having a good relationship with our commercial partners means we know there is understanding and support from them if there are delays and additional costs operating under such conditions.”
One year, the roads were impassable in several places. Their export partner, Coffee Connections Ltd., invested PGK 200,000 (over US $60,000) on mattracks, rubber tracks that can convert 4x4s into all-terrain vehicles. This, Daniel says, is due to all the work that Fairtrade does to promote closely linked supply chains where end buyers can communicate with cooperatives.
Strong communication like this will also help buyers to plan ahead. They can anticipate delays, know when to begin promoting certain coffees, and more.
But communication isn’t just valuable for addressing logistical issues; it’s also imperative for improving coffee quality. “Having good relationships also helps us openly discuss quality and productivity issues, what is expected by importers and roaster overseas and what we can do at the farm level to address these issues to arrive at that kind of quality expected or volume demanded,” Daniel explains.
Sikilan Village, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
3. Work Towards Quality Together
When you build a relationship with a producer, you have the potential to work with them to improve quality and help them meet the demands of the market – something that benefits both you and them. See yourself as partnering with the producers, not just buying their coffee.
“It is very rewarding to work directly with growers,” Joop, Managing Director of Inca Fe Coffee Roasters, says. “When we first started purchasing coffee from Peru, we were only getting washed coffees. But our customers also desired semi-washed and natural, so we asked producers to do things differently and together we created really premium coffees.”
Mutiso Robinson, Head of Green Coffee Sales and Quality Control at Walker Coffee Trading L.P., advises me that roasters should work with producers to focus, in particular, on consistency. And Mike explains that he gives workshops with Fairtrade on coffee quality, best practices, and co-op profiling.
A team loads up Landcruisers before heading to the Neknasi Coffee Cooperative. Credit: Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters
No matter what you choose to focus on, Mike reminds me that improving quality is a long-term project. “Give constructive feedback, and recognise that good things really do take time,” he says.
What’s more, don’t see this as giving instructions. Treat the producer as a partner, because this should be their goal too. “We know that there are a significant number of ways to improve quality and consistency, but this must start with farmer engagement and education. If a farmer understands that their job is to create a consistently good artisanal product, and not a commodity, then that’s a good start,” he says.
In 2016, Mike worked with Daniel and producers in Papua New Guinea to develop a single origin specialty coffee from Purosa Estate. Daniel explains, “Fairtrade and Kokako have really helped us to understand better coffee quality beyond the green bean on a visit to Purosa in the Highlands last year. They roasted the coffee beans on site from Purosa Estate together with surrounding village farmers’ coffee.
“Many of our farmers had never even tasted their own coffee. They pointed out to us that in order to achieve a good grade coffee it starts from harvesting to processing then to fermentation and drying. This training bridged a lot of gaps in the farmers’ knowledge on how to produce good-quality coffee.”
Members of the Keto-Tapasi Coffee cooperative in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
4. Take Responsibility For Risks
Although you want to work with producers to help them meet the market demand, be aware that any changes in production and processing methods come with risks, costs, and time investments. And if a producer does this on your advice, you have to be prepared to be the one who pays the price – quite literally.
Faudi Pitsuwan of Beanspire Coffee, Thailand tells me, “Experimental processing, even naturals and honey, are risky. If roasters ask farmers to try these out, they must be ready to buy regardless of the results. And it’s better to start experimenting in a nano lot volume.”
He also cautions against applying something that worked on one farm directly to another without considering the different farm context, giving me the example of Geisha. “For every successful Geisha farmer, there are many bodies along the way,” he says. “It’s an extremely fragile plant with a low yield.”
He believes many farmers take “uncalculated risks”. Different locations, soil types, resources, and more should all be considered before experimenting – and so should the chance of failure.
Mike at Boana Station en route to Neknasi Coffee Cooperative. Credit: Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters
Daniel has a similar message. “Risk is inevitable in any investment,” he says, “so traders with innovative ideas to implement with farmer co-ops should allow for this in their business plans and budgets and have a long-term commitment.”
He emphasizes the importance of risk assessment, of having experience with the type of project, and of previous success rates. “The need for assessment is vital,” he says. He also recommends that traders have a vested interest in the new project.
The Kokako/Fairtrade-led quality improvement projects were successful in Papua New Guinea – but had they not been, the producers would have needed continued support from the two organizations.
So yes, go ahead and work with coffee producers to improve quality and consistency. Discuss selective picking, raised beds, and more. But do risk assessments. If you recommend something new, something that’s challenging, be prepared to take responsibility if it goes wrong. And what’s more, be prepared to work with the producer long-term, so that their investment truly does pay off.
Inspecting the packing of a container of coffee at EFM, Lae, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
5. Look For Ways to Diversify Products
There is only so much specialty coffee that roasters can buy – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to purchase a wider range of items or try to support producers with different approaches.
“Roasters should know that the average price for coffee in real terms has never increased for the past 40 years,” Faudi tells me, “while cost has.”
For a start, he recommends being open to buying and selling lower-quality coffee as well as the brilliant single origins you want to be known for. “Every coffee has a home… A micro-roaster paying US $12/kilo for a 120-kilo lot helps farmers less than a big roaster who pays US $6 for 1,200 kilo. You help farmers more if you can grow.”
What’s more, he recommends buying other products from the farm. “In my experience, no farmer can ever survive on selling coffee, particularly selling to the specialty community alone. You should aim to buy cascara, honey, coffee blossoms, macadamia, and anything from the farm if they are producing them.”
Walker Trading Company Ltd. buys cascara from coffee farms. Kokako buys cacao from the Dominican Republic and Paraguay. Many coffee shops successfully sell honey alongside their coffee.
But if the farm isn’t already producing alternative crops or coffee byproducts, should you encourage them to do so? It all goes back to risk assessment. Are you confident the farm has the resources – including labor – and potential to do so? Do you know there will be a market? Will you support the farmer if this isn’t profitable?
Mela from Neknasi Coffee Cooperative, Papua New Guinea. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
6. Consider Logistics & Administration
In addition to quality improvements and crop diversification, a key way to improve producers’ incomes is through their logistics and administration.
Joop has worked with a group of Fairtrade and organic coffee farmers in Peru for a number of years. One of their projects has been the rehabilitation of abandoned Geisha plantations in the highlands. Joop now sells the Geisha coffee that these farmers produce as a premium product in New Zealand.
But to do so, Joop had to work with the producers on a number of improvements. Quality and consistency were, of course, important. However, so too was building their export capacity so that both the producers and Inca Fe Coffee Roasters could capture more value.
He has also worked with the producers on marketing and sales support so as to generate more demand for their coffee, as well as penetration into new markets.
Coffee producers are professionals and the industry is complex. Profits can be increased not just through quality improvements and price premiums, but also through logistics, marketing, and administration. This will benefit both the roasters and the producers.
This is Sikilan village, 1150 m.a.s.l., where the Neknasi Coffee cooperative is based. Credit: Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters
7. Be Open to Working With Exporters & Importers
Direct trade is popular in specialty coffee, but it’s not the only way to have a positive impact.
Mike tells me, “If you peruse Instagram and check out the feeds of many international roasters, you could sometimes assume that they have a seamless supply chain link that gets their coffee straight from the farm to their roastery.
“There are a number of roasters who have been able to achieve this, and some who have even taken shareholdings in coffee co-ops. But for most roasters, a reliance on partnerships with exporters at origin, importers, and brokers is key to a reliable supply of green coffee.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t work to improve quality or the producer’s position in the supply chain. What it does mean, however, is that you should ask if an exporter’s or importer’s resources would benefit you and your goals.
“From the milling, to the grading, processing and bagging of coffee, right through to the labs and cupping facilities they have, the exporter is an important link between the roaster and the in-country importer who collectively handles the complex web of shipping and logistics considerations of green coffee,” Mike explains.
“The use of brokers and green traders does not inhibit our ability to form relationships, but rather enhances it, as we are all reliant on one another to make things work. We are still free to create genuine relationships with coffee cooperatives, and by having the exporters and importers in the mix it allows us to get on with what we do best – roasting and marketing quality coffee to our customers.”
There’s more than one way to build a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with coffee producers. Whether you choose to use an exporter/importer or do direct trade, your decision should be based on what you want to achieve: what is your goal, and what is the best way to do that? What resources do you have? Can you do it alone, or will an intermediary benefit both you and the producers?
Moung Bungun, Chairman of the Neknasi Coffee cooperative in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea, picks coffee cherries. Credit: Josh Griggs for Fairtrade ANZ
No matter which model you choose, the key points are the same: treat your relationship with producers as a partnership. Work together to improve quality – while also helping to lower risks. And remain focused on your goals and the best way to achieve them.
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