December 19, 2017

Why Some Farmers Struggle to Produce Specialty Coffee


About 70 countries produce coffee, but not all of them are able to effectively engage with the specialty market. In some, producers struggle while growing and harvesting coffee for commodity-grade prices (and sometimes at commodity-grade quality).

The question is: why? What’s preventing these producers from accessing the same high-paying markets as other farmers?

I recently conducted research that sheds light on this exact issue for International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), as well as a case study with CARE International in Lao P.D.R. Read on to discover my findings.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Por Qué a Algunos Productores Les Es Difícil Cultivar Café Especial?


European street café culture in Ostend, Belgium. Credit: Vincent Rouffaer

Is Coffee Growing More Sustainable?

Optimism has spread. The United Nations Development Programme announced in 2015 that poverty has gone down. The digital revolution has connected people. The majority of children worldwide are at school. Access to clean water and sanitation has improved.

All of this has contributed to increasing coffee producers’ capabilities and enabling competitive coffee enterprises.

At the same time, third wave and specialty coffee gives customers unprecedented choice in their drinking habits. It’s an opportunity to “do the right thing” for smallholder producers and the environment – all while enjoying a “unique” artisanal experience, of course.

As consumers, we have agency; our purchases send signals to the market and to producers. We know that we can help drive the trend towards better prices for quality coffee and sustainable farming practices.

SEE ALSO: The Complicated Role of Money in Specialty Coffee


Specialty coffee enjoyed by cyclists, tourists, students, and locals in Girona. Credit: Sam Tabotta

However, sometimes we can forget that considerable challenges remain for many coffee-producing communities. Persistent poverty; conflict; instability; business hurdles; inadequate access to credit; price volatility; market barriers; and entrenched gender, youth and disability inequalities with regards to resources, decision-making, economic opportunities, services, and influence…These all pose difficulties for producing coffee, and especially specialty-grade coffee.

“To meet the consumer demands of speciality coffee – sustainability, quality and unique or exemplary coffee – is a challenge for poorer coffee producers as well as coffee traders,” says Stephen Leighton, Managing Director of Has Bean Coffee.


Stephen Leighton visits coffee producers on Vincent Paye farm in Copacabana, Bolivia. Credit: Has Bean Coffee

Why Do Some Producing Countries Struggle More Than Others?

My current study for IWCA gives insight into why some producing countries in Central and South America, the Pacific, and African Great Lakes regions have seen impressive progress – while others struggle with poverty and access to productive resources, efficient services and markets, and foreign investments due to their crippled economic growth and development.

I found that a third of these countries suffer serious issues that derail their production. Authoritarian regimes, weak institutional frameworks, a lack of transparency, red tape, unfriendly business climates, and poor infrastructure all plague coffee producers. As a result, these producers can struggle to access international markets. This is particularly difficult in Burundi, Cameroon, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda.

Everyday facilities that we take for granted are often inaccessible for poorer coffee farmers. In Uganda, less than half the adult population has mobile phones or access to the internet. Both of these are essential for checking international coffee prices or learning new production techniques and trends.

And in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Kenya, the Global Findex states that only 65% of adults have bank accounts.

What’s more, almost half of these countries are highly vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, flooding, and landslides. The devastation of these can destroy harvests, stock, transport, homes, and ultimately livelihoods. Farmers can slip from one crisis to the next, never able to get back on their feet.

There is positive news: organisations (like IWCA) can provide a platform for dialogue between the public and private sector in the international coffee industry. In this way, they can address challenges and sustainability issues – but there is still much to be done.

And sometimes our best efforts are misguided.


In the South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, IWCA lead training events for female producers. Credit: Chantal Binwa

Can Poorer Farmers Produce Specialty Coffee?

Customers, including coffee traders, who demand more “unique” specialty coffee risk excluding the poorest of coffee producers. Even simple changes are hard for low-income producers to deliver, let alone the complex ones needed for, say, experimental processing.

In 2016, I undertook coffee livelihoods research work with CARE International in the cool southern hills of Sekong Province. This area lies next to the Bolaven Plateau, Laos’ largest coffee-producing region.

SEE ALSO: How Producers in Laos Are Turning to Specialty Coffee

There, I met Mrs Noi Impasai, a 24-year-old coffee producer. Noi and her family have three hectares of land which they rely on for their income. 0.5 ha of this is planted with upland rice but the rest is used to grow Catimor coffee. The majority of their trees are under eight years old.

Noi, who has ageing parents and two young children, describes her family as very poor. Her household income comes from agriculture and relies entirely on her and her husband’s labour. They often face six months out of a year with no rice, due to having no income until the coffee is harvested in November. Despite her circumstances, however, she’s determined to give her children a good education and better life choices.

Noi began a journey of farm improvement with the support of CARE International in Lao PDR Women and Income and Nutrition Project (funded by the European Union). She focused on what she can do differently, starting with small steps towards good agricultural practices and quality coffee production.


Mrs Noi Impasai, age 24, in her yard; she left school early to get married. Credit: Vincent Rouffaer

The Need for Resources & Know-How

In 2015, Noi was elected to head a farmer group covering four villages. Through this, she realised that if the farmers worked together, they could share the risks and higher returns.

Three families decided to give it a shot. Together, they pulped their combined harvests to produce parchment. At the time, this was very unusual in Laos. However, as a result, the families were able to cut out intermediaries. They paid ₭1,000 (US $0.12) per kilo to transport their coffee directly to Lao Thai Hoa Company Ltd., a Vietnamese trading company in Paksong. There they were paid ₭3,500 (US $0.43) per kg, compared to the Duk Chueng prices of ₭2,300 (US $0.29) per kilo of cherry.

It was an undertaking of trust, organisation and risk. The families received very little support from the government or players within the industry in finding buyers. They had few networks or relationships within the Lao coffee market.

Yet their gamble paid off. That crop earned Noi’s group more than the average Lao person’s yearly income.

They also gained valuable market information that would otherwise be beyond their reach. They are now better informed about costs and logistics, which will only improve their future practices.


Every day, labourers picks an average of 50–80 kg of red cherry and are paid US $3. Credit, Nicole Motteux

The news of Noi’s cooperative’s successful direct market sale spread within and beyond the village. Shortly after, other farmers started using simple hand pulpers to remove the cherry, with the support of CARE International in Lao P.D.R. This reduced the volume of product they needed to dry and transport. At a producer meeting, an overwhelming 83% of participants (60% women and 40% men) said they were keen to pulp.

As well as being time-saving, in Lao, dried parchment has a 30% greater value per kilo than dried cherry. The product is also easier to store if roads are impassable, due to flash floods, landslides and dangerous river crossings during harvest time.

It’s clear that what seems, to consumers, like small investments in infrastructure can represent huge differences in the lowest-income producing groups. Resources, know-how, and a united community: together, these can have an immense impact.


Villagers ferry a truck in the Duk Chueng District; rivers rise during harvest session, cutting off villages from markets across the Lao-Vietnam border. Credit, Nicole Motteux

Difficulties in Meeting The Market’s Demands

Yet while producers have begun pulping their own coffee, there are still some standards that are harder to achieve – like certification.

Sinouk Coffee was one of earliest large coffee producers to appear in Laos. They worked with the donor community for two years to introduce organic certification, fair trade labelling, and other sustainability schemes.

It’s difficult to achieve certification, particularly when working with many small and remote village farmers. Mr Sinouk found that “the organic procedures are very complex for poor farmers. Many farmers do not have the knowledge nor the capital to invest in international organic standards. At this point, I decided it was better to build the Sinouk brand and use local organic certification standards, not international standards”.

Another popular market demand right now is honey processing. It’s been around for 15 years and adds a distinct yet natural sweetness to the brewed coffee.

SEE ALSO: Yellow, Red, & Black Honey Processed Coffees: What’s The Difference?

Those countries with the right climate and good quality controls, such as El Salvador and Costa Rica, can produce high-quality honey processed coffee and so earn premium prices. However, for many poor farmers in Laos, it remains out of reach, say Karsten Ziebell, CR&S Manager of Outspan Bolovens Ltd, a subsidiary of Covoya Specialty Coffee.

For the high quality and exquisite flavours that specialty coffee buyers demand, all processes from cultivation to cup need to be carefully controlled. A favourable environment is also important: no frost or pests, plenty of seasonal rain, the right amount of sunshine during the drying phase, and more.

At the start of this drying phase, producers need to turn the beans hourly to prevent fungal infection – a heavy investment of labour, especially for small husband-and-wife teams who also have children and elderly relatives to care for.

They need to continue controlling the drying process until the coffee reaches a moisture content of 10–12%. This process is complex for small-scale coffee producers with limited capital, including drying facilities, labour, and knowledge.


Coffee in drying patio. Credit: Amec Velásquez

Long-Term Sustainable Change for all Producers

However, with the right assistance, smallholder producers can take advantage of opportunities to enter the specialty market.

Karsten tells me that Outspan’s focus starts with good agricultural practices and certification (e.g. Rainforest Alliance and UTZ). The aim is to enhance productivity and returns, access new markets, and improve financial literacy skills. To achieve this, the company works with Jacobs Douwe Egberts and IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative through an out-growers coffee programme in Paksong District.

“It all starts by investing in the fundamentals of good agricultural practices,” Karsten says. “We have to take into account the complexities of rural livelihoods and understand farmers’ technical capacities, resources and finances. Supporting producers to gain skills from planting to processing sets them up for the future. That’s why getting it right – from the very beginning – is so important.”

For many low-income countries, coffee is a driving force in the rural economy. And those that invest in agriculture research and support their farmers with reliable transport and logistics can access the specialty market – something that, in turn, should help to ease poverty.

Yet it requires that initial investment and resources.


Sasa Sestic of ONA Coffee Sasa sources beans direct from the producer on Thalanar Estate, India. Credit: ONA Coffee

Fortunately, the focus on producing high-quality coffee has encouraged positive, long-term changes. There is now a growing consensus among multinational traders and roasters, distributors, governments, civil society groups, and donors that farmers need to be supported in adopting good agricultural practices.

Coffee producers in Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Mexico are moving up the coffee value chain and earning more income. They now have a greater focus on crop quality, post-harvest handling, diversification and market engagement, says Nathan Hyde of HA Bennett & Sons Pty Limited. As such, the farmers can command a better price for their product and cater to the specialty coffee movement.

Coffee traders are increasingly demanding good agricultural practices, supporting their adoption, and providing a premium for quality or specialty coffee. As a result, smallholder coffee producers now have a viable, financial motivation to improve their quality and work towards sustainable farming systems.


Roman holds the coffee she produced, having found it on the supermarket shelves. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Finding ways to combat crippled economic growth and development is a daunting challenge, yet recognition of the problems is an important first step. If you want to help break the vicious cycle of poverty and environmental destruction in coffee growing countries, you can. Use your coffee choices to support the incremental steps towards sustainable practices, innovation, and robust systems.

Change and sustainability take time and trust – but with each cup, you can raise coffee producers’ hopes, opportunities, and confidence.

Based on research conducted for International Women’s Coffee Alliance and a case study with CARE International in Lao P.D.R (Ms Impasai age 24 takes charge). All interviews were interpreted by Mr. Thongchanh Sengsoulivong and supported by Lilani Goonesena.

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