July 25, 2018

How Can Long-Term Relationships Increase Sustainability at Origin?


“We need to think that the coffee ecosystem is composed of 20 million farmers,” Michele Cannone tells me. As Head of Global Marketing Foodservice at Lavazza, he understands that coffee is truly a global commodity. It’s farmed in over 40 countries worldwide and represents a lifeline for millions.

But sometimes, that lifeline is frayed. Sometimes, it doesn’t provide the security or income that it should. Fluctuating coffee prices, coffee leaf rust, climate change, and more threaten to break it.

Building strong, long-term relationships can help provide this missing security and enable producing communities need to thrive. And that benefits everyone in the coffee industry. So, here’s his tips for achieving it.

Lee este artículo en español Relaciones a Largo Plazo: ¿Clave para la Sostenibilidad en el Origen?

coffee cherries

Ripe-red, freshly picked coffee cherries ready for processing and drying. Credit: Kafiex

Today, Sustainability Matters More Than Ever

Sustainability: simply put, it’s the ability to keep existing. And our ability to keep farming, selling, and drinking coffee is increasingly at risk.

Mario Cerutti, Chief Sustainability Officer at Lavazza, tells me that climate change is a huge issue in coffee-producing regions. As temperatures increase, producers will have to look for cooler zones in which to farm their delicate coffee trees.

“The producing area will really shrink a lot,” he emphasizes, “so there will be less area for producing coffee… In general, we see dryness and higher temperatures in some areas, which means that coffee production should go higher in altitude.”

But this isn’t the only problem: he also points out that changing temperatures can cause coffee leaf rust and humidity problems. Changing rain patterns can have devastating effects: rain can carry the spores that lead to coffee leaf rust, one of the coffee plant’s most devastating diseases, and also can ruin crops if it comes at the wrong time of year.

At the same time, the demand for coffee is forecast to increase significantly over the coming years. Yet with production likely to fall as suitable land diminishes, we’re looking at a striking supply issue.

“The answer is to produce more and better coffee in the same area, meaning better productivity,” Mario Cerutti tells me. “We have to help people to develop the knowledge and the expertise to produce more coffee in the same area, with a better quality, whenever it’s possible.”

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Honduran producer

A Honduran producer demonstrates their coffee storage systems to a buyer. Credit: Souvenir Coffee

A Relationship With a Community

But this is only two-thirds of the goal. Yes, we need to work toward better productivity and better quality. However, we also need better (and more reliable) prices that can support a decent quality of life. Because as Michele Cannone says, “the main opportunity related to sustainability is to improve the livelihoods of the population [in producing communities].”

Today, Mario Cerutti reminds me, roughly 70% of our coffee comes from smallholders: the kind of people who rely on their community to support them, who may process their coffee at the community mill, and who – thanks to the poor quality of life it offers – don’t know if their children will want to inherit their coffee farms.

“If we don’t find a solution that makes coffee a pillar for the new generation, so the young keep staying in coffee areas and become coffee producers themselves, there will be a big problem,” Mario Cerutti stresses.

This is why it’s so important to nurture the community, ensuring that there are opportunities for a good quality of life. “The more we can create a larger community,” Mario Cerutti says, “I think the better it is, and the better it is for the whole industry.”

So, when you build a relationship with a smallholder producer, consider the community they come from and how you can support their socioeconomic conditions. Because in turn, this will result in better coffee quality, better productivity, and better prices – today and in the years to come.

Remember: this won’t just benefit coffee farmers. It’s a cycle that affects the whole industry. Coffee buyers, roasters, and café owners will also be able to increase their profits by offering higher-quality coffee.

Measuring the amount of ripe coffee

Measuring the amount of ripe coffee cherries that have been picked on a Honduran farm, so that workers can be paid. Credit: Souvenir Coffee

Relationships Mean Confidence

“Be as close as you can with your producer,” Mario Cerutti advises. It will result in better-quality coffee as well as better conditions throughout the supply chain. It will help you to pass on feedback that could have a real impact on bean quality.

Through its Giuseppe and Pericle Lavazza Foundation, since 2002 Lavazza has launched over 20 sustainability projects across 15 countries, including its first initiative ¡Tierra! (which means “earth” in Spanish). The project started in Honduras, Peru, and Colombia, and focuses on supporting farmers through training and long-term relationships to produce even better coffee, which is then sold as one of Lavazza’s four ¡Tierra! Blends.

Michele Cannone tells me that confidence is key to the development of such projects. A producer’s confidence in their buyers, confidence in their recommendations, and confidence in the fact that this will benefit their future. The confidence that comes only from knowing that these buyers will be there, supporting them, year after year.

“Confidence, healthy confidence, is something that you have to build every single day, showing [producers] that you are doing something different for their future…” Michele Cannone stresses.

“Farmers normally start to realize the importance of the projects when you can see the first results.”

coffee farm

A carefully maintained coffee farm in Brazil; the rows help keep harvesting efficient. Credit: Julio Guevara

Support Relationships Through Communication

So, how do you build confidence? Well, like in any relationship, communication is key.

Visiting your producer-partners’ farms is a good investment in those partnerships. It helps to create healthier sale operations, but it also enables you to better understand the community behind your coffees and their resources.

What’s more, this enables an exchange of knowledge with multiple positive effects. Firstly, it can allow producers and cooperatives to visualize what happens to their coffees after leaving the farm. In turn, this may result in greater investment from those producers as they work to increase the coffee’s quality and marketability.

Secondly, open communication allows producers to learn about their buyers’ needs and perceive the value of their coffee.

“Many of the people that produce coffee don’t know coffee, they don’t drink coffee,” Mario Cerutti says. “In some cases, they don’t really know if the coffee is good or bad.” And producers cannot improve their coffee’s quality and consistency if they cannot recognise quality when they taste it.

And finally, this knowledge exchange can lead to and guide training – something that is crucial. As part of Lavazza’s ¡Tierra! project, producers receive training and infrastructural support in order to enhance coffee quality.

“We are helping them to develop knowledge about the quality of the coffee, the product they make, if it is good or bad, and what they can do to improve.”

Because, as Mario Cerutti says, when a farmer understands the impact of every stage of production, it’s a strong foundation for improving quality.

producer inspects washed coffee

A producer inspects washed coffee as it dries on his farm in Colombia. Credit: Angie Molina

Commit to See The Best Results

Good things take time; Michele Cannone knows this. He tells me that, on average, they see the results of their sustainability projects after three years. At the very earliest, you may see some limited results in the next harvest; many improvements, however, will take years to show in the cupping scores and flavor notes. Committing to long-term relationships is imperative.

But this commitment goes both ways. “We need to gain [producer’s] commitment,” Michele Cannone says. This is why communication is important: it allows producers and buyers to shape the end-goal together and understand the impact of every change. The relationship becomes a partnership between two committed parties.

“We realize that if we are able to involve farmers in the value chain of coffee in a different way, for sure, they are much more engaged and will have much more commitment,” he emphasizes.

This year, Colombia played host to the Barista & Farmer reality show, a project by 2013 Italian Barista Champion Francesco Sanapo and sponsored by Lavazza. And at the same time, farmers from Meta and Huila received barista classes and were able to serve and sample the coffees produced in their own regions. By involving producers in these experiences, improved cup profiles become a shared goal.

These actions are not band-aid solutions. Better communication, training, and stronger relationships can have a dramatic impact on coffee quality and sustainability, but they are an investment. They demand that both buyer and farmer are invested for years to come.

“That’s why we are committed to making this project a pact for a better future,” Michele Cannone tells me, “rather than an assistance for problematic situations.”

farm in Brazil

A coffee producer on his farm in Brazil. Credit: Julio Guevara

A Partnership That Benefits Everyone

When the buyer and producer both have the same goal of achieving a high-quality crop, then farmers, roasters, café owners and consumers all win. Quality improvements result in improved prices for producers, traders, and roasters. Consumers enjoy, and are willing to pay for, better coffee.

So never forget: when you buy coffee from a producer, this is a partnership. And like all partnerships, it’s better when parties commit to it for the long term, communicate, build trust, and work to support each other.

As 2017 Italian Barista Champion Francesco Masciullo tells me, “Nowadays, it’s not only about the farmer and then the roaster and then the barista. No, nowadays it’s all about one team, because we want to create something really unique.”

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Please note: This article has been sponsored by Lavazza.

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