August 30, 2021

Social initiatives in coffee-producing communities


Around the world, some 25 million families depend on coffee production for their income, and 80% of the global coffee supply is produced by smallholder farmers. However, perennially low coffee prices and continued uncertainty means that many are unable to move beyond subsistence-level farming.

However, in recent years, the consumer end of the coffee supply chain has started to recognise this. Today’s consumers are increasingly demanding information about where their coffee comes from and what social and environmental impact their purchase has. This puts pressure on roasters to source ethically produced coffee and support the communities they buy their coffee from. 

As part of this, roasters often commit to driving social impact at origin, whether directly or indirectly through their green coffee supplier. To learn more about how they can do so and what these social initiatives look like, I spoke to the manager of an agricultural association and a coffee trader. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like this article on scaling up your green coffee sourcing.

children in a coffee growing community

An overview: What are social initiatives?

For this article, we’re defining “social initiatives” as projects that drive any kind of social impact at origin. They can focus on a variety of different topics, including health, education, sanitation, infrastructure, gender equity, sustainability, and production methods.

It’s also important to note that these initiatives are often collaborative efforts between a range of different actors, including roasters, traders, producers, and producer organisations. 

Arnoldo Leiva is the CEO of The Coffee Source, a trader based in Costa Rica. The company sells coffee from all over Latin America to roasters in the US and Europe. It is also involved in a range of different social initiatives.

Arnoldo says that the company’s focus on driving social impact started 15 years ago. At the time, they wanted to build a computer lab at the school on one of their farms, as there were no computers in the region. A customer in the US immediately said yes to sponsoring it, and they soon realised there was the potential to expand. 

Arnoldo says that as producers and traders based at origin, The Coffee Source has “a better understanding of the dynamics of producing coffee and the challenges of producing coffee”. 

This has in time led the company to launch many different projects all over Latin America. In Peru, he says the team focus on education. In Colombia, however, The Coffee Source supports female coffee producers who have been affected by armed conflict. The company supports them with mill infrastructure, training, and quality improvement. 

In Costa Rica, they also operate daycare centres. Arnoldo tells me that the majority of coffee pickers on The Coffee Source’s farms are migrant workers from Nicaragua. He says they often bring their whole family with them when they travel. In response, he says the daycare centres were created to give the children an education, meals, health checks, and a safe place to stay while their parents are working. 

youth education in a garden in a coffee growing community

Why is collaboration so important? 

Social initiatives are usually a collaboration between roasters and traders on one side and coffee-growing communities on the other. 

This is a necessary collaboration; many coffee producers operate at subsistence level and they don’t have any money left over to invest in the community. Similarly, buyers are increasingly looking to do more at origin than simply purchasing coffee.

Driving this collaboration can take shape in a number of different ways. Some roasters may choose to be active in the communities they purchase coffee from, while others purchase from traders and pay a “social premium”.

For instance, Arnoldo says that The Coffee Source asks roasters to contribute a small fee for social projects on top of the coffee price they have already agreed on. 

“This is a fully transparent programme,” he explains. “What we do is a baseline analysis for each community, to determine the real needs of that community.”

He says that this understanding is incredibly important. Without it, investment can end up being misdirected. 

According to Arnoldo, many companies in consumer markets want to be more sustainable and drive impact at origin, but don’t know where to begin. This, he says, is where The Coffee Source comes in. 

children at school in a coffee growing community

Improving access to education

One key area that social initiatives at origin focus on is education. Coffee-growing communities are often remote, which makes it challenging to develop local infrastructure and facilities. This, in turn, affects a number of key functions in a community, including education.

Education is often a focus for social projects within coffee producing communities. If left unchecked, it can become a generational issue for the families who live and work there.

Arnoldo tells me that in Peru, The Coffee Source is collaborating with Luna Roasters on a social initiative they call The School that Coffee Built. They have built two schools and are working on a third one in co-operation with Asociacion Valle Grande in the San Martín region of Peru. 

Arnoldo says: “This is a very isolated community of farmers that live around the mountains. Their town is small, and only offers three houses and a main warehouse for kids to go to school. But they had no floor, no desks, no water sanitation, and no sewage system.”

Elmer Benavides Cuvas is the manager of the Asociacion Valle Grande. He says that these schools have had hugely positive results in these coffee-growing communities, and notes that they are incredibly thankful. With better access to education, he says the children’s opportunities improve, and notes that there is a wider benefit for the parents and teachers as well.

“These schools have managed to improve the spaces where the children go every day to learn,” Elmer says.

Arnoldo explains that they have built new schools with two classrooms, bathrooms, a wastewater system for improved sanitation, and a playground. 

“It was really interesting,” he tells me. “We saw that attendance went up dramatically; parents were deciding to send their kids to school more often because they loved the infrastructure.” 

Arnoldo also notes that the school also serves as a community centre. “It’s a gathering place for the community,” he explains. “They were really proud to have that.”

Elmer explains that illiteracy still exists in this region and tells me that the Peruvian government struggles to reach these remote communities at the best of times. 

In remote coffee-growing communities like San Martin, access to education is unbelievably important. It benefits communities in the short and long term, improving outcomes for everyone who lives and works there.

a social initiative in a coffee growing community

How big is the market for socially responsible coffee?

Across the board, specialty coffee consumers are becoming more demanding. Today, terms like fair trade, direct trade, ethical sourcing, and traceability are all commonplace on bags of third wave coffee, and sustainability is a major focus.

Arnoldo has been in the coffee industry for 25 years. He describes this trend as “generational”, and says that “transparency is a game-changer”.

He adds: “Traceability, before sustainability, is one thing that I see more demand for now than ever before. 

“Roasters want to know specifically about the region, the farmers, the co-operative, the conditions… they want the overall picture, not just the coffee. Once they have that, many also want to get involved. They are willing to pay more to have an impact.”

Ultimately, becoming more involved with social initiatives at origin is a great opportunity for roasters to support coffee communities and capitalise on the growing demand for ethical products.

If coffee is eligible for a “social premium”, it can be sold at a higher price. It also allows roasters to create a story by discussing where the coffee comes from and how they are involved.

Furthermore, this gives roasters the opportunity to meet the people behind the coffee. This feeds into the growing demand for “relationship coffee” and creating a special connection between origin and consumer. 

Elmer tells me that these visits have had a positive impact on the communities in his region. “It is exciting to have this type of project,” he says. “It really encourages the producer to make changes. It’s great, and has been a beautiful experience for us.”

Arnoldo adds: “When I take roasters to a community in Peru, they explain what happens to their coffee and what they do, and I bring samples of the finished product to the community so they can see. They have an immense amount of pride in seeing the finished product in another market.

“It’s really important that communication works both ways. The farmers are very interested in what happens to their coffee,” he says. “They put a lot of effort into it, and it’s their way of living.

“For someone from Europe to come to their community with a coffee bag and their name printed on the label… it has a big impact on them. It makes them proud of their way of life, and that is important.”

a social initiative in a coffee growing community

As we have seen, these social initiatives at origin can help change the lives of coffee producers and improve their quality of life over generations. In turn, roasters can generate positive social impact and truly connect with the people who produce their coffee.

Arnoldo concludes by saying: “These social initiatives are changing the industry already, and I don’t think this trend is just a phase that will pass. 

“I think we are going in the right direction and I have a lot of hope for the coffee industry. It’s going to take a while, but I’m impressed by how companies are getting more and more involved every day.”

Enjoyed this? Then read this article on the environmental impact of coffee roasting.

Photo credits: The Coffee Source

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