June 21, 2022

How can green coffee auctions be used to promote wider social initiatives?


Green coffee auctions are a popular platform for buying and selling coffee around the world, as well as a means to connect producers to a wider range of roasters and buyers. In turn, this can help producers build an international reputation.

Furthermore, auctions can serve the wider coffee industry in a number of other ways, such as by raising awareness about wider social initiatives, and raising money for these causes.

To learn more about how green coffee auctions can be used as a platform to promote initiatives and raise money, I spoke to two people from Grounds for Health, a a non-profit that works to prevent cervical cancer in coffee-growing communities. Read on to find out what they told me. 

You may also like our article on social initiatives in coffee-producing communities.

Green and roasted coffee beans in jute bags.

How do green coffee auctions work?

Green coffee has been traded at auction for centuries, mostly in coffee producing countries. The auctions are usually held by importers, exporters, non-government organisations, or other industry stakeholders.

At auction, buyers can bid on a number of different green coffees. The coffees are often scored or ranked using the Specialty Coffee Association 100-point scale, which is determined by a Q grader.

Generally speaking, higher-scoring coffees receive higher prices. One of the more notable examples of this is the Best of Panama auction, which often fetches record-breaking prices year-on-year. At the 2021 online auction, for instance, the highest bidder paid a world record US $2,568/lb for a fermented Gesha coffee.

Auctions can be held in-person or online, with the former taking place at origin. This gives producers, green coffee buyers, and roasters the opportunity to meet face to face and potentially develop closer trade relationships. 

However, in-person auctions can sometimes be inaccessible for both smallholder producers and smaller roasters, as travel can be expensive and time-consuming (meaning there is an opportunity cost).

Online auctions, meanwhile, can be a more flexible means for producers and smaller roasters to trade green coffee without needing to travel. These have become considerably more prominent since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

In the case of virtual auctions, roasters request coffee samples before placing their bids, which are then managed remotely via a dedicated digital platform. Once the bids are accepted and finalised, the coffees are then shipped to buyers accordingly.

African women attend a Grounds For Health session on sexual health.

Using auctions to promote social initiatives 

As well as an alternative method for trading green coffee, auctions can also be used as platforms to raise awareness for a number of social issues which affect communities at origin.

Grounds for Health’s annual coffee auction raises funds to support women’s health in coffee-growing communities in Africa and Latin America. In 2022, their annual auction took place on 15 and 16 June, raising US $27,822 for cervical cancer screening programmes in coffee communities.

Kyle Engelman is the Director of Philanthropy at Grounds for Health. She explains why auctions can be a useful tool to raise awareness of such issues.

“Coffee auctions can reach multiple audiences and involve people from across the supply chain,” she says. “Over the years, we’ve seen a huge swell of support and involvement that shows how much the specialty coffee industry cares about women’s issues and other social initiatives at origin.”

Because green coffee auctions involve a number of coffee industry stakeholders, it is much easier to raise awareness across the supply chain for social issues, as well as consolidating focus on any fundraising schemes.

Justin Mool is the Auction & Web Manager at Grounds for Health. 

He says: “[Green coffee auctions can] bring the coffee industry together in a powerful way.”

He explains that auctions are often a platform for coffees that are “special, premium, or rare, so that bidders will be excited about them”. In theory, this means the coffees can receive higher prices, thereby raising more money for the organisation.

“Auctions are a part of a greater strategy to reach new funders and strengthen existing support,” Justin adds. “They also provide an opportunity to include companies that cannot give a cash donation or that want to expand their support.

“At our auction, the partnership between the donor and the bidder has an immediate and tangible impact at origin,” he tells me. “We also encourage the winning bidders and donors to promote the coffee themselves to raise more awareness and funding.”

Female African coffee workers waiting to receive cervical cancer screening and sexual health services.

Women’s health in coffee producing communities

The estimated 125 million coffee farmers across the world face a number of issues, but improving the wellbeing and quality of life for women in coffee communities has been a particular focus for social initiatives in the coffee industry in recent years.

Grounds for Health has always worked directly with coffee-growing communities, which are some of the most rural and underserved communities around the world,” Kyle tells me. “The global coffee industry is invested in supporting those at the beginning of the supply chain.”

She explains that this is why Grounds for Health has focused on cervical cancer screening for its auction. 

According to the World Health Organisation, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer which affects women. In 2020, it was reported that 342,000 women died from cervical cancer, with 90% of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries – which includes those that grow coffee. 

Cervical cancer is curable, but it needs to be detected early for treatment to be successful. Women in coffee communities are often in very rural areas, which limits their access to screening and treatment, and therefore makes them significantly less likely to recover or take action in time.

As part of its cervical cancer screening programmes, Grounds for Health partners with local authorities to train health providers in how to screen for and treat cervical cancer. They also provide educational resources for health providers to disseminate information on cervical cancer to local communities. 

“[It’s essential that] women [are equipped] to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the threat of cervical cancer,” she explains.

Kyle highlights how green coffee auctions can help to fund these programmes.

“For every US $27 raised, we can cover all the costs for one woman to test herself for cervical cancer and receive follow-up treatment, if needed,” she says. “This includes staff and organisational costs, training, community education, equipment, and more.

“Considering that there have been lots which sold for over US $150/lb at previous Grounds for Health auctions, the impact of a purchase is significant and immediate,” she adds.

Female African coffee worker waiting to receive cervical cancer screening and sexual health services.

Connecting buyers to social initiatives

With more and more virtual coffee auctions taking place, the impact of fundraising can be more measurable. 

“To date, Grounds for Health has screened over 163,000 women and treated over 13,000 women in coffee communities for cervical pre-cancer,” says Kyle. 

In 2021, the auction raised US $22,534; total donations for 2022, meanwhile, reached US $27,822 – an increase of more than US $5,000. Kyle tells me how the funds raised will be used in coffee-growing communities.

“We recently started our HPV self-sampling programme,” she says. HPV (the human papillomavirus) is a precursor condition for some 50% of all cervical cancers. 

Grounds for Health provides HPV test kits to women and so they can swab themselves,” she explains. “We designed a mobile data tracking system so that the women receive their results and can get treatment if needed.”

Kyle adds: “This tracking system will also allow us to evaluate our programme so we know how to achieve maximum efficiency and impact.”

Understandably, these initiatives have immense benefits for coffee producers and their communities. However, these effects can also be felt further afield across the supply chain.

According to a number of sources, supporting women working in coffee production can result in as many as 30 million extra cups of coffee per year at a time when demand is growing. And with women currently only accounting for 10% to 20% of the higher-level global coffee trade, closing the gender gap in coffee production has never been more important.

“We like to say it’s a ‘win-win-win-win’ situation,” Justin tells me. “It’s a win for our donors who support a great cause, a win for the bidders who receive incredible coffees, a win for our organisation which receives recognition and much-needed funding, and most importantly, a win for the women at origin who receive life-saving care.”

For roasters who have fewer direct trade relationships with producers, Kyle believes that fundraising initiatives can have even greater impact.

“Some companies don’t always have a direct relationship with coffee farmers, or their customers might not [consider the issues which women coffee growers face],” she says. “They can use these auctions to bring [more attention to these causes].”

A Grounds for Health worker assisting an African woman with sexual health services.

Overcoming challenges in the future

Although green coffee auctions have several benefits for the stakeholders involved, there are also a number of challenges associated with them.

“Since we’re dealing with a commodity, coffee auctions are subject to the instability of the market, the environment, and the supply chain,” Justin explains. “Each year is completely different, so we have to be understanding of the situations of our donors. 

“Our top-grossing donor from one year might not be able to participate at the next auction,” he adds.

Furthermore, it can be difficult for many non-profit organisations to receive adequate funding in the first place, meaning programmes may not be able to achieve as much impact as they would ideally like.

“We’re a non-profit that focuses on women’s health, we’re not a for-profit coffee company,” says Justin. “We’re still learning about how the market works and what roasters are looking for.”

He adds: “It can be challenging to reach new roasters and bidders while still improving our offerings.”

Despite the challenges, the conclusion is clear: green coffee auctions serving as a platform for wider social initiatives can effect tangible change in coffee producing communities.

Grounds for Health wants to reach 300,000 women with high-quality, culturally-respectful, and woman-centric cervical cancer screening and treatment services that they would otherwise not receive,” Kyle says.

“We want to show the global health community how cervical cancer can be eliminated in rural, low-income settings, and how the coffee industry can make that possible,” she concludes.

A Grounds for Health cervical cancer screening centre.

Green coffee auctions are an essential part of the coffee industry; they are a platform which connects roasters and producers and supports them to trade coffee.

However, they can also be useful tools to promote social initiatives, as well as an opportunity to raise money. Ultimately, by involving stakeholders from across the supply chain, auctions can raise wider awareness on a number of issues – which consequently benefits the entire industry.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how improving gender equity benefits coffee production.

Photo credits: Grounds for Health

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Please note: Grounds for Health is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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