Erik Mandell

Helping Coffee Farmers Turns Competitors into Colleagues: How big names in coffee are fighting hunger through enterprise

If coffee farmers can’t adequately feed their families, they’re unlikely to be able to take care of the plants that produce the high-quality coffee beans importers want.

That’s one reason a group of competitors are coming together as colleagues in addressing hunger issues in coffee-growing communities. The Coffeelands Food Security Coalition is comprised of six coffee companies — Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Starbucks, Counter Culture, Farmer Brothers, S&D Coffee, and Sustainable Harvest — partnering to fight hunger and expand economic opportunities for coffee-producing families through its inaugural project, a three-year program in Nicaragua called “Empowering Food Secure Communities.”

The coalition recognizes that challenges facing families and communities make it hard for farming families to thrive and to produce the best quality product. The coalition emerged from a long-time commitment by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) to prevent seasonal hunger and diversify income generation in the communities where they source their coffee. Global Envision interviewed Rick Peyser, director of Supply Chain and Community Outreach for GMCR, about working with competitors to improve conditions in coffee-growing regions and challenges facing the industry. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Erik Mandell: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) has been involved in partnerships to address hunger in coffee-sourcing regions for many years. How does the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition differ from previous work related to this issue? How did past partnerships or programs contribute to the development of this program?

Rick Peyser: Other than disaster relief, the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition is the first pre-competitive initiative GMCR has participated in with others in the specialty coffee industry to fund a project focused on improving the quality of life for coffee farming families at the household level. GMCR’s focus on food security projects in coffee communities over the past 5 years has led us to see the tremendous value in collaboration.

Food security, like climate change, clean water, and other pressing challenges, are too large for any single company to solve by itself. A broader approach is called for, and collaboration that brings together a variety of players in and adjacent to the supply chain makes sense to us.

EM: Can you speak about what factors over time have contributed to such a strong CSR focus for GMCR and the development of your personal passion in this area?

RP: During interviews with coffee farmers in Nicaragua in 2007, one farmer after another in community after community told me that his/her family suffered from three to four months of extreme scarcity of food each year during what is known as “los meses flacos” (the thin months), which come after the harvest ends. Hearing this directly from farmers changed not only GMCR’s approach to Corporate Social Responsibility interventions, but me personally.

I became convinced that before we could begin to address coffee quality, we had to address the issue of food security that is fundamental to health, human energy, and life. I also recognized that if farmers could not adequately feed themselves and their families, they were not going to feed their coffee plants that would ultimately provide us with high quality coffee that we rely on.

Since these interviews, GMCR has focused on helping farming families develop on-the-farm resiliency, with a primary focus on food security.

Rick Pesyer meets with coffee-growing families

EM: At the 2010 Sustainable Agriculture Conference you talked about a pilot project in partnership with CECOCAFEN (cofee coop) in Nicaragua. How does the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition build upon lessons learned from partnerships such as that, for example? What has worked well? What has been a challenge?

RP: Since 2007, GMCR has partnered with CECOCAFEN to implement a pilot food security project in northern Nicaragua. During a small 20-person “strategic summit” attended by coffee farmers, cooperative management, and local NGOs, two strategies were adopted to overcome these months of food insecurity:

1) Diversify farmers’ coffee parcels to grow food crops for family consumption and additional income.

2) Grow and store basic grains.

CECOCAFEN offered families a broad menu of activities from which to choose for their own farm – everything from making marmalades to family gardens; from growing cacao to fruits and vegetables to sell at the local market. Last August I spent a week conducting interviews with farmers to hear directly from them what has really changed at the household level due to their participation in this project. For example, one family started a passion fruit project that is now providing them with twice as much income as their coffee. This has completely closed the window of food insecurity for this family, and has created employment opportunities for their small community. Despite these successes, it is clear that more is needed. So far the project has reached about 20 percent of CECOCAFEN’s total membership of over 2,000, and it is continuing to expand.

EM: This is the first coffee coalition that has the expressed goal of bringing coffee companies together to combat a really tough problem — hunger — in the regions where you source your beans. I imagine working with companies that are typically considered your competitors is challenging.

RP: The reality is that “competitors” have become colleagues as we have approached the work of this coalition together as a group.

As members of this coalition, we have developed a high level of trust, comfort, and confidence in working together to tackle the challenge of chronic seasonal hunger in coffee communities. With this compelling focus, it has been far easier than I think any of us may have expected to work with our “competitors.”

EM: What are the benefits of a program like this for GMCR? How does diversifying income for families in coffee-sourcing communities impact your supply chain?

RP: GMCR is interested in helping coffee farming families become more resilient at the household level, to not just survive, but to thrive under all economic, social, and environmental conditions. Most coffee farming families are dependent upon coffee as their only source of income. In fact, many do not grow their own food, but instead, rely on income from coffee to purchase food. In a time of low prices, or low production, their food security is in jeopardy.

Food insecurity is only one challenge many coffee farming families face. In addition, there is often limited if any access to potable water, water for drip irrigation of coffee and vegetable gardens, and limited access to health care, education, financing, and more. At the same time there is an aging coffee farming population with increasing migration of young people to urban centers. If young people do not see a future in coffee, they will leave coffee and their communities.

EM: What do you think is the most interesting component of the program that can serve as a model for future change?

RP: The most interesting thing about the coalition is the simplicity in the way members have come together to facilitate change. Unlike previous efforts that have been focused on improving the quality in the cup, the change the coalition seeks is focused directly on helping to improve the quality of life for coffee farming families. This will build needed resiliency in our supply chains that should have a long term impact on both quality of life and quality in the cup.

EM: What do you see as the most important changes to be made in the coffee industry?

RP: With the acceleration of climate change and its impact on coffee communities, the coffee industry will face increasing pressure on many fronts, including new and stronger pathogens that will threaten coffee supply and livelihoods, increased migration from coffeelands, an aging farming population, and an increased need for resources.

As temperatures increase, high quality coffee will be grown at higher and higher altitudes. Many areas currently producing specialty coffee will no longer be suitable to do so at current volumes, so families, if they are to stay in coffee, will need to transition into other crops to sustain themselves.

These are tremendous challenges that will require thoughtful, strategic planning and collaboration at every level. The current coffee rust disease outbreak has demonstrated a willingness on the part of many parties to come together to seek solutions in the face of a crisis, and has also demonstrated how reactive and relatively unprepared the industry is to respond immediately to large scale crises that threaten supply and livelihoods. Now is the time for the coffee industry to plan, and collaboratively build a platform with other industries and governments, to prepare for the warmer, tougher road ahead. In doing so, the coalition is a model to consider.

EM: What role does an organization like Mercy Corps play in the coalition from the viewpoint of the coffee companies involved? Why work with an international NGO?

RP: The coalition’s members recognize the challenges on the ground faced by coffee farming families and have come together to do something about it collectively. The members also recognize that on-the-ground development is not their area of expertise, and that their companies have not been organized to implement programs like that which the Coalition is funding with Mercy Corps and Aldea Global in northern Nicaragua. Many international NGOs like Mercy Corps have years of experience and have demonstrated success in helping families around the world overcome food insecurity.

Watch the trailer for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ film about ‘los meses flacos, “After the Harvest: Fighting Hunger in the Coffeelands,” here (best viewed in Chrome, or follow this link to YouTube):

Editors note: This article originally appeared on Global Envision, a blog focused on market-based solutions to poverty managed by Mercy Corps, a NextBillion Content Partner.