The Chains That Bind

Updated February 6, 2018

When I started this new chapter in my coffee career, my first interaction with smallholder farmers was an eye-opener, even life-changing. It was life-changing in that I saw, up-close and personal, a completely different way of life from my own. My cultural perspective is formed from being a white male born and raised in a developed, first-world nation that has a serious case of consumerism*.

From that perspective, I see people who seemingly have less than I do, who have to work harder in life than I do and the temptation is to step in and "help them."  That temptation is borne from the assumption that they want the same life that I have and that I somehow know what is better for them.

But to date, every smallholder farmer I've met has been happy! They have been proud of their lives and proud to invite me into their homes and to share their coffee or sit around their fire and share their food. It has truly been a humbling experience and an opportunity to grow and mature not only as a "coffee guy" but as a person in general.

lunch around the fire

Given that they are happy with their lives, does that mean I should do nothing and let things continue as they are?

In Star Trek, there is something called the Prime Directive.

"The Prime Directive, used in four out of five Star Trek-based series, prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations1."

I think that is a pretty good directive.  Civilizations should progress at their own pace as long as they are not being exploited as a result of their comparative lack of sophistication.  But therein lies the rub.  Are the farmers being exploited?  Could they benefit more if their methods were more sophisticated?

Coffee is a commodity that is largely produced by developing countries2 and largely consumed by developed countries3.  The supply chain needed to get the coffee from the farm to the cup can be quite complicated.  At the beginning of the supply chain the coffee is a raw material that still needs to be roasted before it becomes a consumable product (discounting the green coffee drink fad).  Before it can be roasted though, it first has to be processed by a mill, which will take a raw cherry and process it into an un-roasted coffee bean.  It is then usually bought by a trader/broker/exporter who will then resell it and ship it overseas to the next buyer.  That buyer may be another trader/distributer/importer who then will resell it again to a roaster, who will eventually roast it and sell it to either a retail customer or to a wholesale customer who will sell it yet again.

Farmer -> Mill -> Exporter -> Importer -> Roaster -> Retail/Wholesale Customer ~> Retail Customer

Granted, there are cases where roasters trade directly with the farmers, but this level of interaction is still relatively rare in the grand scheme of things and thus is more the exception than the rule.  But it is getting more common.

But back to that long supply chain.  Each link in the chain needs to make a profit.  With each additional link in the chain, the price to purchase the product increases.  If there are multiple traders in the chain "up stream" from a roaster, that coffee will be more expensive for the roaster and he will have to increase his selling price to make up for that increase in cost.

So far in this hypothetical, over-simplified scenario, I do not see anything "unfair" for the farmer.  The farmer sold a product at a fair price at the beginning of the supply chain and the farmer is now out of the equation.  His involvement in the chain is done and the chain's responsibility to him is satisfied.  Granted, there is a large disparity between the price paid to the farmer and the price paid for the final product, but all of the money that makes up that disparity did not go straight to the roaster — it was spread along the entire chain each time the coffee changed hands*.

But what if the the farmer is a smallholder, with just a couple of hectares of land, producing only a few hundred pounds of coffee every year?  At that small size, a lone smallholder farmer does not have a lot of bargaining power.  He likely does not have wide access to markets.  He likely does not have a research and development program.  You get the idea.  Smallholders gain several advantages when they organize themselves and cooperate with each other to share resources such as bargaining power, knowledge, labor, equipment, etc.

And that is where I can help improve things; by helping farmers organize and by facilitating research and development.  As a licensed Q Grader and a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), I have access to knowledge and information that will directly benefit their business operations.  I can help them improve the quality of their product, help them make their operations more efficient, and help them expand their access to markets, making it easier for them to sell their product for a good price.

It is not uncommon for Westerners who spend some time at origin to feel some guilt and to feel the need to make a difference.  You can read about many cases on roaster's blogs and websites.  But those feelings of guilt and the drive to make a difference need to be 1)  tempered by a version of the Prime Directive and 2) be focused on the right thing, which is equipping the farmers with the skills necessary to improve their own situation, should they choose to do so.

Updated: Replaced broken link to wiki in reference #2 and changed link #3.


Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader and an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST).