For many of us, drinking coffee is a reflex we don’t think twice about: a habit tightly woven into our daily routine. We grab takeaways at work, order cups of the stuff while scrolling through our phones in hole-in-the-wall cafés, flick our espresso machines on each morning, bleary-eyed, in anticipation of the caffeine hit to come.
We’ve also become better at savouring the experience. In cities around the world, coffee is having its heyday as consumers flock towards quality beans, depth of flavour and the wonders of a sparkling cold brew. But there’s one aspect of coffee we still tend to ignore — its origin. How often do we ask where our coffee comes from? Or who grew the trees and processed its fruit into the beans we enjoy? As we start to interrogate the supply chains behind the mass-produced clothes we wear and the food we eat, it’s worth turning our attention to the 2.25 billion cups of coffee that are consumed around the world each day. Do the people who produce our coffee — the farmers, skilled workers and their families — actually reap the benefits?
Ask Jairo Arcila this question, and he’ll tell you that many coffee growers in his native Colombia do not receive a fair price for their work. Jairo’s family has been farming coffee for 80 years in Quindio, a mountainous region in the country’s central west. Each step requires great care, from harvesting the cherries by hand when they start to blush deep shades of crimson and purple, to meticulously processing the beans to bring out their unique flavour. The Arcila family’s prized Geisha coffee, for example, is notoriously hard to grow and requires three times more labour resources compared to other varietals. But Jairo believes it’s worth it: Geisha coffee not only has an incredibly complex flavour, but creates employment opportunities for the local community. “In Colombia, coffee is picked by hand, so it’s very labour-intensive work,” says Jairo. “A lot of hands go into every single bean, every cup.”
Currently, the livelihood of Colombian coffee farmers like Jairo is under threat. The price of arabica beans has plummeted to less than$1US per pound on the Intercontinental Exchange — the lowest it has been in 13 years. While this doesn’t necessarily change the price of a flat white for the average café-goer, it’s distressing news for farmers — particularly those who sell their crop to commodity traders. Coffee production has a high cost in Colombia, where beans are handpicked due to the country’s mountainous terrain, and fertilisers are needed to keep farms sustainable. According to Carlos Arcila, Jairo’s son and owner of coffee exporting business Cofinet, serious problems arise when growers — many of them smallholders — are unable to cover these costs due to the low prices their yields fetch on the market. Colombia has lost 40,000 hectares of coffee planting area to date, as farmers leave the industry for other pursuits.
“Many farmers in Colombia are selling their beans for around 15 to 20 per cent below the cost of production,” says Carlos. “The best farms are surviving. Others who cannot spread their costs are basically losing money, losing workers and slowly reducing the wealth of their land.” Jairo agrees. “If it keeps going in the same way, a lot of people will be bankrupt in less than a year.”
For some farmers, there is another way forward. Specialty coffee has been a part of the Australian scene (and increasingly, in countries like Hong Kong and the US) for a while now, offering better-tasting coffee compared to your average commercial brew. Crucial to this is knowing exactly where the beans come from. The industry is based on direct trade: a system where roasters or specialty importers/exporters like Cofinet build direct relationships with farmers and buy beans straight from the source, usually at a premium.
This has huge benefits for Colombian growers. While prices on the Intercontinental Exchange continue to fall due to oversupply, direct trade offers a way for farmers to sell their beans for a higher price that’s based on the true value of their crop. Jairo is a prime example. He sells close to 40 per cent of his harvest through Cofinet, which processes the cherries using alternative fermentation techniques, and helps Jairo build long-term relationships with buyers. For that 40 per cent, Jairo is paid double the amount he would receive if he took his crop to market. He is also now producing more exclusive varietals with better flavour profiles. “We take people that are [producing] commodity coffees, and we supply them with tools to produce coffees that get a better premium,” explains Carlos. “We see the potential in farmers.”
The act of seeing potential — of choosing to champion a supplier rather than just trade goods — is almost revolutionary in our commerce-driven world. For some specialty coffee traders, though, this lies at the core of what they do. MTC Sucafina originally began as a coffee plantation in Northern NSW, Australia. Now an international specialty coffee trader, managing director, Ross Khaiitbaev, says the company aims to “add value to growers” by being involved right at the farm-gate.
“Direct trade is about understanding the challenges and opportunities that come with producing coffee,” he says. This is no cookie-cutter process as each region has its own nuances. Some farmers need training in how to efficiently run a wet mill; others require systems to assess the quality of each batch. Logistics is another area where traders can help — MTC Sucafina work with remote coffee growers in Papua New Guinea that live a three-day hike away from the closest city. The company helped the farmers to build economies of scale, then hired a plane to fly their beans to the nearest port. “We pay what the crop is worth, and help farmers by investing in projects that’s going to provide them with a more sustainable income stream over the years,” says Ross.
MTC Sucafina isn’t alone in its efforts to support growers. Tucked away in an industrial pocket of north-west Sydney is specialty coffee roasters Pablo & Rusty’s. At first glance, the roastery, a seamless outfit that marries digital technology with the precise mechanics of coffee roasting, seems like a world away from the verdant hills of Colombia. Visit the training bar, though, and you’ll see how connected the two locations are. Along the wall are photos of growers and farms from around the globe, each one carefully sourced by the company’s ‘Green Team’ and promoted to customers who enjoy the fruits of their labour. One of these farmers is Jairo, whose prized Geisha coffee is amongst the many single origins available for purchase. Each time a consumer buys a bag of his beans, they are supporting Jairo’s workers at a price that keeps his farm sustainable.
It goes to show we can make a difference, just by being mindful of which coffee we drink. According to Pablo & Rusty’s founder, Saxon Wright, buying good-quality beans is an easy step towards helping farmers and their workers receive their due. “High quality coffees are generally from ethical farms where growers are being rewarded for their work. By enjoying better coffee, you’re probably participating in a better supply chain and long-term environment,” says Saxon.
Like Cofinet and MTC Sucafina, Pablo & Rusty’s is committed to creating an ethical and transparent supply chain that helps growers thrive. For example, if certain farms in Colombia, Panama and the Yunnan province are unable to afford fertiliser due to lack of finances, the roaster pre-pays for beans so growers can invest in crop management measures to keep their farms sustainable. Fostering quality like this comes at a premium, but for a growing number of coffee-drinkers, it’s worth paying the extra dollars. “We’re willing to spend $10 go $15 on a glass of wine, so why are we paying only $3.50 for coffee?” says Saxon. “If you have a wine, you want to know the region and the varietal. Good coffee is connected to the land, the farmers and the people. It has been prepared for you by someone at a cost. If coffee is cheap, it’s not the cafes or roasters that get squeezed, it’s the farmers.”
Consumers should be cautious though — paying more for a bag of beans or a flat white doesn’t always guarantee an ethical supply chain, especially as the specialty coffee direct trade industry is currently unregulated. “There are many companies out there that put the prices up, but don’t pass that on to suppliers and their farmers,” says Carlos. “It has to be a conscious and ethical chain so consumers pay for something that is really helping our people, not just making more money in the middle while the farmers don’t get any benefits.”
This means it’s wise to do your research and check a brand’s supply chains before buying. “Find cafes that use roasters you know and support brands that give you an understanding of what they do,” says Saxon. This shouldn’t be difficult — According to Ross, when MTC Sucafina take buyers to visit the regions where their coffee is grown, they don’t hesitate to share the experience.
“When you take people to farms for the first time and they meet the growers and learn about some of their obstacles and challenges they face, their eyes just light up,” he says.
“They tell their consumers that something as mundane as a cup of coffee that you drink at 8:45am, five days a week, can actually transform and help someone halfway across the world.”
And it’s hard to put a price on that.