Specialty Coffee Blog on What Would an Equitable Coffee Industry Look Like?

A fair and equitable world would be considered a utopia for the poorest people in the world, many of them who farm coffee.

Those who benefit directly from the inequality frame the belief that such an ideal is impossible or not worth the effort to obtain.

Let’s think of a utopian society where everyone in the market is treated with equal respect as equitable partners, determining value and benefit in accordance with their level of input.

An equitable coffee industry where importance is placed on reinvesting value back into each component of the supply chain and the communities where coffee is grown, enabling the farmer to do a better job in producing good coffee.

We at TGCP believe such ideals are more than achievable. In fact, trading with farmers directly is just one small step in creating a marketplace that is fair and equitable for everyone operating in it, not just the traders who benefit from slave labour enforced on coffee farmers. 

In looking at what it takes to achieve a good coffee marketplace should look like. To achieve such a market, we must take a closer look into the coffee industry to gain a better understanding of how these two worlds work together.

Building an equitable coffee market:

We believe a market where each farmer goes to work knowing they will end their day with sufficient pay, eliminating the threat of starvation for themselves and their families should be a basic right.

From the amount of capital generated in this market, we believe that coffee can be an industry where from the start of the supply chain, human needs are met and not considered an alien thought. Coffee, an industry where the weight of the world is not the pay that farmers receive for producing our daily cups of coffee, but rather the support of the world in making sure they are reimbursed sufficiently for their efforts and specialist growing capabilities.

This is what we believe building a truly equitable sector looks like but the question of how this would be achieved, is still a question. There are a number of potential solutions but let’s focus on one, for now.

‘Removing redundant actors’:

Many of the participants within the coffee industry are third parties who believe they should be paid for value they add to the process, taking money from the supply that could go towards better support for the farmers.

Much of the “middle stuff” happens before the coffee reaches the exporters. This hugely impacts the cost of coffee as well as dictating the amount of money the farmer takes home. Essentially, farmers wages are paid by these middlemen who exploit the farmers, leaving them little option but to work in abhorrent conditions, often without payment at all.

These actors dictate the very livelihoods of the farmers who otherwise have no other way of being in contact with exporters. Coffee is typically grown in the outskirts of countries, in dense forests, mountains and valleys, generally locations that lack infrastructure to monitor the process. Worse still, the people lack education and training to make informed decisions within their operation and have little to no control over the harvests they produce, let alone their pay. They work diligently without any in-depth knowledge of what they are producing with many yet to even experience the ‘bitter sweet’ taste of the coffee they grow. 

Ffarmers often work without knowing who and where in the world their produce will be transported to and more importantly, how much it will be sold for. Thus, the few measly dollars received - if they are lucky enough to be paid at all - for a grueling 18-hour work day in the field, is considered ‘gold’ for these farmers.

For remote farmers, isolated atop hills and mountains, there is even less room for negotiation. The options are simple; accept the sum and keep working or stop working and go without those few dollars to your death.

The farmers growing the coffee - the very substance needed to keep the market going to aid this global coffee consumption - should realistically hold the most power. If they had ultimate control over their produce, choosing freely when to trade and who to trade with, we would not have this equity deficit.

Why do these actors continue to hold so much power? I hear you ask! I have asked myself this, also. Though the answer may seem straightforward, it is somewhat more complex.

As a result of market player greed, farmers are repeatedly forced into a complex supply cycle where producing these coffee beans is the difference between life and death. The ‘middle’ have dealt all the cards of this game they have created, using the farmers as insignificant pawns. It should also be noted that the larger corporations buying coffee via these middlemen enable these cruel people to maintain this cycle.

In such a cycle, there is little consideration or due care for the farmers who labour daily to meet the staggering demand in global coffee consumption. 

The main reason farmers are not paid fairly is that their pay goes into the hands of such middlemen and the massive coffee corporations that completely disregard their existing and future livelihood.

How do we take out the ‘redundant middle’?

It is important to establish direct trade between the farmer and coffee buyers to ensure that sustainable farming methods are practiced. By doing this, farmers are able to set a higher price for their coffee, and have more decision-making power, which will help to improve their lives significantly. 

Farmers will be able to take home a larger sum and not be devalued or made subject to the circumstances and conditions they work in.

A fairer economic society, built on a foundation of ethical morals and better working environments are all potential outcomes of eliminating the ‘redundant middle’.

Traceable transactions relative to the coffee harvest should be between the buyer and the farmer, without the need for a middle entity. If the middle cannot be trusted to add value and make sure farmers are paid, why should they have anything to do with such a transaction? 

It is crystal clear to me that farmers should be paid what their input is worth. The entire coffee industry would be non-existent if not for their work. We owe it to these coffee farmers to do better.

What is stopping equity from happening?

Like many markets in the world of the capitalist, money dictates its movement. Just not for the benefit of the farmer.

It seems a simple concept to add more value to coffee farmers and the communities where coffee is grown, ultimately increasing the value of the market as a whole. After all, a market can only grow so far without development.

Currently, the larger corporations are able to mass produce coffee due to the low prices they pay and the destructive methods they use. It is haunting to think just how underhand the process of obtaining coffee beans on a vast scale actually is but there seems to be no bottom to the extreme measures that companies are willing to take in order to obtain the cheapest bean. However, this vicious cycle needs to come to an end.

Money should be paid directly to the farmers and invested into the growing communities to help further development within the industry. A major clue that this is not already happening, despite all the clever marketing that these coffee companies and corporations do is evident from the number of farmers and growing communities around the world who are struggling to survive.

It may seem impossible to ensure we pay the farmer directly each time we buy coffee but I am here to assure you that there is a solution.

The Good Coffee Project is building direct trade relationships throughout its buying operations, making sure we pay the farmers equitably and in a traceable manner.

As an ethical coffee company, we refuse to repeat this abominable cycle. We are here to highlight that farmers can be paid directly, through us. We feel it is of utmost importance to buy our coffee from ethical sources with the farmer at the forefront of our considerations, removing the need for the middle actor so we can form relationships with the farmers themselves.

Moreover, significant investments are essential. We should consider our incomes too valuable to throw into the hands of people who do not have your best interests in mind as a consumer or producer, merely capitalising on your naivety. For this reason, we encourage you to put your coffee money with us, where we can evidence exactly where your money goes to when you buy our coffee.

Join our movement to take out the ‘redundant middle’ with us and help pay the farmers what their input is worth. Without them, we have no coffee industry.

Written by Luma

Research Intern

The Good Coffee Project

Written by Chantel Daniel