aroma of freshly brewed coffee is a familiar wake-up call that many can’t live without. Whether you’re standing in front of your coffee machine or waiting in a drive-thru line-up, the day doesn’t begin until you get your first cup of joe. And you’re not alone. More people are consuming coffee than ever before, and the demand for it continues to rise.
About 125 million people worldwide – mainly in developing countries – rely on growing coffee to make a living. But unlike the retailers and Western cafés that sell coffee at a profit, the farmers who produce the coveted beans are struggling to survive. Their profit depends on the highly volatile commodity market price. Farmers also face costly environmental challenges like drought and disease that threaten to destroy their crops.
Bruno and Kathleen Soucy, CBM’s Latin America Team Leaders, visited coffee farms in El Salvador earlier this year. Although coffee was once a mainstay of the country’s economy, growers have been abandoning their farms to find alternative sources of income. For many, it now costs more to produce coffee than what they get in return. “When people can’t feed their families they move to other places,” explains Bruno. Coffee growers often migrate to urban areas in search of work, only to encounter new challenges when they arrive. A lack of education and limited job opportunities make it difficult for rural dwellers to earn a living. For those who are able to find work, many are paid a low wage, endure hard physical labour or work in unsafe conditions. Women who take on domestic work or nanny roles in the city must leave their own families behind for extended periods of time. In Central America, the hopelessness can also be seen at the U.S. border, where droves of migrants are seeking refuge. There are many contributing factors that lead to this risky decision, but among them is their lost livelihood. “It’s just a vicious cycle of never getting out of poverty,” says Bruno.
[above] Coffee pickers at a farm in El Salvador prepare their harvest to be processed. Through a direct trade model, they are able to earn a fair wage.
INEQUITY IN A CUP
For more than a decade, world coffee prices have been declining. Earlier this year, the market price dropped below a dollar a pound – reaching the lowest level in more than 13 years. This price usually determines what coffee growers will get paid per pound when they sell their beans to a “middle man” at a mill. The beans are then processed and sold to an exporter before reaching consumers through retail outlets. The overall journey from farm to table varies and can be complex. But one thing is clear: profitability occurs at the other end of the supply chain. Although a cup of coffee can be sold for about $4 or $5 in cafés, the farmers who produce the beans take home a marginal amount of the retail value (see the graphic below).
“Think of the abuse that happens when you don’t have resources, and don’t have any control or power,” says Kathleen. “Imagine growing beans and not being able to sell them at a price that you can put back into your farm – let alone feed your family. The system is set up to abuse small producers.”
About a third of the coffee supply on the market is produced by Brazil, making it the world’s largest producer. When Brazil experiences a bumper crop or a decrease in its currency value, it leads to increased export sales – driving the global price down. Countries like Vietnam and Colombia that have increased their production in recent years have also impacted global coffee prices.
Rodrigo Giammattei (left) and Gustavo and Leena Castelar (right) are the founders of Firebat, a coffee roasting company that works directly with local farmers in El Salvador.
A NEW DIRECTION
Gustavo and Leena Castelar are the founders of Firebat, a coffee roasting company in Oakville, Ont., which seeks to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers. Along with their co-founding partner based in El Salvador, Rodrigo Giammattei, the couple has seen first-hand how coffee growers struggle to make ends meet when the market price dips. “To a producer who is desperate, this is the kiss of death,” says Gustavo. “If you grow the same quality of coffee as Brazil, you will get the same price. But you will never have the volume or productivity that they have.”
Many coffee farmers in El Salvador grow their plants under tree canopies, which means ripe beans must be picked by hand. Although this is a labour-intensive task, it ensures that only the best beans are selected – compared to large mechanized farms that harvest indiscriminately.
While this process makes it difficult for small farms to compete against mass producers, it opens the door to another market: specialty coffee. “We believe there’s an opportunity for producers to make a living from coffee, but the focus must switch to ‘quality’ in order to bypass the commodity market prices,” explains Leena.
CBM recently partnered with Firebat to offer specialty coffee through Collective Cup, an initiative that encourages Canadian Baptists to “serve justice when you serve coffee.” A collective of farmers in El Salvador produces the coffee using sustainable practices that help preserve the environment. They also adhere to strict guidelines that ensure quality and unique flavour, which roasters are willing to pay more for. Through this partnership, pickers get paid a day’s wage rather than by the pound.And farmers receive a significantly higher rate for their beans than the commodity market price.
This allows them to feed their families consistently, and it also empowers farmers to thrive in their own business.
“As Christians, we want to work with people who help to equalize the playing field,” says Kathleen. The farmers in the collective benefit from a direct trade model, which the Castelars refer to as “relationship coffee” because they work directly with the growers and know their names. This connection provides a supportive environment for farmers, who can work collaboratively with roasters and make decisions. The end result is rare and distinct beans that will satisfy the coffee connoisseur.
Nacho is one of the coffee farmers in El Salvador who supplies coffee to Firebat. He built his farm from the ground up in the early 2000s, collecting wild and abandoned coffee plants on a small plot of land. A few years later, he started planting an exotic variety of beans. With local support, he took the little that he had and submitted his rare coffee in national competitions – and he won several times. Each time, he reinvested his earnings into his farm. Nacho is now a successful farmer and his children can access post-secondary education. “Today, he is able to sell his beans directly to roasters and avoid the commodity market altogether,” says Leena.
Brenda Halk, CBM’s Senior Associate of Strategic Projects, says, “While tackling injustice in our world can seem like a daunting task, swapping out your morning cup of java is a good place to start. Coffee is something almost all of us consume. When churches serve ethical coffee, it’s a real simple way of educating people about the global issues behind something we consume every single day and don’t even think about.”