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VOLCAFE: NO SUSTAINABILITY IF WE GRIND DOWN COFFEE FARMERS

VOLCAFE: NO SUSTAINABILITY IF WE GRIND DOWN COFFEE FARMERS



Volcafe, the green coffee trading arm of ED&F Man, says it is time to stop beating about the bush: without profitability at origin, it says, there can be no sustainability.

Trishul Mandana, Managing Director of Volcafe, said “The growth in sustainable coffee, which had been gaining momentum, appears to be faltering as many participants in the industry look to define how to react following consolidation in the roasting industry.

“Despite this setback, committed participants in the supply chain continue to get involved at origin, but despite the fervour with which we all discuss sustainability, profitability remains a dirty word. That has to change.”

“Where poverty prevails, so too does the risk of rural flight, the next generation of growers deserting coffee farms in search of a better life in the cities,” said the company, which has developed a new kind of responsible sourcing programme that is built around profit, seeking to tackle real challenges, implement tangible solutions and deliver measurable results. It is called the ‘Volcafe Way’.

Mr Mandana said the Volcafe Way “is not some altruistic sustainability campaign” but a grass-roots approach to coffee sourcing that embeds commercial and agronomic acumen.

“It has one clear aim,” he said, “to ensure that farmers make money and thereby incentivise future generations to carry on the family tradition. If coffee farming is a viable profession, upstream profitability sends a positive ripple through the supply chain, securing consistent sources of supply and preserving the interests of downstream participants and consumers.”

Volcafe Way offers individual and group coaching to coffee producers, looking at all the components of coffee production: planting, weeding, rejuvenation and harvesting practices, pruning (tissue management), soil management, pest & disease management, shade management and plant nutrition. The key is for producers to understand the true cost of production – including their own labour – and to prioritise social and environmental best practices that support responsible sourcing.

Carlos Ortiz, Global Manager for the Volcafe Way, said “Participating growers sign an agreement that outlines each party’s respective responsibilities in the programme. It is not a contract – the producers are not legally obligated to follow the advice, nor are they obligated to sell the coffee to Volcafe. The agreement lays out the plan and makes clear the actions that our Farmer Support Organisation and producer partners have agreed upon to encourage long-term commercial viability.”

Volcafe said its objective is to empower farmers to make their own, well-informed business decisions and pro-actively drive their future.

“Once a Volcafe Way business-model farm starts to flourish,” said Mr Ortiz, “we promote it as local learning hub where surrounding communities can exchange best practices. The early adopters serve as catalysts for change, transferring business skills to neighbouring farms so that everyone learns and benefits, whether they work directly with us or not.”

“There are some fantastic sustainability initiatives in the coffee industry,” Mr Mandana said, “but there is also a degree of froth where we need robust measures. Agronomy expertise, climatic adaptation and social investment alone are not enough. The root of sustainable coffee is profitable coffee farming. It is about providing deserving, hard-working farming families with a livelihood that allows them to prosper, invest and hand down the fruits of their labour to the next generation.”

A data-driven approach will be used to track impact, increase transparency, enable full traceability and focus on results. This will be verified by Flocert, the independent verification arm of Fairtrade International, as an impact-focused programme (rather than a compliance program). As a result, Volcafe’s roaster customers can track the progress of producers – in terms of productivity, profitability and social and environmental factors – in the region from which they source and build long-term, mutually beneficial business relationships.

(photo: CIFOR)

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5 Comments

  1. Dean Cycon

    I applaud Volcafe for this initiative. In my thirty years in the industry I have seen a lot of well intentioned and a lot of ill intentioned programs come and go. No one has figured out what real sustainability looks like, as opposed to programs that maintain our gross margins and keep farmers in poverty. Let’s hope that Volcafe’s approach bears fruit!

    Reply
    1. Shauna Alexander

      Thank you, Dean. I worked on this for four (4) years at Volcafe, and it was built from the ground up – by origin, for origin – with farm profitability front and center from the beginning. Building something real takes time, as Carlos Ortiz and all the Farmer Support teams well know. They have the expertise, and I wish them the best in continuing strong implementation. Great to see Trishul’s words of support. It’s the real deal.

      Reply
  2. Hans Emilio Homberger

    Excellent initiative! Coffee farming has to remain an attractive alternative for the local farm communities! If these coffee communities don’t flourish, they’re doomed to dissapear within a generation or two…

    Reply
  3. Clive Drew

    There have been so many initiatives that talk the talk but they don’t alleviate smallholder poverty. Profitability is key – as we say “if it pays it stays”. Donor support was flowing, especially if the beneficiary farmers could be linked to major value chain actors in specialty and sustainable coffee at the roaster/retail levels. But donors also need to record Impact on their beneficiaries and do some B/C analysis – not just anecdotal reporting. And there are too many smallholder beneficiaries with a false illusion that “sustainable price premium” will alleviate their poverty without themselves investing in productivity and quality enhancement on their small plots. Zero input technologies will only cause an exit of the next generation to urban life

    Reply

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