February 26, 2021

How can coffee roasters drive change at origin?


The coffee industry is huge. In August 2020, the ICO reported that approximately 10.4 million 60kg bags of coffee had been exported in the 2019/20 production year. It also states that some 60% of the world’s coffee production comes from smallholder producers, who together represent some 12 million coffee farmers worldwide.

This means that there are millions of people around the world who rely on coffee production as a source of income. Today, the sector is more aware than ever of the challenges that coffee farmers face in producing countries, including price fluctuations, income instability, labour shortages, and climate change, to name just a few.

As such, it’s important that roasters operate in a way that leverages profit and social impact to change things for the better both at home and in the countries they buy coffee from. To learn more about how this is possible, I spoke to Jennifer Yeatts, Head of Coffee at Higher Grounds Trading Co., and Ed Canty, General Manager at Coop Coffees. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article exploring the DRC as a coffee origin.

The Soil Generation workshop by Coop Coffees, underway at the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia

Examining the relationship between roaster and origin 

“Every roaster has their own connection to a coffee’s origin,” Jennifer tells me. She says that for the person operating the roaster, that connection and the story behind the coffee really do matter.

“It can tell a story of elevation, variety, soil quality, harvesting, and processing methods, all of which inform the roasting process.

“For a roaster [like us], a particular origin might represent why that company exists at all – and that’s our story at Higher Grounds. Mexico, specifically Chiapas, represents our own origin story; [we have] a 20-year friendship with coffee producers there. That friendship was the seed [that started] our coffee journey.” 

Similarly, Ed says that a good relationship between a roaster and their partners at origin drives long-term commitment and investment. “What’s the benefit from having that long-term commitment? [Well], once people see it, it’s like a snowball effect,” he tells me.

He says that when roasters choose to buy coffee from a certain origin, they are effectively championing particular farms, regions, and even countries as a whole. That is a “vote of confidence” for the origin within the wider coffee sector. 

To illustrate his point, Ed uses the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Once a few importers [start] offering DRC coffee and it gets popular, others are going to ask: ‘Why don’t I have that? I need to have this new offering in my supply chain.’”

Coffee buyers with producers in Peru

How do roasters support different origins? 

There are a number of ways for roasters to support and promote a particular origin. One of the simplest is just ensuring that the coffee is roasted well. By doing so, you showcase the unique characteristics that a certain origin has to offer. If quality is high, people will keep coming back and trying that coffee, driving greater demand for a certain farm, country, or region.

However, Jennifer tells me that roasters vary in how they support a certain origin. “Some will hone in sharply on the quality of the coffee as the main selling point… cup scores, wild taste descriptions, exotic-sounding processing methods – these data points appeal to a certain specialty coffee audience,” she tells me. 

However, she adds that roasters should be straightforward. “Promotion of origin, I think, should focus on straightforward storytelling,” Jennifer explains.  “[Roasters should look at] demystifying coffee and where it comes from, sharing its human side, and ultimately drawing consumers into the collaborative cycle that is the global coffee trade.

“I’m not saying it’s easy – but we should strive for it.”

On the other hand, establishing long-term relationships and contracts with co-operatives or groups of producers gives them more financial security. They will then be able to reinvest profits in their farms to scale and improve the quality of their crop.

“Our purchase of a full container from the Kawa Kanzururu co-operative in North Kivu in 2017 represented the first major sale for those farmers,” Jennifer says. “That was a big deal for a group of young farmers who had newly formed their co-op. [Today, three years on, they are] still growing and improving.”

Ed agrees, noting that providing any kind of long-term stability is a great way to drive positive change. “The sale of coffee and the relationships [that lead to] them really is a lifeline for a lot of [coffee-producing] communities,” he says. “Just having that established relationship is really how producers can see their [livelihoods] changing in the long term.”

A Coop Coffee origin trip to Peru

Why is supporting or promoting an origin important? 

“Promotion is important for every coffee origin,” Jennifer says. “Each country, even [specific] regions within each country, has a distinct character and culture relevant to its coffee’s story.”

She emphasises that this is important because it gives producers a face within the coffee community. “They become real, tangible, demonstrable personalities,” she says. “This consequently means it becomes more and more difficult to view coffee as a commodity.” 

Promotion also helps to highlight emerging origins. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. A few decades ago, the country was one of Africa’s largest coffee producers in terms of volume. However, after years of conflict, political instability, and war, coffee exports in the DRC plummeted.

Today, however, coffee is returning as a symbol of hope and economic progress in the DRC. Initiatives such as Saveur du Kivu, an annual coffee conference and auction in Bukavu, South Kivu, are giving the country more visibility in the global coffee sector.

“[This] has led to increasing exports of DRC coffee, and much wider visibility of and familiarity with the origin on a global scale,” Jennifer explains.

“We want to keep the momentum going and continue to promote and share the DRC’s amazing coffee so that more and more importers and roasters will buy it as well. We believe that coffee is an essential element of the DRC’s path forward to economic and social stability.”

Celebrating an organic farming certification at COMSA, Honduras

How can roasters drive change on a greater scale?

Both Jennifer and Ed agree that long-term relationships are key. “If you want to invest in the community, you’ve got to stay there,” Ed tells me.

When roasters build long-term relationships at origin, producers can secure future sales and count on financial stability in the future. While this is crucial, Ed adds that paying good prices for coffee is a critical part of the equation. This way, producers are able to reinvest in their farms and sustainably grow their business. 

Jennifer notes that Higher Grounds is dedicated to paying prices that are “beyond fair” for the coffee they buy. Rather than simply paying above Fairtrade floor prices when sourcing coffee, she says they guarantee a minimum FOB price of US $2.20. This is more than double the average 2019 FOB price of US $1.02 for commodity coffee on the New York Stock Exchange.

Additionally, she says that they pay differentials and premiums for higher quality, organic certifications, and any coffees that drive social impact at origin. If the C price is within US $0.30 of this figure, she tells me that they make sure they pay $0.30 above that, instead.

Transparency in the supply chain is also becoming increasingly important. Ed explains that while traceability might give visibility to an origin, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee any benefit for the producer.

“[With] transparency, you’re getting an understanding of whether that price is good or bad for that producer and whether they can hit quality targets,” he says. 

Additionally, he tells me that using certifications (such as being a B Corp) has helped Coop Coffees to formalise its working structure and “stay true to its values”. Jennifer adds that Higher Grounds is also a certified B Corp, which has supported them to deliver value and drive social impact across the coffee supply chain, specifically in the DRC. 

She adds: “Our relationships there have grown into opportunities for literacy and financial planning workshops, gender equity programming, and health-related initiatives. These have included installing hand-washing stations at coffee processing facilities via Coop Coffees, our non-profit work with On the Ground, and other collaborative partnerships.”

Coop Coffees and Higher Grounds also collaborate to provide producers or co-operatives with pre-financing options and open contracts. This gives the farmer more power if the C price is low.

In addition, Ed tells me that for every pound of green coffee bought, US $0.03 goes to Coop Coffees’ Impact Fund. This fund supports farmer initiatives to combat climate change. Similarly, where possible, Jennifer says Higher Grounds works in partnership with non-profits (such as On the Ground) to drive further development projects in coffee communities. 

A coffee cupping team at Saveur du Kivu 2018

Balancing profit and purpose isn’t always easy, but with the right focus, roasters can drive change at origin while remaining a successful business.

Jennifer concludes by saying that it all comes back to a focus on the people behind the coffee. “I believe that’s what it means to be ‘socially conscious’,” she says. “We need to be fully aware of human society and its struggles.

“By conducting business in the coffee sector in that way, we can confront inequality and cultivate humanity’s vast potential.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article breaking down the DRC’s coffee sector.

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Higher Grounds Trading Co. is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Photo credits: Saveur du Kivu, Higher Grounds Trading, Coop Coffees

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!