Coffeelands: Influencing Public and Private Sectors

Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS

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CRS’ Coffeelands program includes 8 components: value-chain approach; capacity building; chain-wide facilitation; innovation; livelihood diversification; labor; research; influence.

This fourth of a four-part Coffeelands series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) looks at the program’s emphasis on influence in the public and private sectors.

Influence > advocacy

In our coffee programming, we have been very intentional about our preference for the term “influence” as opposed to the more common term “advocacy”, which may be more limited in scope.

Advocacy is widely associated with policy issues. And while Coffeelands does work to influence policymakers and public policy, it also works to influence key decision-makers in the private sector. In both spaces, the objective is to support decision-making and contribute to policies and practices that improve supply chain transparency, inclusion, equity and ecological responsibility.

Public + private

Our experience suggests that in some regards, there are lower barriers to influence in the private sector since it is nominally governed by transparent business logic and not driven by the political incentives that policymakers respond to—incentives that can be opaque, non-linear and difficult to understand.

Coffee samples prepared for the process of “cupping” – the term for assessing the the quality of a given coffee. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
Coffee samples prepared for the process of “cupping” – the term for assessing the the quality of a given coffee. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
In the private-sector, there are a range of innovations CRS delivers through its coffee programming that generate clear value for our private-sector allies and position CRS for influence. Among them:

  • Developing new trading relationships
  • Upgrading existing supply chain operations through better agricultural practices, better organizational capacity, improved quality or some combination of these
  • Generating measurable economic, social and/or environmental impacts
  • Communicating publicly about the pro-poor innovations of a particular company
  • Delivering reliable and actionable information on supply chain challenges

The public-sector focus of Coffeelands includes both public policy in coffee-growing countries and public policy related to the coffee trade in the United States.

The two pre-eminent examples of our influence over public policy in coffee-growing countries come from Latin America: one from Colombia and another from Nicaragua. 

Agriculture livelihoods

For more on CRS' approach to supporting smallholder farm families, see Pathway to Prosperity.

In Colombia, the value-chain approach of the CRS Borderlands Coffee Project required a rigorous analysis of the coffee value chain in the Department of Nariño, where the project was being implemented.  That process was implemented with an explicit intent to influence the entire sector and expand the impact of our investment beyond the 1,600 growers who participated in the Borderlands project.

At the time the project was launched, the Government of Nariño was planning an investment of public funds to renovate coffee fields with the disease-resistant variety Castillo. But when CRS catalyzed a multi-stakeholder analysis of the chain as part of our value-chain approach, the Government of Nariño noticed.  It convened all the relevant actors in the territory for a participatory value-chain analysis. Our partners at CIAT facilitated process. 

That process advanced recommendations for specific actions that could help smallholder farmers seize new opportunities in the marketplace—recommendations the government embraced as policy and actions it has financed with public funds.  As a result of this approach, a project designed to serve 1,600 growers had a positive impact on the lives of 40,000 coffee-growing families who benefitted from an improved policy approach to the coffee sector—one that invested in downstream activities including processing, quality control, organizational strengthening and market access. 

While the impacts were very different for growers who participated in the project than for those who benefitted from it indirectly in the form of improved coffee sector policy, this approach allowed us to expand the project’s reach 25-fold while embedding a value-chain framework in the public sector’s approach to the coffee sector.

A policy brief describing the process, identifying key messages and issuing recommendations for similar efforts to influence the public sector is available here on the CRS Coffeelands blog.

In the United States

The Coffeelands Program has also begun working in the United States to support passage of policies that will increase the transparency, inclusion, equity and environmental sustainability of the coffee trade.  These actions, of course, are closely coordinated with the CRS Government Relations and Advocacy team in Baltimore and Washington and with the policy positions of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A worker in El Salvador loads bags of dried coffee beans destined for a local processing plant. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
A worker in El Salvador loads bags of dried coffee beans destined for a local processing plant. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
The first Coffeelands action alert was issued in 2015 in connection with federal legislation designed to promote transparency in supply chains.  It is similar to this landmark bill from California—Senate Bill 657, also known as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.  SB657 affects all companies doing business in California with more than $100 million in annual global sales revenues. They would be required to make annual public disclosure of the policies and practices they have put in place to prevent, identify and remediate cases of human trafficking or modern slavery.

HR 3226 and its counterpart bill in the Senate, S 1968, would apply similar provisions at the national level to all companies operating in the United States. 

The USCCB has publicly called for passage of this measure, and CRS has issued calls for legislative action as part of the Catholics Confront Global Poverty campaign. 

In 2015, Coffeelands staff members with experience in private-sector engagement and labor issues in coffee supply chains visited Capitol Hill to meet with staffers to support passage of the bill.

The Coffeelands Program also issued an action alert calling on readers of the Coffeelands Blog to contact their representatives in Congress to express support for the bill

Private sector

We have also worked through our coffee programming to exert influence in the private sector.  To date, there have been three categories of CRS influence in the coffee sector: business model innovation, decision-support and issue advocacy.

Business model innovation is the infuence agenda most closely tied to our value chain approach. Together with growers and buyers we foster participatory learning cycles that design, test and refine innovations to make business models more efficient, inclusive or equitable.

The business model innovation cycle follows a highly structured process developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) together with CRS and other development organizations. The cycle is refined continuously through field-based testing and validation.  Its five steps include:

  • Value chain mapping
  • Business model analysis
  • Scoring the model for performance on inclusive business principles
  • Identifying areas for innovation
  • Testing, monitoring and refinement.

A worker holds grafted coffee plants at a coffee nursery in San Marcos, Guatemala. CRS helps increase farmer resilience wth efficient management, improved varieties, and expanded access to technical and financial services. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight
A worker holds grafted coffee plants at a coffee nursery in San Marcos, Guatemala. CRS helps increase farmer resilience wth efficient management, improved varieties, and expanded access to technical and financial services. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight
As part of the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia, CRS collaborated with CIAT to implement the its methodology [Office1] with U.S. roasters.  The most promising innovation involved the decision of one roaster to expand the range of coffee qualities it was purchasing at premium prices to include lower-grade lots. The innovation helps the roaster source coffees for new products with less stringent quality standards. And it appeals to growers because it reduces transaction costs (multiple grades to one buyer instead of seeking different buyers for different quality grades) and delivers premium prices over a larger volume of coffee.

Decision support helps ensure that decisions made by coffee industry leaders are informed by results-based evidence and perspectives from the field that privilege the voices of smallholder coffee growers and coffee farmworkers.

The preeminent example of influence via decision-support was the Colombia Sensory Trial, a cross-sector collaboration involving leaders in the coffee, research and international development communities to rigorously and independently assess the sensory performance of two leading Colombian coffee varieties: Castillo and Caturra.

Caturra is a dwarf mutation of the Borboun cultivar generally well-regarded for its sensory characteristics but susceptible to coffee leaf rust and other diseases.  Castillo is a hybrid cultivar that was produced by the breeding program at the Colombian coffee research institute Cenicafé by crossing Caturra with Timor Hybrid.  The Timor Hybrid contains Robusta genetics and is the basis of all contemporary breeding for disease resistance in Arabica cultivars. Castillo has delivered on its promise of high productivity and resistance to diseases including coffee leaf rust, which had a devastating effect on production beginning in 2008, but its claims to cup quality had been questioned by influential actors in the specialty coffee industry.

The rejection of Castillo by prominent quality-focused buyers and the susceptibility of Caturra to coffee leaf rust created a widespread perception in the field that Castillo was the choice for growers who wanted to maximize quantity and Caturra the natural choice for growers who wanted to maximize quality.  The Trial was designed to test those perceptions and to inform decision-making on the farm, in the industry and in the process by which coffee sector policy is made.  More specifically, the Trial sought to determine whether Caturra did perform better than Castillo, and if so, whether the quality premiums a grower might expect from Caturra in the marketplace would be sufficient to compensate for the higher risk they assumed with Caturra in the field.  In the words of the executive director of World Coffee Research, the objective of the Trial was to tell growers “which variety will give them the best bang for their buck.”

We collaborated with CIAT, Kansas State University and World Coffee Research (WCR) in the design of the Colombia Sensory Trial as a “natural experiment.”  Samples of Castillo and Caturra were collected from farms growing both varieties under identical agroecological conditions—an approach that controlled significantly for environmental and management variables to isolate the impact of genetics, or variety, on cup profile.

We enlisted some of the world’s most important coffee brands in the effort. Coffee buyers for the companies that participated subjected the two varieties to blind sensory analysis using the Coffee Quality Institute protocol that represents an industry standard, and sensory assessors from the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University (KSU) applied a new coffee lexicón that KSU developed together with WCR, which was applied for the first time ever to samples from the Colombia Sensory Trial.

CRS presented the results of the Colombia Sensory Trial at international coffee events in Seattle, Gothenburg and Copenhagen.

The results challenged the commonly held belief in certain segments of the market that Caturra is better than Castillo and the commonly held belief among growers that Castillo could not deliver both disease resistance and cup quality.  They were widely credited with influencing industry perceptions of the sensory frontier of the maligned Castillo variety.  The sustainability director at one large U.S. coffee roaster told CRS they “changed the way I think about coffee.”

Videos of all three of those presentations are available online:

A worker in El Salvador prepares coffee beans on a drying patio. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
A worker in El Salvador prepares coffee beans on a drying patio. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS
Issue advocacy is a third category of influence-oriented engagement with the private sector on issues critical to our mission.

Perhaps the most significant example of CRS experience with effective issue advocacy relates to the way we leveraged our research on slave labor in Brazil’s coffee sector to influence the coffee industry.

When we learned in the summer of 2013 that Brazilian authorities had included a small number of coffee estates in Brazil on the country’s “Dirty List” of employers whose workers toiled under what the country’s laws call “conditions analogous to slavery,” we felt the revelation was relevant to a range of industry stakholders doing business in Brazil.  We commissioned research designed to help us better understand and contextualize this finding, asking a longtime partner called Reporter Brasil to answer three basic questions: (1.) What does slave labor mean in the Brazilian context?  (2.) How widespread is the practice in the coffee sector? (3.) What are the root causes? And (4.) Where and to what companies does coffee produced on Dirty List estates go?

We began receiving preliminary findings from Reporter Brasil in late 2013—findings that suggested there was a significant reputational risk to U.S. coffee company of being unwittingly downstream from coffee estates on Brazil’s Dirty List. Based on more than a decade of experience in the specialty coffee sector, we felt that we had surfaced information that was new and valuable to industry.  To validate our hypothesis we enlisted those early results in an exercise inspired by the Late Show with David Letterman.

One of the recurring skits on the Lat Show was called “Is this anything?”  The sketch featured guest performers who would go through zany routines.  Afterward, Letterman and the band would discuss each performance and render a summary judgment: “Nah, that’s nothin’,” or “Man, that’s something!”

Is this anything?

In our version of “Is this anything?” we asked our contacts in the coffee market to play the role of David Letterman. Let us know whether the troublesome revelations we stumbled on in Brazil were “nothing” or “something.”  We used our membership on the Sustainability Council of the Specialty Coffee Association of America—a volunteer “think tank” on sustainability issues serving the membership of the world’s largest coffee trade association—for the exercise.

After depulping and drying, “green” coffee beans are ready for roasting. Photo by Philip Laubner/CRS
After depulping and drying, “green” coffee beans are ready for roasting. Photo by Philip Laubner/CRS
In January 2014, during the Council’s annual Strategic Planning retreat, we presented the preliminary findings of the report along with these images, taken by inspectors during their visits to Dirty List farms. 

Our principal objective was to gauge the response of coffee companies concerned about the social conditions under which their coffee is produced.

Did they share our concern over these findings?

Did they find these conditions as reprehensible as we did?

Did these findings seem relevant to their supply chain management functions?

Did they find these conditons acceptable?

Or were they inclined to work together to root these conditions out of their supply chains?

Participants in the meeting, representing some of the most important companies in the coffee sector, validated the relevance of the findings for their own supply chain operations and confirmed the urgency of taking action to address labor risks in their supply chains.

At the time our industry allies confirmed that what we had surfaced was indeed “something,” we had covered only 50% of the total cost of the research project with Reporter Brasil.  While we could have financed the remainder of the project with private funds, we made the decision instead to seek investments from industry stakeholders—a measure we believed would help increase the credibility of the report’s findings among our key audience, which consisted of leaders in the coffee industry.  Investors included these influential industry actors.

And beginning in late 2014, CRS worked with SCAA leadership on a strategy for broader engagement with industry leaders on the issues raised by our research into labor conditions in Brazil.  In April 2015, in advance of its annual trade show, the SCAA executive leadership convened a meeting of more than 40 representatives of coffee traders, roasters, institutes, certifiers, and non-profits working in the coffee sector, to hear a summary of findings and consider collective action in Brazil to address the issue.  A similar meeting was convened in April 2016, days before the formal release of the research findings to share advances made since the 2015 meeting and revisit potential new joint activities on the issue.

CRS timed the release of the final product of the Brazil research—this policy brief—to coincide with the SCAA’s 2016 events in Atlanta where we were invited to present the key findings during Re:co Symposium, whose audience of CEOs, owners, sustainability experts and coffee buyers is among the industry’s most influential.

In introducing our presentation, the Director of Sustainability at the Specialty Coffee Association of America said, “no one has done more to put the issue of farmworkers on the industry’s agenda.”

Finally, it is important to recognize the role that the CRS Coffeelands blog has played in our strategy for influence in both the public and private sectors.  It has come to be well-regarded and widely read in the public and private sectors, with more than 20,000 regular visitors.

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