The only way is ethics: ethical coffee sourcing

Categories: Behind the stalls

Eduardo of The Colombian Coffee Company on how conscious consumers can make a real difference to the lives of coffee-growing communities

“One of the strongest memories I have of the poverty I saw growing up in Colombia is of houses where the floor was the same inside as it was outside: soil. Just soil,” Eduardo laughs, as he remembers how struck he was as a child. “I didn’t understand then, but now I realise that was poverty. People couldn’t afford wood or concrete to make a floor.” It’s proved a defining image for a man with a masters in finance, an MBA in marketing and a sense of social justice so profoundly held he’s ploughed all his qualifications and experience into The Colombian Coffee Company: a social enterprise that aims to model a new way of trading coffee to help Colombian coffee growers out of poverty, and support peace and stability in areas previously affected by the country’s decades-long civil war.

It’s a big ambition, but then Eduardo is no stranger to challenges. He grew up in a country devastated by war—and, when he meets us, has just sold espressos to a group of Italians. “The good thing about Borough Market is that it is about quality, and people ask questions. They are interested.” Italian customers asking questions about his lightly roasted single origin coffee opens up the opportunity for Eduardo to also talk to them about the wider complexities and challenges of the coffee trade, seen from the producer’s perspective. Many coffee growers remain poor, as the beans themselves only fetch a low price on the global market, and, in order to make ends meet, they must still pick them even when they are unripe or poor quality. “That dark, shiny look that beans often have is actually coffee which has been over-roasted, to cover up its imperfections.” Eduardo’s beans, meanwhile, are lightly roasted to a gentle brown. In the former scenario, “coffee farmers get less money and consumers get bad quality coffee,” Eduardo summarises. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” That’s why quality can be a route out of poverty.

A volatile commodity
Colombia’s vast mountain ranges and warm, wet climate make it perfectly suited to coffee cultivation. Indeed, the country is the largest producer of single origin coffee varieties in the world. “The demand for speciality coffee is growing,” he continues. But what should be a great opportunity for Colombia runs the risk of being lost in the huge global coffee market, which is dominated by multinational coffee brands, often selling poor quality or instant coffee. “Coffee is one the world’s most volatile commodities. It’s second only to oil—but the volatility of oil is pushed onto consumers.” When we arrive at a petrol station, we pay the price it gives us on the day. The volatility of coffee, however, is on the growers. “They receive the day’s prices, which are determined by the futures market. At the moment, the price farmers are being paid for their coffee is the same as 1983.”

That’s almost 40 years ago. Costs have increased, the country is decimated by civil conflict and warring factions have capitalised on farmers’ desperation by forcing them to grow coca and opium. “They generate more money than coffee,” says Eduardo. “They also generate terrible violence as the drugs trade is controlled by gangs.” The farmers are trapped, farming being the only life they know of, and the cycle continues. “But coffee can make a difference. So, as a smaller enterprise, I have taken a risk to trade coffee ethically, and to really try to find new ways of working. For me, the only way is ethics, and I think more and more customers care about that.”

Fairtrade schemes are great and do help, he says, “but they only offer a premium on top of the original price. The market price can still go down.” Also, although growing, the fairtrade market does not cover most coffee production in Colombia. Eduardo aims to go ‘beyond fair trade’; not just paying above market price—enough to cover production costs and improve their business and livelihoods—but also developing long-term relationships with the farmers. “I teach them English business language and the language of coffee tasting and valuation, so they can describe their coffee to potential buyers overseas. Because they have no idea!” he exclaims. “They are used to just taking the coffee down the mountain on market day and finding a quick sale. They don’t know how good their coffee is. How can they negotiate or get the best price for their coffee if they don’t know the quality of their own produce or how much it sells for overseas?”

Quality, not quantity
Education is power and by talking to the farmers about fragrance, uniformity, balance, sweetness and aftertaste—the words used in the Speciality Coffee Association guide—Eduardo can enable them to sell to other gourmet coffee buyers. “Encouraging the farmers to talk about quality will increase the price of what they make, ultimately needing less farm space as they focus on quality rather than quantity.”

Nor does Eduardo stop there. “In a sustainable system, the farmers grow arabica coffee trees that need shade, so they also grow bananas, guanabanas, oranges, mandarins, avocados and so on. On Sundays, farmers go down to the nearest village to sell their produce. As they bring a variety of products, they are less exposed to the volatility of coffee market prices, thus they can participate more broadly in the economy—and they make small profits, so they can then buy other products.”

Anxious not to damage any of the other plants or trees, the farmers avoid the use of pesticides and other chemicals, “so the overall production becomes organic and the environment doesn’t degrade. The lush green environment helps to protect their coffee trees, which they care for almost one by one.” They clean the leaves. In Colombia they hand pick the cherries when they are red—almost purple, lending Eduardo’s coffee a distinctively sweet taste.

Participatory capitalism
For Eduardo, a big part of what he does is just encouraging people to think about the human effort that has gone into making their daily cup of coffee, and the wider systemic challenges of the coffee trade. “Sometimes, at summer festivals, I will run a coffee auction, or a flexible price system for coffees over a couple of hours—where the price goes up depending on supply and demand. It's just a fun way of showing how markets work and how global coffee prices are set.” Eduardo believes in participatory capitalism: “If a company makes money from a product, I think the person who produces the product should benefit. But that is not what is always happening at the moment. The people who are producing high quality coffee are living in poverty. That is why I have decided to do something to correct it.”