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262. Counter Culture interview: The social impact of microlots

Kim Elena Ionescu probably needs no introduction.  The Counter Culture Coffee Buyer and Sustainability Manager has been sourcing great coffee for years for one of the leading brands in specialty coffee.  Along the way, she has been steadily moving the company toward more sustainable and transparent sourcing practices, and showing a way forward for other roasters in the process.  In 2010, she helped to produce Counter Culture’s first Direct Trade Certified Transparency Report, a groundbreaking initiative that has raised the bar on transparency among Direct Trade Roasters.  More recently, she led research inot the social impacts of microlots that is, to my knowledge, the first of its kind.  I first mentioned the study here last month.  Today, as the report is presented at the SCAA Expo, Kim Elena talks to the CRS Coffeelands Blog about this important initiative.

  • The first question that occurs to me is “why?”  What compelled you to undertake the study?
    I have wondered about this particular question – what are the benefits and drawbacks of microlots to grower groups? – since I read a conversation between two coffee buyers with different views on the subject a few years ago, and I was compelled to undertake a study about it because, like you, I see a need for more measurement and evaluation of our industry’s impact(s) on communities of coffee growers. We tend to make proclamations based on personal experience rather than research even though in many cases, like this one, it isn’t particularly difficult to collect a little bit of data – more than we had, anyway. For a company like ours that places great value on our supplier relationships, it makes sense to invest in a little bit of research to assess the effectiveness of our purchasing model, and microlot separation is a part of that model that greatly appeals to many of our customers.
  • What makes you want to take this information public?
    Coffee roasters spend so much time trying to differentiate ourselves from our peers, which makes sense in the context of competition but also puts us at risk of repeating each others’ mistakes and missing opportunities for collaboration. We have so much to learn from each other! I hope that sharing our conclusions will encourage other companies to share their experiences publicly and begin a dialogue around this particular topic, and more broadly, I hope that by doing this kind of study we will inspire other companies to investigate their relationships and supply chains in similar ways.
  • When the decision was made to present the results of the study, was there any concern that CCC might open itself to criticism regarding any of the negative social impacts of the microlot process identified in the report?
    I’m sure that we will receive some criticism, both with regards to the negative social impacts of the microlot process that we found and also with the structure and execution of the study itself. Experience has taught us that with the exception of the occasional nit-picker, most people respond positively when CCC takes a warts-and-all approach to sharing information (I’m thinking of the Direct Trade Transparency Report in particular).
  • Which of the report’s findings are most valuable to you in managing trading relationships for Counter Culture?
    The report really reinforces the importance of communication, which isn’t anything new but could always be stronger. Individual farmers in the Ihuamaca network know more about the supply chain beyond their farms and co-op than most of the small-scale coffee growers that I’ve met elsewhere – for example, the process of cupping and scoring coffees, and the relationship between price and cupping score, is generally understood among members. They also receive more frequent visits and outreach from their cooperative than most. Despite their increased awareness, the members still regularly expressed confusion during their interviews and requested for more information from the cooperative about topics ranging from good-tasting coffee varieties to more timely delivery of coffee scores. Also in the nothing-new category, I was struck by the recurring theme of pride – from coffee grower to coffee buyer, we’re all proud of the quality of our work and recognition can take many forms beyond the obvious monetary ones.
  • Did any of the report’s insights surprise you?
    One of the anti-microlot arguments I had heard was that co-op members who had never achieved the microlot mark or received the corresponding price premium might feel jealousy or resentment toward those that had, and I suspected that might be the case, as well. We included a question in the survey instrument to gauge those feelings and I was surprised that all of the members interviewed, whether they have produced microlots or not, expressed the opposite: they are pleased for their microlot-garnering neighbors and don’t begrudge them success at all.
  • Do you think the report tells us anything more broadly about the microlot model?  Things that other direct trade roasters or the industry generally should keep in mind in their own operations?
    We concluded that the microlot model is generally viewed in a positive light by members, but that it is and will continue to be important to revisit that model periodically. The thing that I would encourage other roasters, supply chain actors and the industry to keep in mind is the value of asking questions – at the meetings that we held with the cooperative and the communities in January, it became clear that the mere act of undertaking a study like this one had strengthened CCC’s relationship with the Cenfrocafe cooperative and deepened the trust of the co-op members whose coffee we purchase (including those that didn’t participate in the interviews!). Small-scale surveys like this present a wonderful opportunity to answer some of our basic questions and I believe that even if our research had led us to conclude that this microlot system was a dismal failure, or had we investigated a different subject, our relationships would have benefited equally from the asking.
  • What do you see as the next steps for Counter Culture or the industry in terms of better understanding the social impacts of microlots?
    Thinking first of what we could do ourselves (or what another like-minded company could do), I would love to compare our findings from this small sample set in Peru with the experiences of producer groups in other places and different conditions – this could mean conditions for coffee growing, like climate, or conditions of a microlot program, like price premiums. To draw the kind of conclusions that would inform the industry about the social impacts of microlots and potentially help a grower group determine whether to undertake microlot separation, we need much more quantitative data about price premiums, coffee quantities, income generation and levels of participation from many places, and that would entail the participation of a research institution with some expertise in impact evaluation. Know anyone interested in tackling the subject?
  • Surely you jest — you know we are!
    We would love to collaborate! After some years taking a do-it-yourself approach to projects and studies with mixed results, we see tons of potential in partnerships that leverage the different skill sets and priorities of a business like ours and an organization like yours.
  • So let’s set aside some time soon to discuss.  Meantime, thanks so much for making some time to talk to us.  And congratulations on this important study.
    It was my pleasure! I appreciate your interest in our study, especially given your experience with research and our lack thereof. Your support reassures me that we’re on the right track!

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