Is bigger necessarily better?
During this year’s SCAA Symposium and Expo, and the inevitable slate of follow-up calls the week after, the issue of size kept coming up in my conversations. There was the roaster that bemoaned how small it was, wishing it could do more to meet the demands of its partners. There was the roaster that felt like it was just getting big enough to do the kinds of things with its partners it always dreamt of doing. And there was one importer that suggested its growth had positioned it in a sweet spot from which it could take more risks with its partners. These conversations evoked past discussions I have had with coffee importers and roasters around the issue of growth, and suggested that when it comes to making partners happy, bigger may be better.
Years ago, I had a few conversations with a noted importer that was in the midst of a strategic planning process. This importer was committed to direct and transparent trading relationships. It did not move a huge volume of coffee. In general terms, it was at a kind of Jerry Maguire crossroads, deciding between two broad courses of action — deepening its relationships at origin or growing its share of the marketplace. A significant number of its trading partners suggested that if it was seeking impact at origin, the best thing it could do was to triple its volume. They loved the trading model. They couldn’t get enough of it. Literally. They wanted to migrate more of their overall volume into the kind of trading relationship this importer offered.
I struggle with this issue, because I do believe that in many ways the Catholic intellectual E.F. Schumacher was right when he suggested that Small is Beautiful. I have worked with, learned from and been inspired by lots of roasters that are small, indeed, doing the right thing by farmers and managing to turn a profit in the process.
But it is hard to deny the benefits that come with growth when it is paired with thoughtful reinvestment in farmer-focused innovations in research and programming. Growth can mean more resources to put into action all the good ideas that direct trading relationships tend to foster (and the ability to attract investors looking to leverage their own resources). It can mean getting more of the right people around the table for innovation (which fosters further growth). It can mean more effectively projecting innovation and influencing other stakeholders in the coffee industry (and expanding impact through imitation).
For development agencies, reaching and sustaining “scale” is the Holy Grail. The donor focused on scale might say: “You do nice work with 5,000 farmers. But how do you reach 5,000,000?”
Small can — and does — generate great ideas and put them into practice. Big can help get them funded and take them to scale.