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441. Getting by with a little help from our friends: The Borderlands Advisory Council

Today: how representatives of six leading specialty coffee companies who share our commitment to transform the coffee chain in Nariño, Colombia, are helping us create opportunities for smallholder farmers and developing new sources of extraordinary coffee.



The Borderlands Advisory Council is comprised of representatives of leading U.S. specialty coffee companies who deliver best-in-class advisory services to the Borderlands Coffee Project’s staff and participants (they tell us what makes sense from the perspective of the market, providing market validation for our good ideas and helping us improve our ideas that are not as good) and support for the project’s commercial goals (they buy coffee from project participants).



CRS has been implementing high-value, high-impact value chain projects in the coffeelands for more than a decade that have focused on expanding smallholder access to the specialty market.  We have learned a thing or two in the process, and we deliver advice based what we think we know.  But we are not part of the coffee supply chain, and will never be in a position to buy the coffee grown by participants in our projects.  We recognize the need to bring market perspectives to bear on our work, and to bring our friends into the marketplace into direct and sustained contact with our friends at origin in ways that create value for all of them.  The Borderlands Advisory Council allows us to do that.



The first year of our project in Nariño was characterized by very little doing but a lot of thinking.  Designing and implementing a thorough baseline study to better understand the realities of Nariño’s coffee sector.  Convening lots of different local actors to help us identify strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in the supply chain.  Analyzing the data we collected through those two processes and, ultimately, working with other stakeholders in Nariño to make the region’s coffee chain more competitive and more inclusive.

We found through this process that more than 98 percent of Nariño’s coffee finds its way into the supply chains of two leading specialty coffee brands that deliver high prices and agronomic assistance to growers.  Coming off of four years of work in the coffee sectors of Mesoamerica, where securing access to stable, high-value markets and access to technical assistance was a perennial struggle for so many farmers, what I encountered in Nariño was extraordinary.  And yet, we saw some daylight on the margins–ways we could complement the dominant supply chains in Nariño by helping to create new and different market opportunities.

Specifically, we saw real potential in Nariño for growers to capture additional value through quality-based differentation and, perhaps to a lesser extent, certifications.  The baseline data we collected on coffee quality–with the help of the members of the advisory council–suggested that many participants in our project were producing the kinds of 86-points-and-up coffees that could qualify for price premiums, and that a few were producing coffees in the 90-point range.  We also knew from our prior analysis of the supply chain that few of them–just 4 percent–had ever actually earned price premiums for cup quality.  All the value they were creating by bringing 88-point coffees to the town plaza evaporated the moment those coffees were blended with other, lower-quality coffees.

So we convened six people for our inaugural advisory council experience–people who seek quality-differentiated and certified coffees.  People who wanted to save these coffees from being bulked.  People who wanted to help farmers earn the rewards they deserve for the quality they are creating.  People who represent companies that have relentlessly innovated to make coffee chains more inclusive and transparent to the benefit of everyone on the supply chain.  People who are thoughtful about their work, passionate about coffee and committed to generate positive social impact through their purchases.  People had become friends during our work in coffee over the past 10 years.  People who also happen to be a lot of fun.  I am delighted to introduce–with gratitude for their commitment to this process–the members of our Borderlands Advisory Council for Colombia.


  • Atlas Coffee
    Al Liu, Trader & Certified Coffee Specialist
  • Counter Culture Coffee
    Tim Hill, Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager
  • Intelligentsia Coffee
    Geoff Watts, Vice President for Coffee
  • Keurig Green Mountain
    Stacy Bokscor, Green Coffee Buyer
  • Stumptown Coffee
    Adam McClellan, Green Coffee Buyer
  • Sustainable Harvest
    Olga Cuéllar, Strategic Relationships Director


We are also joined in Nariño by a representative of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which funds the Borderlands project.



In the coming days, members of the Borderlands Advisory Council will be presenting coffees they bought from project participants following the 2014 harvest.  We will introduce each of those coffees here.

They represent an important step forward in the efforts of determined coffee growers in Nariño to move away from the anonymity of volume-oriented specialty coffee supply chains toward what SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart has called “fully realized” and direct trading relationships based on mutual commitment to quality, value and transparency.  It is a new paradigm for all of them.  And it simply would not have been possible if we hadn’t formed the advisory council.

Members of the advisory council visited Nariño in 2013 and purchased a small number of single-farm lots and one larger community lot from that harvest.  For each of the growers involved, it was the first time they had ever met a buyer.  The first time they had ever sold their coffee anywhere other than the town plaza.  The first time they had ever gotten financial rewards for the quality of their coffee.  It changed the perspectives of 121 growers on what coffee farming can be, and inspired them and their neighbors to commit to quality in a way they hadn’t before—in a way they had never before had reason to.

This year, those 121 growers have had a chance to do it again, along with a growing number of their neighbors.  Twenty-five growers sold single-farm lots from the 2014 harvest, while 300 others contributed to 16 community lots.  These community lots represent the first time any of the farmers involved have ever collaborated to take their coffee to market together.  They represent a milestone in our joint efforts to offer growers in Nariño higher-value alternatives to the market channels we found when we arrived.

The success of this audacious enterprise, of course, depends on the coffee’s embrace in the marketplace.  We hope you will consider contributing to the process by buying the coffee this year and for many years to come.

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