Recently, in a span of less than 24 hours, I met with two coffee industry leaders with diametrically opposed opinions on the issue of coffee quality and its impact on smallholder livelihoods. In the first conversation, a coffee buyer told me unambiguously: “The quality approach has been tried. It failed.”
He argued that increases in yield are far more important than improvements in quality, since they are easier to achieve and usually have more impact on a farmer’s income. It is not uncommon for a farmer to increase productivity by a factor of two or three, but a quality premium that doubles or triples the value of a farmer’s coffee is rare, indeed.
Of course, quality remains important for farmers whose primary focus may be productivity, since penalties for quality defects can roll back the benefits of increased yields, or keep farmers out of the market altogether. But, according to this expert, at least, a quality-led strategy for increasing coffee income is a recipe for disappointment.