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119. The GCQRI and smallholder livelihoods

Last week I made the not-so-bold prediction that 2011 will be The Year of the GCQRI.  Today I consider whether that is an entirely good thing.

I should note up front that all my information on GCQRI is second-hand.  Given that I am not on anyone’s short list of “thought-leaders in the specialty coffee industry,” I have not been invited to participate directly in the process.  Like most people, I have had to rely on the documents that the good folks at GCQRI have published on the initiative’s website or blog, the excellent work of James Hoffman and Tom Owen (who live-blogged the proceedings of the October GCQRI meetings), and scraps of info and innuendo from friends and colleagues on the inside.

Based on info from those sources, it seems to me that the GCQRI is a worthy initiative that is long overdue, with the potential for enormous return on its R&D investment.  It also seems to me that there is a glaring absence in the process and design of the initiative that could put the whole thing in jeopardy: farmers.  I am not referring here merely to the concept of “farmer voice” (so often cited with reverence in industry and so rarely heeded), but something more: building into the GCQRI an understanding of household-level decision-making in the coffeelands.

The folks behind the GCQRI describe it as an “industry-led” initiative.  Tom Owen explained in his coverage of the event why this has to be the case:

this Initiative is funded to research coffee quality as defined by the buyers…so the “primary stakeholders” are the ones who should be the first to define the agenda. The reason is, we are the ones who determine “quality” and we are the ones who pay for it. At the risk of sounding imperialistic, the agenda has to be set by us.  (bold mine)

I do not take issue with this approach.  I would suggest, however, that if this approach is not paired with an understanding of the economic pressures that smallholder farmers face at origin, the whole GCQRI enterprise could be at risk of failure.  Tom, who spends more time at origin than most, clearly understands this dynamic.  Again, from his coverage of the event:

We are already busting the farmer’s bank by asking them to separate tiny amounts of their best coffee, meticulously prepared, even with a price premium, when there is always a large bulk of coffee that falls into a lower quality level that we can’t buy. The formula barely works now, and won’t in the future.

I know there are others involved in the GCQRI process who share Tom’s sensitivity to the lived realities of smallholder farmers.  But the understanding of a few roasters will not be sufficient — this understanding needs to be engineered into the DNA of the GCQRI process.

Already, roasters are seeing that the premiums they pay are often not enough of an incentive to get farmers to make the additional investments necessary to meet the highest standards of quality.  With NY “C” prices high and continuing to rise, this problem will only get worse.  In the end, the technologies GCQRI identifies as quality-critical must make economic sense for farmers in their local contexts.  Invariably, their adoption will imply additional costs for farmers.  If the industry that is leading the GCQRI does not pay premiums that compensate farmers for these costs and facilitate the co-investment necessary to reduce farmer risk, even the  technologies that most reliably improve quality may not be adopted.


  • tonx says:

    I attended the SCAA Symposium and announcement of the GCQRI.

    The biggest thrust of that first day of presentations seemed to be that the GCQRI would address a coming (potentially catastrophic?) shortage of high quality coffees. One of the bullet points that came up in a presentation of genetic assessment goals for coffee was identifying coffee varietals that can produce greater quality at lower altitudes.

    The obvious implications of such a discovery on the livelihoods of smallholder high mountain farmers needs some contemplation. I had some really interesting discussions with James Hoffmann, George Howell, and Martin Diedrich… it felt like there were some cans of worms that would need to be brought to the table.

    I’m sure there are many in our industry that would be happy to find large Brasilian Fazendas suddenly able to produce industrial quantities of high acidity coffees equivalent to high-grown centrals at a scale and reduced cost that small mountain farmers cannot hope to match.

    One of the fragile (facile?) cartoon conceits of those of us on the quality fringe of the industry has been that the smaller guys, high up on the mountain, lean on infrastructure resources nonetheless have some inherent exclusivity to achieving the exceptional quality that can command top dollar. If you want a 90+ coffee, the attitude goes, you’ll more often be looking at needles in very rural haystacks.

    I’m in no position to challenge the notion of a coming hypothetical supply crunch for quality – but my limited origin experience and discussions with coffee buyers lead me to believe that there is a vast supply of _potentially_ great coffees growing out there, unrealized more on account of a lack of boots on the ground nuts-and-bolts unmet technical assistance needs, lack of small lot traceability, limited market access for growers, and an absence of coffee-quality literacy in the field. These areas strike me as the low hanging fruit for improving availability of great coffees.

    Advanced economic modeling of the challenges for small/smallholder quality initiatives and the long term ROI of technical assistance initiatives seems like an area that should be examined as deeply as the laboratory hunt for disruptive new agricultural technologies. I’d especially like to see some smart recommendations and guidance for the growing number of boutique coffee buyers who find themselves building mutual risk relationships with growers.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for your excellent comment and apologies for the long delay in getting around to responding to it.

      As I try to characterize your reflection, I find myself groping for those 10-cent words from grad school…Acute? Incisive? Trenchant?

      In a word, my reaction to your observations is: yes.

      I agree that there are plenty of growers out there with 90+ potential whose coffee is currently limping to market. Mo’ better extension services could bring more exceptional coffee to market and help quality-focused roasters cope with the supply crunch.

      I also agree that that there should be more rigorous research on the return to smallholders on their investment in improving quality. This is the point I tried to make – ineffectively, perhaps – in my post.

      The field-level data on the real impact of quality improvements on the standard of living among smallholder farmers is scant. Sure, there is plenty of information on price premiums. But there is relatively little analysis of the added costs to farmers who chose high-quality varietals over high-producing ones, opt for non-traditional post-harvest processes or implement special selection processes. In the end, what could use more analysis (in my humble opinion) is the premise underlying GCQRI: that increases in coffee quality generate payoffs for everyone on the coffee chain from origin to market. We want to use our work in the coffeelands to generate the kind of field-level data that can contribute to the kinds of evidence-based recommendations to “industry” that you want to see more of.

      If we make any headway I will be sure to share our progress here.


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