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249. Counter Culture raises the bar. Again.

2012-03-05 Comments Off on 249. Counter Culture raises the bar. Again.

Counter Culture Coffee raised the bar on transparency two years ago when it published its inaugural Direct Trade Certified Transparency Report.  Now Counter Culture is at it again, this time with a pioneering effort to assess the impact on smallholder farmers of the microlot approach to sourcing that is so central to the Direct Trade model.

Counter Culture’s Sustainability Director Kim Elena Ionescu will present the results of a groundbreaking impact study at this year’s SCAA Expo in a presentation titled “Do Microlots Matter to Producers?”  From the public summary of the presentation:

This presentation will explore assumptions about the social and economic impacts of prices — presumably higher prices — paid for top-tier micro lots of coffee from small producers.  In conjunction with a cooperative in Peru, Counter Culture Coffee conducted a social impact survey of coffee growers in five communities that have five years of experience in a program that recognizes individual, micro lot producers each year.  The objective of the survey was to determine whether the extra income from one year’s premium significant?  If so, how?  And what are the impacts on the greater community and co-op?

The focus of this presentation echoes two questions that have surfaced in recent discussions on this blog: how do industry actors assess the impacts their businesses have at origin? And what are the returns to smallholders of investments in coffee quality?

With respect to the issue of assessing impact at origin, the Counter Culture study is noteworthy for its efforts to marry hard data on smallholder outcomes with commercial practices that are ascendant in specialty coffee, and for its courage in making the results of the study available for public scrutiny.

Regarding the second issue, returns to smallholders on investment in quality, I have suggested here and elsewhere that the developmental case for Direct Trade — perhaps summarized by the idea that quality of coffee equals quality of life — has not been rigorously tested.  The commercial validity of the microlot has been proven by the growth of the quality-obsessed Direct Trade segment of the specialty coffee industry.  But what the growing number of microlots means for the smallholders who produce them is less known.  Counter Culture’s study will be a welcome source of enlightenment.