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371. World Coffee Development

Did I write yesterday in rebooting the blog that I will focus ruthlessly on our work in Colombia and Ecuador?  Yes.  And does this first post address something not directly related to our work in the field there?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because World Coffee Development might be the single most important thing the coffee sector does—or doesn’t do—to address social, economic and environmental issues in the coffeelands before they pose acute threats to the coffee chain.

The coffee leaf rust crisis has consumed much of the bandwidth in coffee communications over the past year.  It is worthy of our attention.  But the rust crisis laid bare another crisis in coffee: a governance crisis.  The coffee sector simply doesn’t have a reliable way to deal well with complex crises like the one created by the coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America.  There is no one place where everyone who has a stake in the future of coffee—industry, growers, banks, national coffee programs, research institutes, governments, donors, non-profits—naturally convenes to share intelligence and coordinate responses.

This is not to trivialize the extraordinary efforts made to date by individual actors in the coffee chain to address the current crisis in Central America.

Just last week, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Root Capital, Skoll Foundation and the Inter-American Development Bank announced a $7 million public-private collaboration to stabilize coffee supply chains in Central America by building the resilience of smallholder farms.  They unveiled it in El Salvador during Let’s Talk Roya, a solutions-oriented gathering on CLR conceived and convened by importer Sustainable Harvest.  Back in April, the SCAA dedicated an entire day to CLR and coffee genetics during its annual Symposium in Boston.  And World Coffee Research convened The First International Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala—the single largest gathering on the issue to date, which succeeded in uniting for the first time all the actors who would need to be deeply involved in any comprehensive response to CLR in Central America.  But many of the summit’s participants had little familiarity with one another, and no previous experience collaborating—they were coming together during a stand-alone event for the first time in the face of an emergency, with an urgent need to act.

Stand-alone events are invaluable when they convene actors across sectors.  But they take a flash-mob approach to international development.  A permanent institutional framework is necessary.

A small but growing group of influential people in coffee are working quietly to lay the groundwork for a global platform for cross-sector coordination around social investment in the coffeelands.  It is being referred to increasingly as World Coffee Development.

WCD is to smallholder livelihoods what WCR is to research: an industry-driven organization working to ensure the long-term viability of coffee supply chains.  WCD will provide permanent cross-sector coordination, not just to react to crises like coffee rust, but to work with diverse stakeholders to proactively identify, analyze and attack sources of risk in the coffee chain before they become acute crises.

With climate change accelerating, markets more volatile than ever and competition increasing, crises in the coffeelands are just going to proliferate if we don’t get ahead of them.  Today it is CLR. Tomorrow, it will be something else.

How can you help make it happen?  When the industry starts passing the hat for WCD as it did years ago for WCR, step up and contribute.

Sound expensive?  Maybe.  But failing to fund WCD seems certain to be much more costly.


  • Paul says:

    Great comeback

  • Welcome back Michael. Your voice was sorely missed.

  • Ben Corey-Moran says:

    There’s a lot to learn from roya. Exposure is universal. Vulnerability is a function of a complex set of factors, almost all related to a farmer’s investment or lack thereof (read: a farmer’s ability to invest as a function of his or her knowledge, economic viability, and access to resources). That’s us as an industry, in a nutshell. Time we make the investments necessary to access and share knowledge, understand the economics of resilience, and leverage the resources necessary to get there. Time to learn from the lessons sitting right in front of us.

    Great to have you back.

  • For anyone interested, governance is also quite lacking in the Fair Trade community, particularly in the U.S. The community could achieve much more impact by getting introduced to each other, discussing issues, and hopefully collaborating and resolving some issues. So far, small capacity and some differences over what Fair Trade means has prevented the community from organizing meaningfully. FTRN is actively looking for solutions with a few partners, anyone welcome!

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Hello, Jeff. Good to hear from you again.

      Of course, what I am calling for is coordination on a much broader scale. That’s not to trivialize the importance of the issue you raise. I think your call for improved governance at a smaller scale within the Fair Trade community is timely. But it does serve to illustrates just how much work we have ahead of us. There is chronic infighting among a relatively small number of actors who lay claim to the banner of Fair Trade, with no clear avenues of appeal. If can’t seem to find common ground even among actors who seem to have embraced many of the same broad principles for making the coffee trade fairer, imagine how hard it will be to bring governments and growers, roasters and traders, and universities and NGOs, banks and associations into close coordination.


  • Michael – I’m a big fan of what you’re doing and the research projects you’ve initiated at CRS. I have to say that up front so that my comment doesn’t get interpreted as criticism. Just adding to the good discussion you’ve kicked off (yet again)…

    WCD sounds expensive, and a little like duplication of what goes on year after year at our world-class research institutions called universities. Speaking of people who are working quietly on getting substantial work done with small holder coffee farmers, (and the governments of coffee origin countries), has anyone assessed what major universities are already doing? I hope the “influential group” you mention does not ignore this large group of dedicated researchers who span the globe regularly producing credible, hard data on what works and doesn’t work.

    The “problem” with many business, social science, agriculture and economics researchers is, they are so focused on their research, they don’t spend much time on honing their message for publicity through the coffee industry trade press. You may have to go to them to find out what they’re doing, at origin, with coffee farmers and their governments.

    Perhaps that would be a place for those interested in WCD to start? Which research projects at already established and reputable research organizations (often called universities, but not always) could do more of what they already do if better funded?

    In the U.S. you’ve got Michigan State University, Cornell, University of Michigan, Stanford, Georgetown, American University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, MIT, University of Pennsylvania and the other ivy leagues to name a few.

    From Europe, I see interesting studies on smallholder coffee farming coming from universities in the Netherlands and Italy.

    Origin countries have universities and institutions with countless researchers doing dedicated work on issues related to smallholder farmers, also: CIAT and the University of Nairobi, to name two. And the origin countries that do little in the area of university research are likely held back by funding, not talent or interest, for getting the research done.

    Thinking of the long-term mission here, what if at the same time we’re doing studies with veteran faculty on microlot premiums and the business of resilience coffee-farming, we were also educating the next generation of coffee professionals and researchers? What if, through the research-educational systems already in place, we could help more young people from coffee-growing families achieve educational goals?

    In our effort to repair the broken coffee industry, let’s avoid spending scarce time and dollars on re-inventing the wheel.

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Ruth Ann:

      Thank you for your comment. I don’t take it as criticism. In fact, it seems to support my argument for a WCD-type space for multi-sector coordination.

      You rattle off a list of world-class universities and research institutions currently doing work relevant to the coffee sector, but you suggest there is a lack of awareness and uptake of this work by the industry actors who could benefit from it. WCD would not just be a natural channel for publication and distribution of research–it would create a space for industry and academia to come together to design a research agenda together that overcomes the problem of academic isolation you mention. Co-creating a research agenda would pre-validate the industry salience of research topcis, and would help generate rigorous, evidence-based answers to the big questions industry faces. As you say, that is NOT happening now in any systematic way.

      I share your belief that partnerships with research institutes/academia are essential in pushing the frontiers of coffee knowledge, and I think I may understand your concern better than you know.

      In our work in Borderlands alone we have/are finalizing formal research partnerships with CIAT, Stanford, Cornell and two local universities in Colombia, and are talking to faculty at still other universities. We believe these relationships will generate enormous value beyond what we can achieve on the ground with project participants through original field research that is relevant to the coffee sector. But these relationships are bilateral and project-based. We are working to validate the research topics with industry actors in advance, but like the cases you mention, there is not a clear path to publication or dissemination among the diverse stakeholders–roasters, donors, NGOs, etc.–who might benefit from the information. WCD could help bring relevant past research to bear and ensure future research is well-designed and actionable. A good investment, in my mind.


  • Kyle Newkirk says:

    Michael – I just stumbled on your post and found myself nodding in agreement and thinking about how to draw in the large commercial roaster community into an effort like this that has a broad appeal, not overly focused on on the speciality sector, and with access to the type of funding that would be necessary for such an effort.

    Coming out of the cocoa sector, the World Cocoa Foundation is a great example to us in the coffee trade as a pre-competative convener like you describe and we could learn a lot from them. It strikes me that several of the large roasters are also WCF members – could a WCCF be on the horizon? Leveraging the infrastructure that the cocoa trade has already created?

    This is a conversation worth having on a WCD or some thing like it.



    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thank you for making the time to comment.

      This is not the first time I have heard reference to WCF as a model for what I am calling “WCD.” I am not familiar with WCF but want to learn more.

      You write in closing: “This is a conversation worth having.” I’m glad to hear it! I think it makes a good mission statement for the blog: “Conversations (in coffee) worth having.”


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