The Blog

view all

378. New Year’s resolutions

2014-01-07 Comments Off on 378. New Year’s resolutions

It’s that time of year again — the time we all make New Year’s resolutions that are destined to be broken.  So here are three from the coffeelands:

  • Generate more results-based evidence.
  • Help the coffee sector navigate uncharted waters.
  • Borrow a page from the microfinance playbook.

Only we plan on keeping these.

  • Generate more results-based evidence.

At the top of our list of research priorities for 2014: enlist industry leaders and research institutes in a comparative cupping of two leading Colombian coffee varieties, Castillo and Caturra.

We will select 50 farms participating in our Borderlands Coffee Project that are growing both Castillo and Caturra.  During the 2014 harvest, we will collect, prepare and ship samples of both cultivars from every farm — 100 in all — to a panel of leading U.S. coffee companies for blind cupping.  And we will work with industry actors and research institutes to exhaustively analyze and ultimately publish the results.

This approach to farm and sample selection will control for variability in cup quality based on differences in terroir, husbandry, harvest practices and post-harvest processing on the farm, enabling us to attribute differences to genetics with a high degree of confidence.

If there is an independent field-based study of Castillo and Caturra cup quality this well-designed or this rigorous, I haven’t seen it.

We believe this research will generate the kind of results-based evidence that farmers need to make good decisions on the farm, buyers need to make good decisions on sourcing, and coffee institutes and governments need to make good decisions on policy.  The issue seems particularly salient in the wake coffee leaf rust epidemics in Colombia and Central America, where farmers are deciding whether to renovate their coffee fields with traditional high-quality cultivars or rust-resistant hybrids whose quality has been called into question by specialty roasters.

The members of the Advisory Council for our Borderlands project — Atlas, Counter Culture, Green Mountain, Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Sustainable Harvest — have all signed on to the initiative.  We are currently in discussions with other roasters to expand participation in the process, and with research institutes to improve on its design.

We will publish the results here later this year.


  • Help the coffee sector navigate uncharted waters.

Back in November I suggested that the coffee industry needs a new generation of explorers to travel to the frontiers of coffee—the areas marked on maps by dragons and skulls and crossbones—to identify new sources of risk in coffee chains.  CRS has been poking around over the past six months on the margins of the coffee trade, and we have uncovered what appears to be a significant source of risk that is not on the industry’s radar.  We will work discreetly to help industry actors address it.


  •  Borrow a page from the microfinance playbook.

Microfinance, with its dual promises to generate financial profit and social impact, has always had a blended value proposition.  But over time, microfinance institutions (MFIs) began to systematically privilege financial indicators over social ones in measuring their performance, due in good measure to donors and investors who insisted that microfinance be financially self-sustaining and not dependent on external subsidies.  Today, MFIs are generally regulated like banks and other traditional financial institutions.  Most have become sustainable, and many have become fabulously profitable.  But this stability has been achieved at a price.  MFIs moved up the food chain, serving clients who were less poor, less vulernable, less risky and more profitable.  They traded social impact for financial profitability.

Over the past few years, CRS has been part of an innovative effort to help MFIs renew their social commitments, reengineer their organizations and products for social impact, and rebalance their value propositions.  Social performance management refers to a set of tools that helps MFI managers set social impact goals, monitor their progress against key social performance indicators and ultimately drive increased social impact through their business models.  MFIs are finding ways to increase their social impact without jeopardizing their economic sustainability. What does this have to do with coffee?

Many coffee cooperatives — even the ones born out of social change processes — have become thriving grassroots enterprises, exporting hundreds (even thousands) of containers of coffee, managing massive credit lines from multiple lenders, and delivering a growing range of commercial services to their members.  Like MFIs, coops have focused first on building better businesses because their donors and their trading partners require it.  But coops with booming businesses that respond effectively to the needs of the marketplace doesn’t necessarily respond effectively to the needs of their members, many of whom are still poor, hungry and vulnerable.  A social performance management approach within farmer organizations could help coops achieve a better balance between the commercial value and social impact they generate for their members.  If coops can increase the social benefits they generate for their members without undermining their commercial performance, everyone wins.

We will work with friends and allies in the coffee sector in 2014 to explore the possibilities for applying a social performance management approach in the coffeelands.

(And of course, we will continue to work will our allies in the marketplace to help the growers we accompany in coffee projects from Colombia to the DRC to expand access to high-value specialty coffee markets.)