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440. Revisiting our 2014 New Year’s resolutions

2015-01-06 Comments Off on 440. Revisiting our 2014 New Year’s resolutions

A year ago we made three New Year’s resolutions on this blog:

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

Today we revisit those resolutions to see how we did on each one in 2014.


Applied research to generate actionable information for growers, policymakers and industry is a broad objective of the Borderlands project I lead in South America.  But this particular resolution referred to a narrower set of activities that was, as I wrote last January, “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.”

As regular readers of the blog will know, we made good on this resolution through two separate but related processes: we partnered with World Coffee Research on the Colombia Sensory Trial and staged a series of parallel events we called the CRS Colombian Varietal Cuppings.  The results of the former will be presented at The SCAA Symposium and The SCAA Event in 2015.  Partial results of the latter were reported here bewteen November and December 2014.  Both were made possible by funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Status: Resolution fulfilled, scheduled for completion in 2015.



Ok, this resolution was kind of cryptic.  We said only that we had been “poking around on the margins of the coffee trade” and “uncovered what appears to be a significant source of risk that is not on the industry’s radar.”   We committed to “work discreetly to help industry actors address it,” but never said what “it” was.

We are still not ready to say what “it” is, but we can say it is a narrow issue in the broader category of farmworkers in coffee.

We worked privately on the narrow issue all year.  We addressed the broader issue publicly on the blog and, together with others more expert than us, in real life at The SCAA Event in Seattle.  We are committed to continue to inform ourselves on farmworker issues in coffee, to share what we learn here, and to collaborate with others committed to improving the industry’s performance in this area.  We expect the more specific issue that has been the subject of private discussions to date will become public sometime in 2015.  You will know when it happens, and probably won’t hear about it here first.

Status: Resolution partially fulfilled, renewed for 2015.



This was the slipperiest one of all.  We suggested last year that the social performance management toolbox CRS helped to develop for microfinance institutions might be adapted for use by coffee cooperatives to good effect.

We thought immediately of Root Capital in this context–it has been so good at helping cooperatives improve their financial management skills, and has so effectively incorporated social and environmental scorecards into its operations, that it seemed only a small leap to include the kinds of social performance management tools we had in mind.  Together with Root Capital and a small group of allies who work closely with coffee cooperatives, we had some initial conversations to explore and further refine the concept, both privately and publicly.  In the end, we agreed that the idea had enough promise to pursue further, but the effort stalled for lack of leadership.

I am just as compelled by the idea as I was last year and want to rewew the resolution for 2015.  Why am I holding onto hope for this idea even though it failed to get traction in 2014?

  • Because the reality that inspired it the idea the first place hasn’t changed: many commercially successful coffee cooperatives still trade coffee grown by people who are poor, hungry and vulnerable.  In its recent case study of four Guatemalan coffee cooperatives, Root Capital found that cooperative membership delivers clear benefits to farming families, but has not lifted them out of poverty: “Participation in the coffee cooperatives is not bringing prosperity in absolute terms, with our data showing that members still experience food insecurity and income gaps, with children below grade level for their age.”
  • Because cooperatives lack tools to actively monitor and manage social impact even though they have proven their ability to use complex tools to manage their own performance in trade, finance and environmental conservation.
  • And because it is already happening.  Root Capital is naturally expanding its social and environmental scorecards to include social performance measurement and feedback.  In the brief referenced above, Root Capital introduces a Farmer-Enterprise Impact Framework that explores the transfer mechanisms that turn the commercial success of coffee cooperatives into the human development of their members.  And it describes the process by which it delivered to cooperative leadership the social impact data it collected so that the cooperative might better understand–and hopefully work to improve–the social impacts of its operations on its members.

Status: Resolution partially fulfilled, renewed for 2015.



We added–as an afterthought, frankly–a final resolution to continue to press forward with the primary objective of our coffee projects: helping the smallholder growers who participate in them to expand their access to high-value segments of the specialty coffee market.  At least in the Borderlands Coffee Project I lead in Colombia, we succeeded here.

In 2014, the project increased from 17 to 41 the number of lots it helped to bring to market and the number of growers who participated in those new market opportunities from 121 to 324.  In 2013, 16 of the 17 project lots that made it to market were single-farm lots.  This year, the project sold 16 community lots and 25 single-farm lots.

No one bought more lots this year than Counter Culture, which put its first Borderlands community lot on sale this week.  It expects to roll out more community lots and more than one dozen single-farm lots in the weeks ahead.  We expect Intelligentsia and Stumptown to follow suit later in the year.  And we resolve to increase those volumes from the 2015 harvest.

Status: Resolution fulfilled, renewed for 2015.