Yesterday I suggested that an upgrade of Nariño’s coffee sector is underway—one that builds on the region’s rich tradition while innovating to further segment the region’s coffees and expand smallholder access to higher-value segments of the market. That post highlighted the role that the Borderlands Advisory Council—a small group of U.S.-based coffee companies that has accompanied our work in Nariño since 2011—has played in that process. But reengineering Nariño’s coffee sector is not the work of the private sector alone.
The Government of Nariño has also been a catalyst for change. It has embraced the Borderlands vision for the region’s coffee sector, and not just with political rhetoric: its official strategy for coffee sector competitiveness embraces the project’s value-chain approach and its focus on differentiation. And the government has put its money where its mouth is, mobilizing millions of dollars in public funding to drive the agenda forward, including co-investment in the most audacious aspect of the Borderlands project—two farmer-owned washing stations.
The Nariño Coffee Sector Competitiveness Strategy
As part of the Borderlands Coffee Project start-up, CRS invested time and project resources in a deep analysis of the coffee sector in Nariño to identify those segments of the market that represented the greatest untapped opportunities for smallholder farmers in the region. But rather than doing these activities independently, CRS coordinated a participatory process, convened by the Government of Nariño, facilitated by the market access team at CIAT and joined by key stakeholders in the region’s coffee sector, including the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, private sector firms, farmer associations, research institutes, local nonprofits and others. The competitiveness strategy that emerged from that process was built around a holistic value-chain approach that differed fundamentally from the previous emphasis of the government’s strategy, which was focused exclusively on productivity and renovation with disease-resistant cultivars. The current approach doesn’t abandon the renovation focus, but does embed it in the broader context of the value chain, including complimentary investments to strengthen farmer enterprises, improve post-harvest practices, boost quality and expand access to new market channels.
The Government of Nariño didn’t just adopt the competitiveness strategy that emerged from that process as the strategy for the coffee sector. It also formalized the roles of key participants in that process as advisors on coffee policy. And later, it awarded two grants worth millions of dollars to local consortia led by CRS to implement that strategy.
Divided Highways and Traffic Circles
During the early stages of the Borderlands project, I envisioned the two processes—our steady engagement with the Advisory Council on one hand and our ongoing dialogue with the government around coffee-sector policy in Nariño on the other—as parallel. In fact, we were very intentional at the outset about keeping the two separate given the risk of “capture” of the private-sector work by narrow political interests in the public sector.
The image of the two processes that I held in my mind was of a divided highway—two sets of parallel lanes that did not intersect. We knew there would be a time and place for the two to merge, but we wanted to ride with each of our collaborators first for a while in their exclusive lanes to reduce the risk of an ugly pile-up.
Now, as we enter the final year of the Borderlands project, I think of the two processes less as parallel lines than as spokes of a wheel. The image is not of a divided highway, but a traffic circle.
Different lanes—private-sector engagement, public policy advice, farmer organization and others—flow into the circle and merge. When process works well, the dynamic becomes a virtuous cycle that pushes the whole enterprise forward to create benefits for everyone. The interplay between different sectors is dynamic and mutually reinforcing: the government in Nariño is investing scarce public resources in a value-chain approach because it sees private-sector validation of that approach and the benefits delivered to growers; and the future of private-sector engagement and farmer organization in Nariño’s coffee sector, in turn, will be shaped by the value-chain policies and investments the government makes today.
The Future of Coffee in Nariño
Nariño will elect a new governor in 2016. It is not clear what that transition will mean for the evolving vision of the region’s coffee sector. What does seem clear is that good coffee policy is good politics in Nariño. But policies to make the coffee trade more inclusive and profitable aren’t just about securing votes. In a region where 40,000 families depend on coffee-growing for their livelihoods—overwhelmingly smallholders with an average of less than 2 hectares planted in coffee—and in which coca is a leading alternative to coffee, they are also about securing rural stability and prosperity.