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Introducing The CRS Coffeelands Program

Back in July, the International Coffee Organization announced that 1 October would be International Coffee Day.  Ever since, it has been asking this question on its social media: “How are you celebrating International Coffee Day?” 

Today, I am delighted to answer on behalf of CRS: by launching a global coffee program.





CRS envisions a coffee sector that is centered on smallholder coffee growers who are profitable, coffee farmworkers who are empowered, and coffee-growing landscapes that build natural capital, mitigate the impacts of climate change and deliver more clean water to communities that lie downstream. It is a vision that depends on public sector policymakers and private-sector practices that make the coffee trade more inclusive, more equitable and more ecological.


The CRS Coffeelands Program is a three-year, $4.5 million initiative which will place full-time expert staff in Central Africa, Central America, East Africa, South America and the United States.  They will coordinate efforts of CRS programs in those regions to contribute to lasting change at scale through:

1. High-impact programming

CRS has been implementing coffee projects around the world continuously since 2003.  By our count, at least 20 projects in 14 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean.  Projects worth a total of more than $47 million that have served more than 50,000 smallholder families.  Through those projects, CRS has earned a reputation for delivering innovative, high-impact programming in the coffeelands.  But don’t take our word for it.  Earlier this year, when Intelligentsia Coffee presented a single-farm lot from a grower participating in the CRS Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia it wrote this in its coffee biography, “The Borderlands Project is one of the most exciting and innovative development programs being operated in coffee today.” 

The CRS Coffeelands Program will enrich current CRS coffee programming through two important innovations.  First, it will build the CRS Blue Harvest approach into future programs in the coffeelands–an approach that links coffee value chain programming explicitly with improvements in coffee agronomy and post-harvest water management processes at the landscape level.  Second, it will expand the focus of CRS programming in the coffee sector to support initiatives that empower coffee farmworkers–the most numerous, most vulnerable and most invisible actors in coffee supply chains.

>> Click here to see a map of current CRS coffee projects.

We believe that high-impact programming in the field is necessary but not sufficient to achieve lasting positive impact at a meaningful scale.  To borrow a well-worn phrase from our friends at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the positive changes we are able to catalyze with capable farmers through our programming in the field are most likely to be sustained when they are linked to willing buyers and working in an enabling environmentSo the CRS Coffee Program also includes industry engagement and policy influence to its core principles.


2. Industry engagement

We believe that close collaboration with market leaders from the earliest stages in project design is essential to align project activities in the field with market demand and to achieve improvements in the commercial performance of the growers we serve.  That is why deep engagement with allies in the specialty coffee sector has been a hallmark of CRS coffee programming since its origins in 2003, when we began developing a series of partnerships with Fair Trade roasters through the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project.  Over time, our industry relationships have expanded to include sustained collaboration at origin with large roasters, mid-sized roasters, Direct Trade roasters, and importers specializing in certified and traceable coffees.  This collaboration isn’t just about making our projects work for their businesses—it is also about making their businesses work better.  We have begun to work intentionally with our private-sector allies to test innovations that make their business models more profitable and more inclusive.

To this end, we created an industry Advisory Council comprised of seven companies that have informed and supported our work on the Borderlands Coffee Project in Colombia.  Over the course of the next year, we will globalize the Advisory Council construct: instead of seven companies supporting our work in one country, we will seek commitments from a dozen or more companies to accompany our projects around the world.

>> For more on the Advisory Council construct click here.
>> To see coffees CRS helped bring to market in 2015, click here.

CRS will also deepen its engagement with industry organizations including the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).  CRS has been a member of the SCAA since 2009, has been invited to address audiences at The SCAA Event, SCAA Symposium and/or Re:co Symposium every year since 2010, and since 2012 has served on the SCAA Sustainability Council.  CRS it currently chairs the Sustainability Council’s Farmworker Committee.


3. Policy influence

Whether we like it or not, policy matters for coffee-sector outcomes.  Policies governing agronomic assistance, production, processing, finance and trade in countries that grow coffee—and policies governing private sector conduct in countries that consume it—contribute mightily to who participates in the coffee trade and how.  We will advocate for policies in both contexts that foster inclusion, investment, empowerment and transparency to create an environment that enables a more sustainable and more impactful coffee trade.

>> For an example of coffee-related policy influence at origin,
see this post on coffee policy in Nariño, Colombia.

>> For an example of advocacy on U.S. policy initiatives related to coffee supply chains,
see this Op-Ed in the Huffington Post on the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015.


4. High-leverage research

CRS recognizes that all of the actors in the coffee supply chain—workers, growers, buyers and policymakers—need to base their decisions on good information.  That is why the CRS Coffee Program will also coordinate “high-leverage” research initiatives on salient issues—research that delivers scientific, results-based and actionable evidence to those actors to help them make better-informed decisions.  The CRS Coffee Program will feature a global research partnership with CIAT, a CRS partner in the coffeelands for the better part of a decade, and develop other ad hoc research partnerships in specific countries.

>> For an example of high-leverage research coordinated by CRS,
see the Colombia Sensory Trial resource page.


5.  Dialogue

Finally, CRS is committed to continue to foster public dialogue on issues that matter in specialty coffee.  Why?  Because the coffee conversations in which we have engaged over the past few years have sharpened our ideas, improved our programming, influenced the actions of others in the coffee sector and expanded the impact of our work in the field.

The CRS Coffeelands Blog has been an important part of our commitment to public dialogue.  Since it was launched nearly six years ago, it has earned an influential readership in the coffee sector and become what one venerable U.S. publication called a “vital forum for debate.”  Over the past year, the blog has expanded its editorial team to include pool of contributors that includes experts on water resource management, agroforestry systems, climate change adaptation and mitigation and soil fertility.

>> Visit the CRS Coffeelands Blog feed here.



The reasons for specializing in coffee are economic, social and environmental.

More than 10 million smallholder farmers and countless millions of farmworkers depend on revenues from the annual coffee harvest for their income.

Coffee is often grown against the backdrop of social unrest, and represents an important alternative to lucrative, if illicit, activities. In my experience, that may mean coca production in Colombia, organized crime in El Salvador or drug trafficking in Guatemala.

And the forests in which coffee naturally thrives are not only the last bulwark against deforestation and environmental degradation in many developing countries, but also an important part of effective farm-level strategies for climate change mitigation.

Coffee at a crossroads
And the reason for specializing in coffee now is this: the sector is at a crossroads.  Increasing costs and threats to production in the field have combined with unusual volatility in the marketplace to undermine the profitability of the smallholder farmers who grow most of the world’s coffee. As young people around the world abandon the coffeelands to seek their future in towns and cities, the viability of coffee production in many places we associate with coffee growing has been called into question.

Coffee as a “hero crop”
We believe that the consequences of a collapse of the coffee sector would be too much to imagine—economic dislocation of poor and vulnerable farmers and workers, social upheaval in volatile developing countries, forced migration, and environmental degradation of biodiverse coffee landscapes.  We also believe that coffee holds the potential to be what a valued colleague calls a “hero crop” that boosts smallholder income and profitability, dignifies farm labor, stabilizes volatile social situations and anchors agroforestry systems that deliver vital ecosystem services in an era of accelerated climate change.


Investing to unleash the heroic potential of coffee for people and the planet seems to us like a great way to celebrate International Coffee Day.

Michael Sheridan


  • John says:

    Happy International Coffee Day. Many thanks to all the farmers who make our mornings, our breaks, and our favorite beverage more enjoyable.
    CRS Coffeelands blog: thanks for years of integrity and focused mission.

  • Deborah Barry says:

    Congratulations Michael! This is a major breakthrough and a promising and exciting endeavor. Hopefully we can figure out the best way to wrap our work around each others in Central America and Southern Mexico now that we have 6 years of challenges ahead of us with the support from Buffett Foundation.

  • Rupert says:

    A bit late for “Happy International Coffee Day” – but a truly auspicious day for coffee at CRS. Good luck – to you Michael and your colleagues – in this exciting journey. May all your goals be met!

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