/ Par / by Stefan Shaw & Sebastian Schienle

Why Coffee?

A bit more than a year ago, our Foundation was at a strategic turning point. We decided to expand our activities to developing and emerging economies. Our mission is to connect the disconnected. To achieve this we want to reach as many people as we possibly can.

Directing resources towards developing countries where our funds have more buying power automatically provides us with increased leverage to achieve our goals.

One year in, we have now decided to focus on coffee farmers in particular. Why? On the surface, this is straightforward. It is no secret that coffee is one of the core pillars of the business activities of our founders and funders. We therefore see a unique opportunity to provide assistance to coffee communities in need.

But the argument also runs deeper. It is estimated that approximately half of the world’s 10 million coffee farmers live in severe poverty. That’s 5 million farmers times five to account for their families — 25 million individuals whose livelihoods are precarious. (Not yet counting the many farm workers who are also extremely poor.) This is the bad news.

The good news is that concrete opportunities do exist to help farmers out of poverty. Farmers aren’t poor because they grow coffee. Rather, coffee happens to grow in places where poverty is still widespread. Growing coffee is often one of very few means to generate cash income. However, many farmers have never been trained to grow coffee in a socially, economically and environmentally responsible manner. Providing farmers with this know-how can offer them a way out of the poverty trap while ensuring that coffee communities and their ecosystems are sustainable in the long-term.

How can this work? Teaching farmers core agriculture skills (such as pruning, mulching, and erosion control) can increase yield and quality, thus leading to higher incomes for farmers while simultaneously protecting the ecosystem. With higher incomes, communities can invest in needed infrastructure such as access to clean water, education, healthcare and electricity. Here is a successful example of this solution in action, which we have had the opportunity to see for ourselves. There are certainly more such examples out there.

However, success stories like the one above still remain exceptions. Livelihoods of coffee farmers have been a focus of development assistance for decades. The Global Coffee Platform estimates that approximately $350m is spent annually on sustainability measures related to coffee. However, its impact to date has been limited. Often, it isn’t even measured. In fact, there have been very few rigorous attempts to understand how many smallholder coffee farmers exist across three continents, let alone to assess how many of these farmers live in poverty.

We want to change that. Starting this fall, we are funding an effort with Enveritas, a US-based non-profit, to help increase transparency, aiming to:

  1. Generate a consistent, reliable overview of the number of smallholder coffee farmers, and of those in poverty in key coffee-growing countries

  2. Dig deeper into one country—Uganda, which alone may account for around 15% of the world’s coffee farmers—to get a better understanding of smallholder numbers and the specific challenges they are grappling with.

In parallel, we are funding two pilots aimed at getting smallholder farmers out of poverty. Independent researchers will evaluate both pilots to generate reliable data on their efficiency and effectiveness.

  1. An unconditional cash transfer program with GiveDirectly, a US non-profit, targeting 3,500 poor households in the Iganga district, a coffee-growing region in Uganda, which started earlier this year.

  2. A yet-to-be-defined agronomy training program aimed at increasing yields of smallholder coffee farmers, potentially also in Uganda, to be kicked off in 2017.

Will this solve the issue? Certainly not. The objective of all our efforts is to contribute to a solid fact base that frames the challenge, and helps inform the broader coffee-sector conversations and initiatives that are occurring.

This will in turn enable us to direct more of our own funds towards helping coffee farmers in poverty. We also hope it can help catalyze action by individual coffee companies and multi-stakeholder coalitions.

With what specific goal then? We aspire to get coffee farmers out of extreme poverty by 2030. All of them.