Check in, check off with World Coffee Research

Imagine a world where each day has fewer coffee drinkers than it did the day before. A world where coffee drinkers only par undefined

take on special occasions. A world where coffee only comes from a few countries, but no longer from Guatemala, El Salvador, Rwanda, or Kenya. To the global coffee industry, the idea is incomprehensible, yet extremely possible, with studies predicting that by 2050 demand is expected to double while suitable land for coffee production will be half of what it is today. With no investment, 2040 will mark the fall of production, as well as an inevitable rise in retail prices that will halt or reverse the year-on-year consumption growth the industry has enjoyed.

“But what can you do?” It’s a question so often asked to Greg Meenahan, Partnership Director of World Coffee Research (WCR). While most roasters, manufacturers, and cafés are removed from the daily struggles facing producers, the key to supporting the situation is knowing that you can make an impact, Meenahan says.

It’s easy to think that these issues that threaten the industry, such as climate change and coffee leaf rust, are “too big and complex”, “too far removed”, and simply “not my problem”. But everyone can play a role in helping secure the industry’s future by eliminating the knowledge and technology gap that exists for producers.

WCR is encouraging roasters and green bean importers to join its Checkoff Program and donate a small amount per pound or kilo of green beans purchased towards WCR’s continued research and development efforts.

“There’s a lot of great people in the industry doing great sustainability work, but you have to evaluate that and ask yourself: ‘How much of that includes research and development?’ Roasters and cafés are confronted with so many different charities and organisations to support, but WCR is taking a leap of faith with some of its projects in the hope that there will be funds to cover them,” Meenahan says. “Coffee R&D isn’t a sustainability project with a beginning, middle, and an end. It doesn’t go away. It’s a new capacity the industry has decided it needs in order to ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of producers and the foundation of the entire coffee value chain.”

In 2018, Meenahan says WCR’s revenue number will exceed its budget. However, a significant part of that revenue is thanks to multi-year commitments. One key component of WCR’s work –the place where the research is “taken to the field” – is a massive global network of 1100 on-farm technical trials called the Global Coffee Monitoring Program. The five-year project is estimated to cost about US$18 million. It involves dozens of partners, and will produce unprecedented data on how to improve farm profitability for the industry. WCR hasn’t secured US$18 million. Rather, Meenahan says it’s only calculated what it needs for the year.

“The industry has a vested self interest that an organisation like WCR has everything it needs. WCR runs a very lean operation, but we don’t want to question if we’re going to keep a research project going or be confronted with having to lay off an agronomist. The last thing you want is to cut corners. That compromises the quality of the science,” Meenahan says.

Research is a long-term commitment. With many projects spanning anywhere from five to 10 years in length, Meenahan says it’s important for the industry to understand that without adequate funding, research will stumble.

“If you don’t have enough agronomists and have to put off taking care of the plants or measurements, you could end up coming back to a test plot filled with weeds and plantlets that didn’t survive, which compromises the accuracy of the science. The industry needs an automatic, steady, and fair way to contribute to this pre-competitive effort, and doing this with transparency is vital,” he says.

“We need to ask: ‘How do we support getting the science right?’ Impeccable science means the organisation has the resources to do impeccable science.”

In order for WCR to continue its devotion to projects that enhance the livelihoods of producers, and create a toolbox of coffee varieties, genetic resources, and accompanying technologies that can be disseminated in producing countries, funding needs to be sustainable.

That’s why Meenahan says WCR’s “penny per pound” idea provides an element of fairness, where a contribution to WCR is based fundamentally on the volume of coffee the supporting company is using. They pay into it at the same rate they’re taking advantage of it. A contribution can be anywhere from half a cent up to 10 cents or 20 cents per pound or kilo.

“This way an entrepreneurial roaster working out of their garage in the Netherlands doing 2000 pounds per year who wants to contribute to WCR can step up to the plate and contribute five to 10 cents per pound,” Meenahan says.

“You can’t have one roaster contributing US$5000 a year and another of equal size contributing $50,000 a year. The market needs to benchmark the donation. We each have to make an appropriate gift for our association based on volume.”

The program works through participating suppliers, who keep track of coffee sales to roasters, adding however many pennies per pound/kilo the roaster has indicated to the green supplier. The contribution is included as a cost of doing business on the roaster’s invoice, similar to docking costs, brokerage fees, or warehousing costs. The supplier then collects funds and disperses them to WCR four times a year.

One software program even integrates the Checkoff functionality into its system automatically. Eximware is a cloud-based commodity management business used by many importers. Meenahan says 30 per cent of WCR’s Checkoff Program importers already use Eximware software to track their customers and sales. Partner XM Suite also allows importers to put in their matching rate and have it calculated and deducted automatically. 

“This solution is booming,” Meenahan says. “One of the problems we face is that when the buyer and seller are finalising a contract, they just forget to calculate their donation. Using Eximware saves us following up, and keeps the importer and roaster accountable. It’s just another way the industry is coming together to support this idea.”

To date, 44 importers have pledged to embed the Checkoff Program into their administration system. One  participating company is importer Caravela Coffee.

“We’ve been a longtime supporter of the Checkoff Program, and we match our roasters’ contributions dollar for dollar,” says Alejandro Cadena, Caravela Coffee’s CEO and Co-Founder. “The program is a simple and easy way for any coffee company to integrate sustainability into their business. While the global coffee industry continues to face real challenges, it’s our belief that through collaboration with organisations like World Coffee Research, we can help to foster a sustainable future for our industry, and particularly for the coffee producers at its foundation.” 

About 70 roasters have signed up to the Checkoff Program as well, including one of the largest contributors, Dunkin’, alongside the franchisee-owned supply chain management cooperative National Dcp.

Dunkin’ announced a five-year agreement that will see a percentage of sales from every pound of its Original Blend coffee beans sold to franchisees go towards WCR.

“As a leading coffee retailer, we have a responsibility to protect the commodities we source, and the farmers and producers whose livelihoods depend upon them,” says Karen Raskopf, Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer at Dunkin’ Brands in a press statement.

This financial contribution, which could amount to US$2 million over the course of the agreement, will support WCR’s mission to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee, while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.

“The commitment by the Dunkin’s system makes them one of our biggest donors and a leader in collaborative, pre-competitive agronomic research and development,” WCR CEO Tim Schilling says.

With more companies signing up to the Checkoff Program and a list of New Year’s resolutions ready to be made, WCR urges roasters and importers to question how they can make a difference. All it takes is a small donation for a big investment in the market that sustains so many jobs and livelihoods. Because as WCR quite rightly puts it, if we lose producers and the supply of coffee, “we lose the game, and the future of the industry”.

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