Ecom Sustainable Management Services: marketing sustainability in coffee certification efforts

Joeri Kalwij may be working towards an idealistic vision of how the coffee industry should operate, but he is doing so informed by a strong dose of realism. Kalwij has been living and working in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for the past six years, integrating sustainability and certification into the supply chain for smallholder farmers throughout the rugged Pacific nation. He is the Director of Sustainable Management Services, an affiliate of the Ecom Group that works with some of the major certification bodies and provides sustainable community projects to its grower networks. But Kalwij says that the truly important part of his work is making sure that this development work goes hand-in-hand with basic economics. “We certify them, we continue to work with them, we bring the coffee to the market and we tap into international distribution to make sure they can actually sell it,” Kalwij says. Kalwij is also the Deputy Country Manager for trader, Monpi Coffee Exports. Monpi has developed 10 distinct brands of coffee, a number of which are certified by various bodies including Rainforest Alliance, Utz and Fairtrade. It also offers coffees across the full spectrum of grades, both certified and not certified. But Kalwij says that a lot of work needs to be done before relationships reach that stage. “In PNG, the attitude towards coffee is often: ‘It just happens to grow in my backyard’,” he says. “People will harvest what they have simply as a means to get cash. What we need to do is continue to buy this coffee to encourage people to maintain their gardens and improve their quality.” According to Monpi’s figures, nearly half of the population of PNG is involved in the coffee industry in some capacity. With PNG ranked 156th of 186 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s 2013 Human Development Report, the significance of the industry to the future of the country cannot be underestimated. Kalwij knows that this is not a simple fix. “It takes a long time, we can’t forget that,” he says. “A lot of people think that certification means (automatic) economic and quality improvement. Yes, but not immediately. It takes at least two or three seasons for that to kick in.” But the work does not end once certification is achieved. Kalwij says this is just a foundation stone upon which the truly transformative economic work can be built. “You need to bridge that gap between just having a certification or a sustainability system and actually marketing it,” he says. Having worked in PNG since 2007, Kalwij can point to plenty of examples of when this approach has succeeded. However, he says those success stories are not as far-reaching as he would like. “The paradox of certification is that those who would benefit most from it are those that are the least likely to get it,” he says. “My success stories are with the people who are already in areas that have access to the market.” But that does not mean he is about to stop trying. While Kalwij is a coffee person, at the heart of his work is a desire to see peoples’ standards of life improved through their involvement in the industry. “The first priority is, and should always be in my opinion, the (coffee farmers’) food garden,” he says. “If coffee comes a distant second, so be it.” That said, the quality of the coffee that comes out of these gardens is such that the coffee enthusiast in him is continually inspired to keep on working. “If you look at the state of the trees, people are usually surprised at the quality that comes out of there,” Kalwij says. Monpi has relationships with farmers in each of PNG’s coffee growing regions, and Kalwij says that awareness about the advantages of certification has spread in the time he’s been working in PNG. “When I started, I had to go around, soapbox style, and preach certification. Now there are people coming to me trying to get involved,” he says.
Kalwij says that underpinning this is a strong entrepreneurial desire among many of the farmers he works with. “Don’t think they’re poor little ignorant farmers, they’re not,” he says. “They’re poor farmers but they’re smart – they know exactly what they need to do to make money and they appreciate any chance they can get to do that.” It is this pragmatic basis for the certification work that Kalwij sees as the key to its success. “Of course there is a financial trigger for all of this, but if looking after your environment and providing a better future for your kids is the side effect, that’s great,” he says. 

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