GMCR’s sourcing solution

As the person in charge of sourcing strategies for the largest sellers of specialty coffee in the US, Lindsey Bolger makes it her business to anticipate potential supply problems. However, while the Vice President of Coffee Sourcing and Excellence for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) has spent more than a decade devising strategies to safeguard her business against supply interruptions, she is more passionate about finding ways to prevent those interruptions in the first place. That is why GMCR has been so active in working to address the root causes behind the most recent outbreaks of coffee leaf rust in Central and South America, while also helping farmers get through the challenges these outbreaks have thrown up in the short and medium term. Along with her role at GMCR, Bolger sits on the board of World Coffee Research (WCR), the industry-funded scientific body that is dedicated to the improvement of the supply of quality coffee and the livelihoods of those who produce it. “Long term we are working on opportunities to develop new varieties of coffee that not only have the traits of high-quality coffee but are also far more resilient to pests and climate change,” Bolger tells Global Coffee Review. “This is a key interest of GMCR – we don’t just want to secure the coffee supply chain, we want to secure the supply of very high-quality coffee.” Bolger says that, in addition to research into the genetic side of coffee, WCR is busy studying the potential for introducing companion species – those organisms that grew and co-evolved alongside coffee in its native environment in Africa. It is hoped that, if these species are able to be safely introduced to other coffee producing nations, they will help to protect the plants from infections and pests in the future.
In the short to medium term, however, GMCR has joined with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank and Skoll Foundation to support the non-profit agricultural lender Root Capital’s Coffee Farmer Resilience Initiative. The partnership combines long-term lending to finance the replacement of coffee trees affected by the fungal disease with short-term trade credit, financial management training, climate-smart agronomic assistance and household-level income diversification. The US$7 million initiative will allow Root Capital to lend more than US$10 million for resilience investments, and provide financial management training to 50 agricultural enterprises, representing 40,000 farmers, reaching approximately 200,000 family members in farming communities in Latin America. Bolger says that this project will help to address other systemic problems that have faced farmers since before the recent rust outbreak, such as access to credit for maintenance and expansion, as well as support through times of low prices. While GMCR funds these projects in the hope they will lead to a world where coffee farmers are able to produce their crops consistently and uninterrupted, the realities of today’s market means that, for a business of GMCR’s size, sourcing quality coffee all year round requires detailed strategic planning. “More than 10 years ago, we adopted a strategy to ensure that most of our coffee requirements could be sourced from a growing number of regions that meet our quality specifications,” Bolger says. In the past 13 years, GMCR has gone from sourcing its coffee from 13 countries to more than 25. “Our supply chain has grown significantly over the past 10 years as a function of our growth,” Bolger says. “This strategy has helped us to ensure that our manufacturing and production isn’t disrupted by the diminished volumes that are coming out of the Central and South American countries that have been impacted.” However, she adds, this does not mean GMCR has abandoned its traditional, rust-impacted origins in this period of need. “We continue to contract for coffee from the affected regions – it is not our intention to buy less coffee from those regions,” she says. While GMCR buys the majority of its coffee from importers, Bolger says the company has cultivated a high level of engagement with the players at all stages of the supply chain. “We try to include as many stakeholders as possible so that we have full transparency and traceability of as much of our coffee as possible,” she says. “Our supply chain ranges from farmers who think in terms of how many trees they own, rather than thinking in hectares, right up to large estates in Central and South America.” This high level of engagement with all levels of the supply chain has allowed GMCR to remain a few steps ahead of potential disruptions, Bolger says. Over the course of her time there, this has meant growing ever-stronger ties in GMCR’s top three origins – Colombia, Guatemala and Sumatra – while also playing an active role in helping to establish new origins. Adding new origins to the fold involves more than simply finding good coffee, however. Bolger says it often also includes work on establishing quality standards and helping producers engage with other stakeholders to improve infrastructure, as well as introducing standards about business practices for smaller partners. “We’re seeing the benefit of strategic sourcing principles that are truly about working collaboratively with the supply chain and while we can engage in solutions, we are also able to ensure that we have alternatives should we need to source some of our coffee from different regions,” she says. As one of the world’s largest coffee roasters, and the largest buyer of Fairtrade certified coffee for the past three years running, GMCR is comfortable with taking the lead on initiatives such as these. It does so, however, so that others will follow, Bolger says, pointing out that one company alone cannot solve the problems facing the industry globally. Bolger says this can be done by any company around the world by becoming involved with WCR, either through individual donations or direct involvement with other initiatives. The organisation has also recently launched a global program where roasters can opt to pay a levy of half a US cent per pound of coffee that they buy to help fund its work. Known as the WCR Check-off Program, it was launched earlier this year and already counts major roasters, including GMCR, among its contributors. “Our efforts alone won’t be sufficient or adequate to address what really is a multi-regional issue,” Bolger says. “Any roaster, large or small can get involved through WCR just by visiting the website.”

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