ICO Executive Director discusses unifying the global coffee sector


New ICO Executive Director Vanusia Nogueira on the importance of uniting the private and public sector to address the long-term sustainability of the global coffee sector and reaffirming the organisation as the centre of coffee diplomacy.

Sitting at her new desk surrounded by congratulatory cards in the International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) London headquarters, no-one is more surprised to be there than Vanusia Nogueira.

At the end of 2019, the Brazil national had commenced talks with the Specialty Coffee Association Board about her replacement, and after 14 years as Executive Director of the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association, Nogueira knew it was time for a new direction.

“I had decided 60 was a good age to start relaxing and begin a new kind of life. I was thinking about retirement, but that thinking stopped when the global pandemic began,” Nogueira tells Global Coffee Report.

When former ICO Executive Director José Sette announced his retirement at the beginning of 2021, Nogueira met with representatives of Brazil’s cooperatives to discuss whether to present another candidate to lead the industry’s global coffee body.

“Some of the presidents felt that Brazil shared a responsibility to support the whole coffee industry as the biggest producer and exporter, and almost the largest consuming country,” Nogueira recalls. “They then said: ‘We think the right person for the role is Vanusia.’ My first reaction was one of disbelief. I said no initially, but they asked me to think about it.”

A far call from retirement, Nogueira consulted with her family who encouraged her to take on the challenge and career-defining move. Her name was put forward to the Brazilian government for consideration, and she was approved for the position in less than two hours. All ICO Member countries also gave consensus for Nogueira’s appointment, and she became the first female Executive Director of the ICO in May 2022.

Newly settled in the United Kingdom, Nogueira says she comes to the role with a strong coffee background and even stronger relationships within the industry’s private sector, but with much to learn.

“I need to approach this role differently and think about a diplomatic response, considering politics, and social responsibility,” she says. “I am looking forward to connecting with governments, development banks, NGOs, international and financial institutions, research bodies and academia, to build a network to support the many initiatives the ICO needs to address.

“It’s a very complex time. A solo pursuit [to the industry’s issues] won’t work. We first need to recognise the challenges together, then work together, because there is no short-term fix.

“Since the beginning of the ICO’s establishment almost 60 years ago, Nogueira says it has been “a place to have the most important inter-government discussions”.

“The ICO is totally neutral. It has to be. Our role is not to control but to manage and support. It is the main stage to bring all partners together, address initiatives and ideas together. We have a strong background of data which we can use for analytical analysis on future trends and industry progression, but first, we need to talk,” she says.

A Landmark Agreement

Recognising the importance of this first step, Nogueira has wasted no time, unveiling the ICO’s landmark International Coffee Agreement (ICA) 2022 on 9 June, formally welcoming the global private sector of coffee retailers, roasters and manufacturers, together with coffee farmers, to key discussions on the future of coffee.

The goal of the Agreement is to find new ways to improve conditions in an over US$300 billion-a-year industry that provides livelihoods for millions of people across the world. This includes smallholder farmers who have less than one or two hectares of land each to produce coffee and are considered the most vulnerable with incomes of US$500 a year.

The Agreement is also a step towards the ICO’s restructuring and modernisation, reaffirming itself as the centre of coffee diplomacy, and the commitment to making the coffee value chain more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient.

“We are entering a new era of cooperation with the private sector thanks to the landmark International Coffee Agreement 2022,” says Nogueira. “The arrival of the world’s biggest high- street names and manufacturers as well as smallholders means that the whole coffee value chain can now address the biggest challenges facing the global sector in a way that is fair for all.”

The Agreement is the seventh of its kind since 1962, after the first ICA defined coffee export quotas at the United Nations in New York. The 2022 Agreement goes beyond the traditional divide between exporting and importing Members. It will bring all parties to the table for the first time and tackle challenges through international private and public cooperation, involving Member Governments which represent 93 per cent of world coffee production, and 63 per cent of world consumption.

“The industry has changed dramatically in the last 30 years in terms of governance and value distribution between producing and consumer nations. We can now come together and put a bigger emphasis on the development of the global circular coffee economy. Ultimately, we want to create a brighter future for millions of coffee farmers by adhering to the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals and work for more transparency, quality, and fair pricing for billions of consumers. The new Agreement is a huge step in this direction,” Nogueira adds.

The Agreement comes at a time when expanding demand for coffee will contribute to maintaining a balance between supply and demand, and supporting fair market prices, which saw a 10-year high and a Composite Indicator Price increase for 17 straight months to 210.89 US cents per pound in February 2022.

As part of the ICO’s crusade to embrace all producing and consuming nations, Nogueira will also look to connect with representatives from Australia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Asia, Guatemala, and other African countries currently missing from the ICO Member list.

“I think it’s very important for importing and exporting countries to share experiences and expectations and to help us find new solutions. We need to open our minds and hear from the governments of each country to better understand how we can add value, and show them why it is beneficial to be part of the ICO,” Nogueira says.

No one-fits-all approach

The issues facing the global coffee sector are vast and varied: the coffee price crisis, climate change, extreme weather events, market transparency, sustainable production, and social issues, the list goes on. Many of these issues have resulted in crop losses and prompted farmers to quit a business that had been in their family for generations. Each issue is significant. Each needs attention, and each is interlinked, Nogueira says.

“You cannot talk about environmental issues without talking about economic issues. If we don’t have economic sustainability, how can be maintain social sustainability? If you don’t have food on the table for your kids, how can you even tackle the social issues?” she asks.

“There is not one specific or unique solution to solve all the producer’s issues. It’s impossible. But by talking together, I believe we can find solutions,” she says.

The ICO’s Coffee Public-Private Task Force is directly related to maintaining prosperous wages and income, and a topic Nogueira says the ICO has been trying to address for two decades.

“Some people have said that the Task Force is slow, but we needed the time to build our team and maturity. And now, it is time to go to the field and start pilot trials,” she says.

Nogueira refers to the Living Income Benchmarks and Living-Prosperous Income pilot projects, which have taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia to identify and help close living income gaps.

“We may have great results with some pilots, and maybe not with others, but at least we are trying. I do believe we need to take some risks, and hopefully we can replicate the solutions,” she says.

Also on the agenda is traceability, not just of specialty coffee but all commodity coffee. After world leaders signed a plan at COP26 to reverse deforestation, a draft law has been proposed to ban the import and export of six core agricultural commodities – including coffee – to and from the European Union under a landmark legal proposal, if products are deemed to be linked or contributing to deforestation.

“We need to show the government that that the relationship between coffee and deforestation is low. We are contracting a consultant on the matter and have up until November to talk with the European Union about the proposed restrictions. The EU is a very strong member of the ICO and have said they are receiving lots of suggestions they wish they could support, but they don’t want to lose focus on the goal to minimise deforestation,” Nogueira says. “We do, however, need to find a new way to support this concept in a way that is good for humanity and the planet.”

Leading by example

Nogueira comes from a fifth-generation farming family. She had the opportunity to manage the family farm 20 years ago but left to pursue other opportunities with her background in marketing and management, which led to 15 years working as partner at PwC Consulting.

“I am part of the generation that left farming at a young age. I left my town at age 17 because of the same problems the youth of day are facing. I started hearing from my father and grandfathers that the price of coffee was no good, and that we couldn’t survive only from coffee production,” Nogueira says. “I wanted to go outside coffee farming to lead another life. And 22 years later, I came back and started to work in coffee again.”

Just as Nogueira once faced, today’s generation of farmers are still torn between a laborious, unpredictable career. They are unmotivated, concerned about competition, and the impact of COVID-19.

“We have a kind of bottleneck because there are many people in their 30s looking for new jobs and we have new generations coming and arriving, but they need access to practical education, infrastructure, extension training, which has stopped for the past two years due to COVID. We need to support them with research and innovation. Without that, we won’t keep the new generation in the field,” Nogueira says. “This will be one of my personal missions.

“I’m up for the challenge. I have energy. I have belief, and a desire to think out-of- the-box to try different solutions. This is my pledge.”

This article was first published in the July/August 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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