Sustainable Harvest explains its Relationship Coffee model

Sucafina North America

Sustainable Harvest’s Chief Coffee Officer Jorge Cuevas discusses the current context of green coffee sourcing through its Relationship Coffee model.

According to Sustainable Harvest’s Chief Coffee Officer Jorge Cuevas, when David Griswold created the specialty importing business in 1997, transparency was virtually a foreign concept.

“Relationship Coffee was born when Sustainable Harvest was founded to create transparent relationships that increase value throughout the supply chain, all while fostering greater sustainability,” says Cuevas.

“This model allows communication to flow in both directions between producers and roasters, ensuring the terms of trade and commercial conditions are adequate for every member of that supply chain.”

This year, Sustainable Harvest celebrates 25 years of the Relationship Coffee Model, which it pioneered and helped to shape a new category in green coffee sourcing. Since its inception, Sustainable Harvest’s mission has been to improve the livelihoods of coffee-farmers. The company has partnered with more than 200,000 smallholder farmers and their families, helping them gain access to premium markets and increased incomes.

Cuevas says Sustainable Harvest set out to eliminate “information arbitrage”, a term he uses to describe the concentrated power of whoever knows the value of certain products or market conditions, and therefore has a broader influence over everyone else.

“I remember visiting my hometown in the coffee growing region Oaxaca, Mexico,` when a coffee cupping was arranged for a buyer. It was clear that many of the local merchants and the buyer new exactly where to find the finer, more distinctive coffees, but that information was never communicated to the growers. While the buyer sat in an air-conditioned room tasting coffees, the growers sat outside in the heat, awaiting the outcome of whether their coffee was the right quality. Because the buyer held all the information and understood the value of the coffee, the growers were simply passengers of their economic destiny, with zero ability to influence his decision,” he says.

“I thought it was so wrong. The growers poured their lives into producing that coffee, and yet they had no say in how their produce was valued and no information to allow them to make informed decisions on how to properly negotiate the value of their produce. That’s why we set out to create Sustainable Harvest, and a more transparent and equitable supply chain.”

Cuevas says farmers and buyers were engaging in an “opaque supply chain” that created challenges for both sides: from farmers not knowing the expectations of their final buyers to those buyers not having a consistent supply of coffee.

By leveraging the power of transparent relationships, Sustainable Harvest has helped change how farmers and buyers interact.

“While opacity still exists in some part of the industry, many stakeholders have discovered the importance of building relationships in their supply chain to strengthen their supply, foster greater sustainability, and offer a consumer brand-building opportunity,” Cuevas says.

He adds that consumers need only look at the past few years as a perfect example of the importance of two-way communication.

“It started with the global pandemic, then economic disruptions, and now we have armed conflict in Eastern Europe and growing concerns about climate change. At the moment, we’re seeing this transparent and integrated supply chain model become very effective to cope with these challenges,” says Cuevas.

He adds that the company learned how to become flexible during these adversities and having offices in four coffee-producing countries enabled it to easily trace lots back to the producers who grew them.

Sustainable Harvest also made an internal pact within the company to not lay off any staff. While there were pay cuts and budget adjustments, the team remained in solidarity.

“We also encouraged flexibility between our partners. We had roasters that had too much coffee due to low demand and paired them with roasters that didn’t have enough coffee because its online sales had tripled in one week. We were working as connectors, which just meant a lot of communication,” Cuevas says.

“We’ve stayed with that same approach ever since. It allowed us to become creative with logistics when we needed to ship coffees through different ports and routes. We ensure that we always understand where our counterparties are at.”

To further improve communication in the supply chain while dealing with a volatile economy, Sustainable Harvest developed the Most Valuable Producer (MVP) program. This connects roasters to the top echelon of Relationship Coffee producers, a group uniquely dedicated to buyer relationships, quality, performance, sustainability, and organisational excellence.

“Each year, we evaluate our producers’ partners in a number of key areas, assessing their ability to produce quality coffees that serve the needs of our clients. This is a rigorous assessment that we take seriously, as it indicates how well suited a producer is to supply coffee to our customers,” says Cuevas.

Sustainable Harvest imports green coffee from 18 countries on four continents

“We are fortunate to partner with excellent organisations whose values align with our own and find that producers we choose to partner with perform well on this scorecard.

“Some producers, however, score above and beyond what we expect of them, demonstrating a remarkable commitment to coffee excellence. We call this group the Most Valuable Producers, or MVPs.”

Cuevas says the MVP Program connects roasters to a diverse portfolio of top-tier coffees, from value organics to exquisite micro-lots, produced by exceptional farmers. Beyond their pursuit of quality, these producers are deeply committed to on-time shipments, environmental stewardship, economic empowerment of under-resourced groups like women producers. Their membership in the program develops long-term relationships with buyers that are built on consistent quality and performance year after year.

“For roasters, particularly, they’re getting a pre-vetted supply chain, so there’s no surprises for them. They get constant feedback that ensures if something doesn’t go quite as planned, as it happens more frequently than not, at least they have a good way to ensure that feedback goes back to the suppliers and producers,” he says.

“The philosophy of the program is to continually evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of both roasters and the producer organisations. By connecting MVPs to roasters, the MVPs can better understand how they can adjust their operations to best serve the needs of the specialty market.

“In turn, we tailor origin-based MVP events to focus on topics like innovations in processing that help producer organisations leverage new processing techniques to produce flavour profiles that meet client needs.”

Cuevas says despite building farmer capacity and roaster resilience through the program, companies that work with Sustainable Harvest value the sense of connection it inspires above all else.

“By bringing all coffee stakeholders to the table and fostering an environment of radical transparency, the MVP and Relationship Coffee model creates the foundation for sustainable business,” he says.

“Producers and roasters who partner year after year support the growth of each other’s businesses and the prosperity of each other’s communities, creating a powerful narrative of commitment that inspires the end consumer.”

Cuevas says after two-and-a-half years of operating virtually, Sustainable Harvest is placing a tremendous emphasis on 2022 as the year to be ‘back in person’.

“We have already participated in the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston, and we have a team travelling through Europe for World of Coffee in Milan. We are travelling with eight NextGen MVP coffee leaders from three producing countries on a commercial and educational tour,” he says.

“These young producers will get to exchange knowledge and experiences with other coffee experts. It’s a great opportunity to bring the team closer to our growers and roasters, tasting coffees and discussing the challenges together.

“We also plan to attend MICE (the Melbourne International Coffee Expo) in September and connect with the local Australian coffee community. We want to understand what’s going on there and how it’s coming back from the challenges of the last two-and-a-half years, as well as how we help open more channels for growers and bring new opportunities for roasters. Our main goal is to reconnect again.”

As part of Sustainable Harvest’s plan to re-connect the supply chain, the company is also bringing back its global Let’s Talk Coffee event after a two-year hiatus. Heading to Copan Ruinas, Honduras, for its 19th edition, the event is a unique invitation-only gathering that brings together leaders from across the coffee supply chain to build strong, meaningful relationships.

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

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