The Fairtrade specialty coffee conversation

While Fairtrade International has been working hard during the past several years on various projects focused on boosting the perceived quality of Fairtrade coffee, the last year in particular has been a busy one both at the farm level and out in the marketplace. The global organisation has ramped up efforts as part of a quality initiative focused on continuously improving the quality of Fairtrade coffee and improving buyers and consumers’ awareness of its coffee quality. Fairtrade has made great strides for growers since it launched in 1988, but because most of the nonprofit’s efforts have been focused on enabling farmers in developing countries to secure a fair deal for their produce, Fairtrade coffee’s quality was rarely part of the conversation. According to Fairtrade, these early efforts primarily went into opening markets and increasing the volumes of coffee traded under Fairtrade terms at the expense of also promoting its quality. As such, Fairtrade coffees have been haunted for years by an unwarranted reputation for low quality. “There hasn’t been an absolute link between Fairtrade and low quality,” explains Fairtrade International Global Coffee Manager René Capote. “It’s more that quality was never part of the Fairtrade conversation.” He acknowledges that part of the issue is that the specialty coffee market surfaced after Fairtrade’s standards and certification were implemented. So while specialty coffee and Fairtrade coffee are complementary movements, they happened independent of each other. As such, an important component of the greater quality initiative is spurring and facilitating that conversation at every stage, from growers to buyers to consumers. The other contributor to the low-quality reputation has to do with the Fairtrade minimum price. There’s a misconception that the price is prohibitive for higher-quality coffees. Rather, “the minimum price aims to provide a safety net when market prices go below profitable levels”, Capote tells Global Coffee Report. On the opposite end, the price does not act as a cap if the farmer has higher-quality coffee to sell at a higher price. Because Fairtrade supports producers of different sizes, plants of all breeds and coffees of various qualities, the organisation’s “standards indicate that producers and buyers can agree on a higher or lower price depending on the specific quality they are trading”, he explains. “The model is not rigid and, thus, Fairtrade coffees can fetch a higher price for higher qualities, but they will at least receive the official Fairtrade Minimum Price.” The minimum price is set based on a consultative process with Fairtrade farmers, workers, and traders and aims to help them cover the costs of sustainable coffee production – even when world market prices fall. Adds Capote, “This is very relevant for the sustainability of the entire global coffee sector – and is particularly important in contexts such as the one in recent months when the international prices for Arabica coffee frequently fell below the Fairtrade minimum price.” The Fairtrade vision
  When Fairtrade International started in 1988, it was focused on creating a more balanced and regulated trading system that gave more power and equality to the producers, who were often disadvantaged in trade. In doing so, it hoped to give producers more control over their lives and more sustainable livelihoods. Coffee was the very first certified product in the Fairtrade portfolio, but over the past three decades, hundreds of other products have been certified, such as gold, cotton, flowers and tea. Also over the years, 27 country-specific Fairtrade chapters have opened. And nearly 2500 companies have committed to the movement by sourcing Fairtrade inputs. Allegro Coffee, Stumptown Roasters, Equal Exchange and Pura Vida are among the many coffee brands supporting Fairtrade coffee, in addition to many non-coffee companies. Partners of this movement, both within the global Fairtrade system and externally, advocate the payment of higher prices to producers, as well as improved social and environmental standards. While various milestones have dotted the past 30 years, including launching an official certification symbol for product packaging and electing the very first producer as Chair of the International Board, quality promotion took a back seat – until now. Improving quality awareness
  The greater Fairtrade network is attacking the quality misconception on two fronts: improving quality at the farm level, with projects to help educate farmers and upgrade crops and related infrastructure, and improving awareness of quality at the market level, with promotional campaigns, presentations, competitions, and more. According to Fairtrade, producer networks have been raising awareness among the cooperatives and encouraging them to focus their training and investment efforts toward quality improvements. Interventions to improve quality typically focus on three key areas: training of farmers to improve their production and processing methods, training of coffee cuppers, and upgrades of facilities and infrastructure to process the coffee. Various projects around the globe have been launched to support the quality initiative at the producer level. For instance, on one visit to Papua New Guinea, Fairtrade Australia-New Zealand’s Producer Support Officer Will Valverde spent several weeks with nine farmer groups from the area. “[We trained] the farmers in the best techniques in coffee processing and, with the help of our Q grader, we [trained] them on the best techniques of grading, cupping, and roasting coffee,” explains Valverde. “The idea is that they can leave this training with the knowledge to apply to different communities. The idea is to help them improve their coffee quality.” One of the biggest breakthroughs was made when the producers actually tasted their own coffee. Until then, they had never tasted their fully processed coffee; most subsisted on instant coffee. When quality is actually tangible, producers see more clearly the benefits of improving, Capote tells GCR. “It really gets them thinking and talking about which coffees they will bring to market with the Fairtrade label.” Improving quality in the cup
  In addition to shifting the mindset to quality at the farm level, another focus is to change the perception of Fairtrade coffee among buyers. One way the Fairtrade Global Coffee Team has worked to do this is through cupping sessions at important specialty coffee trade fairs and events around the world. “The team is busy touring the world to participate in the most relevant specialty coffee trade shows and organising cupping sessions to raise awareness among buyers about the great qualities of Fairtrade-certified coffee,” says Capote. The first part of this push was back in 2013 at the Specialty Coffee Association conference in Nice, France. “[Since then], we have organised many more global cupping sessions at international coffee trade fairs with samples provided by Fairtrade coffee producers from around the world,” he says. More recently, Fairtrade hosted two cupping sessions at the 22nd Annual Tea & Coffee World Cup in Singapore in September. “Given the relevance of Singapore as a global coffee trade hub, Fairtrade’s presence at the event helped to foster new partnerships with coffee stakeholders in the region,” says Fairtrade Global Product Manager Verónica Pérez Sueiro. And in December, Fairtrade hosted three cupping sessions at the International Coffee & Tea Festival in Dubai with the goal of strengthening the presence of high-quality Fairtrade coffee in the Gulf and Middle East regions. Adds Capote: “These cupping sessions are increasingly being used to trigger conversations with buyers and emphasise that the topics of economic, social, and environmental impacts cannot be disconnected from the attributes of the coffees on the cupping table.” The Fairtrade Global Coffee Team is also encouraging producer organisations to take part in coffee quality competitions held in their respective countries. Some Fairtrade producers have even won Cup of Excellence awards. “More producing countries are joining the Fairtrade country quality awards,” says Capote, noting that Brazil was the pioneer in organising such a contest, Peru organised one in 2017, and more countries are expected to follow in 2018 and 2019. “This helps to promote the high quality of Fairtrade coffees and attract new buyers – especially in the specialty segment.” All corners of the world
  While the complementary Fairtrade and quality movements have been gaining momentum around the world, Latin America has the longest history. As such, it’s the region producing the greatest share of Fairtrade coffee, particularly in Peru, Brazil, Honduras, and Colombia. Capote says all countries manage to have specialty category coffees, but Peru often produces the highest-quality Fairtrade coffee out of Latin America. One of the first projects executed in Brazil was with the Association of the Small Producers of the Cerrado (APPCER), supported by Fairtrade Foundation UK and the supermarket chain Waitrose. The organisation built 18 drying yards for producer members and organised a series of trainings focused on improving quality. A more recent successful Brazilian project was carried out by the Cooperative of the Family Farmers of Poco Fundo Region (Coopfam) with support from Fairtrade Germany and German coffee chain Tchibo, says Pérez Sueiro. “The cooperative achieved a very significant improvement in its quality thanks to specific trainings for producers and cuppers.” While Latin America was the pioneer, Africa has recently moved to the forefront of the Fairtrade quality initiative. In fact, Fairtrade Africa became a member of the African Fine Coffee Association in 2017. In Burundi, Fairtrade-certified coffee cooperative COCOCA is able to produce coffee qualities ranging from bulk coffees of consistent quality to specialty and micro-lot coffees, according to Fairtrade. They developed this broad quality range over only a few years largely due to investments made with Fairtrade Premium funds. The Fairtrade Premium is an additional sum – 20 cents per pound of conventional coffee or 30 cents per pound of organic coffee – on top of the price paid for Fairtrade coffee. It goes into a communal fund for farmers and workers to use for social, economic, and environmental improvements. Although the ultimate use of those funds is decided democratically, Fairtrade recommends that producers use 25 per cent of the premium on projects to improve quality and productivity. In Rwanda, RWASHOSCCO, a Fairtrade-certified farmer-owned coffee business with six cooperatives, has expanded into exporting and roasting its own coffee. The coffee is sourced from specialty-grade farms where farmers receive regular training on how to care for their coffee trees and cherries. German startup business imports the roasted, packaged coffee and sells it directly to consumers on the German marketplace. Its brand Café de Maraba is one of the few Fairtrade-certified coffees roasted at origin. Reputation on the line Despite success stories like these, the greater Fairtrade quality initiative is not without challenges. One of the bigger tests is related to cost. Many producer organisations lack sufficient funds to undertake the costly investments required to improve their production and, thus, the quality of their beans. Although funds from project sponsors and Fairtrade Price Premiums do help, the remaining costs fall on producers. At some point, those costs may trickle down to the consumers, Capote tells GCR. “Bringing higher quality coffee to the market is costly, so consumers need to keep in mind that it’s not possible to continue increasing quality without increasing the price.” So when will quality be intrinsically linked to the Fairtrade coffee conversation? The folks at Fairtrade International can’t put a timeframe on it, but progress is already being made around the world in conversations with farmers, cooperatives, buyers, roasters, and consumers. Fairtrade will continue to represent producers of different sizes, breeds, and qualities, but now specialty and Fairtrade will be part of the same conversation.

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