World Coffee Research bridges the gap

World Coffee Research has developed a new strategy to align its core focus, be responsive to the critical needs of farmers, and deliver change at scale.

World Coffee Research (WCR) has done what many parents have asked their children to do while remote learning during COVID-19: “put their listening ears on”.

As the organisation committed to fine-tune its strategic approach and develop its research agenda for the next five years, it held a global consultation from January to March. This encompassed nearly 140 interviews with farmers, national research programs, exporters and roasters, and 896 survey responses from representatives across the supply chain, including WCR and non-WCR members and association partners.

“Our goal was to really understand the perspective of the whole industry,” says WCR CEO Jennifer ‘Vern’ Long. “There’s been a lot of conversations on industry consolidation, sustainability portfolios, certification programs, and the global price crisis. We wanted to take a step back and think how we should be orienting the breeding and agronomy agenda of WCR to respond to industry insights, because the decisions we make now will affect the industry in 15 years.”

As a result of the industry survey and interviews, four common global priorities were determined:

  1. Climate adaptation and mitigation
  2. Farmer profitability as the lynchpin of sustainability
  3. Origin diversity for supply chain risk mitigation and flavour diversity
  4. Quality for consistency and flavour

These priorities have since been translated into a 2020 to 2025 strategy with the aim to enhance the productivity, profitability, and quality of coffee across major market segments in strategically targeted countries. This will be achieved through farmer-focused agricultural research and a development program.

Since March, WCR has also welcomed George Kotch as its new Director of Research, one of the world’s foremost experts in building effective plant breeding programs and networks. In particular, he has focused on linking the needs of the end-users on either end of the value stream – coffee farmers and coffee drinkers.

It was exactly this approach that led Kotch’s former team of breeders at Syngenta to develop “single serving” watermelons. After years of breeding the same way – and years of declining watermelon sales – breeders turned to consumers for insight about what they wanted out of a melon. Researchers found that people disliked throwing food away, but common watermelons were far too large for the average US household. The resulting smaller watermelons drove an overall surge in watermelon sales – of all sizes, putting more money in the hands of farmers.

“This same approach can be applied to the coffee industry. Rather than assuming what farmers really want when breeding a new coffee varietal for instance, we need to ask them before making decisions for them,” Long tells Global Coffee Report.

“We need to involve roasters and buyers too. Roasters have never been given the opportunity before to participate in giving feedback on the development of the product they are in the business of selling. There has not been this feedback loop to involve them in giving input on the design and flavour of varieties as they are being developed.”

Long says the idea of bringing end-users into the decision making process, which is done extensively in the private seed sector and many public sector breeding programs, is still a relevantly new concept in the coffee industry. As such, WCR hopes to connect national research programs and institutes with industry members, and provide them with the tools to help aggregate information at scale about demand signals from farmers, and at the consumer end.

The national cassava breeding program in Uganda has already used this approach to inform breeding priorities. Long plans to learn from the national research institute about their experience, adjust the approach for coffee, and work with national coffee programs and supply chain stakeholders to try it out.

“We’re supporting the modernisation of our partners’ programs and introducing tools for breeders to take into their normal practices, and learn what their farmers need most. If they can narrow it down, then they can focus their research on finding trees that respond to those priorities,” Long says.

“And if we develop a varietal that has quality traits that responds to market demand and farmer needs, then we want to make sure the breeding program has what it needs to actually deliver on both needs at scale.

“The beautiful thing about product development in breeding is that it is going to succeed, it’s just a question of bringing in the tools to accelerate progress to get there.”

Over the next year, WCR will work with regional partner networks to prioritise and implement the research agenda while collaborating with focus countries in key areas, such as breeding program modernisation and nursery strengthening activities.

To hone in on the most important traits for farmers and buyers, WCR will use methodology called conjoint analysis in which the farmer or roaster takes a survey asking them to choose between two pairs of options, such as rust or heat resistant varietals. They will be asked to rank which is most important. After dozens of pairs are ranked and the data is combined, it’s possible to establish which traits are most highly valued. Breeders can then more efficiently target those traits in the selection and design of new varieties.

“Historically, there has been very little to no connectivity between roasters and breeders,” says WCR Communications and Strategy Director Hanna Neuschwander. “There are a few exceptions, but by and large, there is no mechanism to give feedback. This approach helps bridge the gap between these two worlds  – farmer and roaster – because they matter tremendously to one another.”

For supporting the breeding efforts of coffee producing countries, Long recognises there is never a “one-size-fits-all approach”. Each country has a unique history and culture of coffee production, unique research capacities, and different rules and regulations that determine how new varieties are released and how they become available to farmers.

“What works in Uganda may not apply to Rwanda, so we need to work much more closely at ground level to understand who operates the seed lots, the rules about bringing in new varieties to a country, and the gaps or challenges in doing so,” Long says.

She adds that the process is about articulating problems, mobilising the tools to solve the problem, then strengthening the capacity using those tools.

Neuschwander says that unless the correct systems are in place, all the effort on the backend is wasted. You can create the best variety in the world, but if the systems aren’t in place for those plants to reach farmers, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done.

“Governments that depend on coffee exports for revenue are motivated, and a number of countries are seeing huge investments from development donors to support their coffee sectors,” Neuschwander says. “When you have 210 coffee companies coming together under an umbrella like WCR, you have the opportunity to influence how those dollars are spent so that they address the highest priority needs of farmers, and ensure long term sustainable connections between farmers and their market.”

Since its inception in 2012, WCR has been devoted to ensuring sustainable supplies of quality coffee that is profitable for farmers through agricultural research and development. Over time, Long says the organisation has come to realise it simply “can’t be everywhere for everyone all the time” and has developed its new strategy to be more of a “lever” to initiate change, more so than a “doer” of research.

“We are moving more towards an identity as a driver to help align priorities and investments around the most efficient and needed questions, and the most important problems that need to be addressed. We can’t do it by ourselves, so the collaborative advantage is crucial,” Long says.

“Our actual work and engagement will be anchored and focused on certain geographies, but we will continue to scan the horizon and look to the needs of the global coffee industry, and are ready and willing to amplify key messages across the industry.”

For more information, and to see WCR’s new report, the Global Coffee R&D Awareness and Priorities Consultation 2020, visit

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