Student Spotlight! Today we hear from Irish Impact intern Elisabeth O’Toole, a current Notre Dame senior studying International Economics with a minor in International Development Studies. She spent the summer in Guatemala interning for De La Gente, a nonprofit organization that generates economic opportunity for coffee communities.
Whether you drink Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, Intelligentsia or Caribou, Seattle’s Best, McDonald’s, or some local variety, coffee is likely a staple in your daily diet. On average, 83% of US Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, amounting to 148 million cups of coffee consumed each day. Clearly, coffee is pretty important to us, but other than the name of the brand, light or dark roast, do we really know where our coffee comes from?
As the Fair Trade movement grows, consumers have become more conscious about the origins of their coffee, many preferring a more ethical option. Fair Trade works with the current market and system of buying and selling coffee from farmers by offering them (and thereby with every processing step) a price premium. This may be a successful option for farmers above the smallholder level: they have enough coffee to sell that this price premium makes the costs worthwhile. On the other hand, the cost of certification alone prevents the most economically vulnerable from labeling their coffee as Fair Trade, and thereby limiting the benefits only to the already more well-off farmers.
This summer, I had the pleasure to intern for De La Gente, a nonprofit organization based in Guatemala. This organization self-identifies as direct trade and specifically notes how they wish to remain separate from the Fair Trade system. De La Gente works with five different coffee cooperatives in Guatemala (comprised of all smallholder farmers) and has their office in the farming community of San Miguel Escobar, right outside of Antigua. They work in collaboration with the farmers, selling their coffee directly to consumers. De La Gente, as a nonprofit organization, believes the farmers should reap all the benefits of their work.
What makes direct trade different from Fair Trade?
Value added. The conventional method of selling coffee (any typical coffee brand, not Fair Trade, organic or direct trade) involves many different intermediaries along the supply chain. Common for conventional methods, the farmers sell their coffee as red berries at the first stage post-harvest. This is the lowest price value for farmers due to the additional processing steps needed to get to the consumer. The Fair Trade system works with this supply chain, but adds a price premium to all of the steps, allowing the farmer to earn $0.20 more per pound of coffee sold. There are also Fair Trade approaches in which farmers have a hand in the processing steps, but not many process from start to finish.
Direct trade changes the supply chain of the coffee industry by eliminating the need for big-company beneficiaries to process the coffee beans. This summer, I was able to track coffee beans from the start to the end of the supply chain – that is, from the coffee plant to the consumer’s mug. De La Gente partners with farmer cooperatives to process coffee berries into roasted and ground coffee beans.
Many farmers simply do not have the resources available to de-pulp, ferment, wash, dry, shell, roast and grind their coffee. De La Gente works to provide these resources through micro-loan funding to cooperatives. The organization works in direct communication and collaboration with farmers and their cooperatives to better understand their most pressing needs, and to deliver an appropriate and effective solution.
Due to the work of direct trade coffee organizations such as De La Gente, more farmers can process their own coffee, which results in farmers receiving a higher price in exchange for their coffee. This truly is value added back into the supply chain, the farmer’s community, and the farmer’s family.
So, where did your coffee come from today? For more information, look to organizations such as De La Gente, Aldea Coffee, and Intelligentsia Coffee to learn how you can empower farmers through your coffee purchases.