Coffee producers adapt to thrive during coronavirus

coffee producers adapt coronavirus

Fairtrade is helping producers adapt to the challenges and restrictions of coronavirus so they can continue to farm coffee now and into the future.

While COVID-19 has been less widespread at origin than in consuming countries at this stage, producers are feeling the blowback. Peter Kettler, Senior Coffee Manager at Fairtrade International, tells BeanScene coffee farmers have felt disruptions on multiple levels.

“It really all depends on how regional and national governments have responded. Colombia, for example, has limited internal travel, which has affected the movement of temporary labour for harvest,” Peter says.

“It also depends on where the country is in its harvest schedule. Fortunately, a lot of production has gone on as normal. Ethiopia is pretty much finished with its harvest, so all the coffee is either at port or already exported… But we’re starting to see bottlenecks in the transport of coffee from milling sites to export facilities, which have limited capacity.”

This makes delivery of samples harder for both exporters and importers, who have closed their physical offices or labs and have traders working from home.

Peter says a mounting concern is a global shortage of shipping containers. The virus originated in China – the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of goods – shutting down production, leaving many unused shipping containers stuck in the country’s ports.

With the extent of the pandemic on farmers hard to predict, Fairtrade has acted to help producers and cooperatives adapt to the situation.

coffee producers adapt coronavirus
Fairtrade has enabled certified producers to use the Fairtrade Premium to best provide to their communities during COVID-19.

On top of the US$1.40 per pound minimum price paid to producers, coffee buyers pay a Fairtrade Premium of 20 US cents per pound, part of which is typically dedicated to yield and quality improvement. Fairtrade has broadened producers’ ability to use the premium to best provide COVID-19 mitigation and other services to the community.

“This is supporting farmers with direct cash payments to help them through this time. A lot of expenses are being incurred, especially in countries that are about to or have already begun their harvest, such as Colombia and Peru,” Peter says.

“In both of these countries, producers hired labour to help in their harvest and are now unable to get that product to export. We’re providing them with funds to absorb some of these additional costs while also providing for their families with basic needs like food and shelter.”

Many Fairtrade-certified producer groups have also applied the premium to help their local communities. The Amazonas Alto Mayo Producers Association and Cooperativa de Servicios Múltiples Adisa Naranjos in Peru, for instance, have set up food banks and distribution for the most vulnerable members of their communities. Others are doing what they can to help farmers and their families financially and logistically.

“A lot of larger cooperatives pre-finance their farmers during pre-harvest times and are increasing those payments. They’re also providing support for the transport of coffee, milling of coffee, and delaying processing fees until the farmer can get back on their feet,” Peter says.

“Whenever something like [COVID-19] strikes, the volunteer reflex kicks in and people do whatever they can to help those around them.”

The actions of these cooperatives are helping to ensure the wellbeing of these communities in the long-term. Peter says the sustainability of the coffee industry is dependent on the strength and resilience of farming communities.

“For most coffee farmers, you can’t separate their family and community life from their work life. It’s so intimately intertwined. If these communities can’t succeed with coffee farming, we might start to see producers leave it for other – sometimes illegal – crops just to feed their family,” he says.

“Right now, we’re trying to help them get over these immediate needs. Then, we can determine together what long-term actions might be required, based on whether their coffee has shipped, if there’s more internal restrictions on travel, and how the disease impacts the population of their countries.”

As well as its adaption of the Fairtrade Premium, Peter says Fairtrade is launching three funding mechanisms to help producers of coffee and other crops around the world reduce the impact of the pandemic, now and into the future.

One of these is a shared pot of funding that can be used to finance a variety of producer-led and identified initiatives specifically focused on relief and recovery from COVID-19.

“We’re trying to create a rapid response mechanism within Fairtrade to respond to the most extreme impacts of the coronavirus as they start to emerge,” Peter says.

A second level of funding is designated for larger projects that producer networks have also brought to Fairtrade’s attention. These longer-term projects could include those already in place that are deemed a priority and require a higher level of investment.

“We’re starting to see businesses at the other end of the supply chain understand what it’s like when your very livelihood is threatened by conditions you can’t control,” Peter says. “Unless coffee farmers and, just as importantly, the next generation of producers, see this as a viable business, their land is going to be sold off or used for other crops with a greater return on investment.”

The third level of support is intended to relieve or assist farmers in the paying of their audit costs to maintain their certifications and premiums.

Peter says despite its many challenges, the coronavirus has provided not only the coffee industry, but the world at large, a chance to reflect on how things are done.

“Everybody is experiencing some kind of impact from this and it’s an opportunity to hit the reset button on a lot of different levels. Within the coffee industry, we can see how each link in the supply chain is interrelated and how each one depends on another,” Peter says. “Hopefully, this will produce some empathy and understanding for coffee farmers as an important part of the coffee community that need to be supported. If they’re not, the consequences of COVID-19 are going to be dire not only for those farming families but the coffee industry itself.”

While it’s difficult to predict exactly what long-term ramifications COVID-19 will have, Peter says ensuring the sustainability of coffee producing communities will be key.

“Everything is built on the ability of farmers to do their work and realise a decent standard of living from doing that work,” Peter says.

“The coffee industry depends on about 25 million smallholder farmers getting up every day and saying ‘yes’. Once they say ‘no’, the whole industry starts to crumble like a house of cards.”

This article appears in the June 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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