Southland Merchants on why education matters

Southland Merchants

Through Educare Coffee, Southland Merchants is providing small-scale Brazilian producers with technical knowledge and information to help them improve their farming practices and business decisions.

Traceability has become important to many coffee roasters, sharing the stories of their coffee and how it travelled from farm to cup, but rarely are small-scale coffee producers provided with the same view of the supply chain.

Coffee trader Southland Merchants is looking to change that with the Educare Coffee project. Partnering with Brazilian non-profit Sebrae, Educare Coffee is empowering producers through education on the wider industry and their role in it.

“Many farmers don’t understand the quality of their coffee and have to go off what they hear or are told by others. They’re also not involved in the process after they drop off their cherries at the mill, which limits their ability to learn and gain that experience,” says Nadia Moreira, Co-founder of Southland Merchants.

“With COVID-19, droughts, and frost hitting their coffee farms in 2021, it’s been a challenging year for many Brazilian producers. We decided the best way to support them was with education, not just on production best practices and post-harvest processing, but on dealing with the international market and making the best business decisions.”

Nadia and Andre Selga founded Southland Merchants in 2017, connecting Australia with some of the finest coffees from Brazil. The trader works with many small-scale producers, whom Andre says san have difficulty accessing formal training or education.

“One of the main struggles for small farmers is how they can progress or improve the activities they’ve been doing for quite a while. It’s a family business for many producers, who haven’t had formal training or education in farming development,” Andre explains.

“Through Educare Coffee, we’re making it possible for them to access technical, science-based knowledge so they can do things in a different way and see their farmers progress.”

Sebrae is a private non-profit entity funded by the Brazilian government with the mission of promoting the sustainable and competitive development of small businesses in the country. For several decades, Sebrae has offered programs to assist coffee producers, currently running 34 different groups across the country with more than 500 farms involved, covering more than 50,000 hectares of coffee plantations.

However, due to the significant financial investment required to take part in the program, Andre says it was harder for smaller producers than medium-to-large coffee farmers to join in the training. Through Educare Coffee, Southland Merchants and its Australian roasting partners cover 80 per cent of the costs to make the service accessible.

“The program requires a big long-term commitment and a lot of work and data collection, so Sebrae recommended we not cover 100 per cent of the funding. That way, farmers still put a little skin in the game, so they are motivated to make the most out of it,” Andre says.

“It’s a long-term program and we don’t expect to see results straight away, but having a coffee merchant like us involved, as well as our roasting partners like B3 Coffee Roasters and Extraction Artisan Coffee, reassures them that there will be a market for their improved quality. That being said, there’s no contract or promise that they have to sell their coffee to us, they’re still free to work with any coffee buyer they wish and we’re just committed to being their best option.”

Educare Coffee launched in June 2021 with a pilot group of 14 women in the Mantiqueira de Minas in the south of Minas Gerais, a region not associated with large-scale coffee production.

An agronomist specialising in coffee works with the farmers to gather and analyse data and compare this to past months to provide more information for better decision making.

“Every month they go on the farm, and check the harvests, how the plants are going, what they need, and what they don’t. When it comes to post-harvest, they follow how they are processing and what they need to change,” Nadia says.

“This technical knowledge is something these producers haven’t had before and after only a few months, it’s helping them make better farming, fertiliser, and pesticide decisions, as well as better commercial decisions like when to sell coffee or how to secure forward contracts. That kind of knowledge is really difficult for a farmer to access their own.”

Andre adds that Sebrae has been running these programs for more than 20 years, and many producers have continued to take part in them for several decades. This level of involvement across the country makes it possible for coffee producers to learn best practices from each other.

“There are other much larger groups running in different areas and demographics. Some of these groups involve larger, more established farmers with access to finance, which puts them in a very different position to those in our pilot,” Andre says.

“The advantage of having such a diverse group of farmers take part in these projects is the exchange of experience. The agronomists can take the best practices they see in these other groups and apply them to smaller groups of farmers with less access to information on good farming practices.”

Southland Merchants’ connection to the coffee buying side of the market contributes to the farmers’ understanding of the rest of the supply chain as well, so they can learn and watch how their coffee is exported and what customers are looking for.

“It doesn’t make much sense to thrive on the producing side of things if you don’t understand what product you’re producing and how that meets market demand,” Andre says.

“We can bring an import/export mentality to the program, so it’s not only confined to realities of farming on the ground. We can share different perspectives and make sure all the progress they’re making in farming techniques and all the knowledge brought by the consultant don’t miss the point – to sell more coffee at better prices.”

Despite the long-term focus of Educare Coffee, Nadia says the project is already seeing results.

“We’re really happy with what we’re seeing after a few months. We held our first quality competition among this group of producers, with three judges including a Cup of Excellence judge, where the winner scored 90 points,” she says.

“Another three of our farmers were included in the 20 finalists of this year’s Brazil Cup of Excellence, so we’re already seeing their hard work pay off.”

With Educare Coffee seeing some early successes, Andre and Nadia are excited to involve more producers in the program over the next year.

Beyond the project, Andre adds Southland Merchants’ relationships with its producing partners will be more important than ever in 2022.

“There’s a movement of farmers in Brazil who are seeing the benefits of producing good quality coffees. Despite the challenges in Brazil last year, it was the highest quality harvest we ever received, and a big part of that is our engagement with the farmers we work with. It’s years of connecting with farmers, sharing feedback and market perspectives, and close relationships paying off,” Andre says.

“This year is already shaking up to be an even tighter supply market for coffee. Keeping those close relationships strong is essential to making sure we, them, and the roasters that buy our coffee continue to thrive.”

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This article appears in the February 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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