The Volcafe Way

The Volcafe Way sustainability strategy provides green bean trader CofiCom with an avenue to support coffee producers across the globe.

There are many threats to the sustainability of coffee production and according to John Russell-Storey, Marketing Manager for CofiCom, farm profitability is the root problem and the solution to supply chain stability.

“Coffee growers face fluctuating pressures — from market volatility to pest outbreaks and climate change — and those who aren’t consistently profitable are the most vulnerable,” John says.

“When producers see their incomes improve, however, they’re encouraged to improve farm practices, increase productivity, deliver higher quality, and keep farming.”

CofiCom is the Australian representative of global coffee supply network Volcafe, which in 2014, undertook a two-year initiative to research and develop a global approach to sustainability while sourcing high-quality coffees.

“We drew on the expertise of our field teams, pooling their collective knowledge and experience, to document best-practice strategies at origin,” John says.

“We then developed a farmer support organisation to provide direct technical assistance to farmers, helping them to improve — and to continually improve — their coffee quality, farm productivity, and yields. We named this new sustainable sourcing strategy the Volcafe Way.”

The Volcafe Way is now active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The network of field technicians and agronomists work directly with coffee farmers to assist and train them in sustainable production techniques and good agronomy practices, making the best use of their land for future generations.

“Think of the support coffee companies provide to cafés: onsite training, advice, and personal support. It’s a similar support program. The field teams are truly dedicated and passionate about what they do,” John says.

“Our farmer support teams help producers to manage risks, improve outcomes, gather data, and focus on measurable results that any of our customers can monitor and verify.”

One of Volcafe’s flagship training methods is creating “business-model farms”, which provide local learning hubs where surrounding communities can exchange best practices so everyone can learn and benefit. John says even then, farmers are under no commitment to sell their coffee to Volcafe, that it’s all about earning their respect and working in partnership. 

“By sharing knowledge, providing practical advice, and assistance, the aim is changing the perception of farmers to them being small businesses owners. Better yields and quality mean more revenue. This can mean better housing, money for school fees, and being able to afford improved health care,” he says.

“All this comes from our field teams working as the farmer’s partner. It can often take a couple of seasons for the farmers to see the results and it takes a lot of patience and trust from both parties to achieve this.”

Volcafe has its own operations in 11 origins, where it supports farmers with more than 250 agronomists and field technicians.

“They’re constantly on the road, by vehicle or motorbike, visiting farms no matter how remote to offer a wealth of advice on pruning, nutrients, tree spacing, yields, and, most importantly, climate change,” John says.

“Have doubts about climate change? Talk to coffee growers. They see it in reduced rainfall, increase in pests, varietals not performing, and rainy seasons that seem to keep changing.”

John and CofiCom Operations Manager Dariusz Lewandowski, have seen the impact of Volcafe Way firsthand in five origins and came away impressed and proud of what it achieves.

In Papua New Guinea, farmers who had adopted recommended practices and increased yields through pruning/plant care and focussing on harvesting red cherries became Volcafe Way trainers and ambassadors.

“No one had more credibility than these farmers, which is critical when trying to implement changes against generations of old practices,” John says.

He adds that Uganda provided another eye-opener in what can be achieved through developing programs with the involvement and advice from the farmers themselves.

“Volcafe Way’s aim is that farming be not just a business but a partnership. And it’s not just coffee the Field Support Officers advise on. Support is offered on water storage, sanitation pits, and efficient mud stoves that cuts down on wood usage,” John says.

“When training days or sessions are carried out, one rule is that both husbands and wives attend, something that has had a profound effect on the information being put into practice.”

Volcafe Way has worked to break several age and gender barriers in the country. Twenty-four per cent of its Field Support Officers are female, compared to 4 per cent seven years ago.

“Some of the most efficient farms we saw were owned and managed by women,” John says.

“Technology has also played a huge part, with farmers paid by credits through their mobile phone, eliminating the need for cash. This makes budgeting easier and more manageable.”

Over in Tanzania, almost 95 per cent of farmers are smallholders, requiring Volcafe field staff to work directly with the individual growers and the co-operatives.

“Constant advice to farmers is to focus on picking red cherry [same as Uganda] to earn a premium price,” John says.

“A huge program has been the supply of new coffee plants to replace trees that are unproductive. The new plants have been developed to be more resistant to disease and cope with the changing climate.”

Costa Rica is focusing hard on climate change and its effects, as well as innovative social programs.

“The country relies on pickers from Nicaragua and Panama, who bring their whole family during harvest. The children go into the fields with their parents, not to work but just so they’re not left alone in the accommodation provided by the farms, something no parent would do,” John says.

“One of Volcafe Way’s projects is to create childcare centres on the farms, a major undertaking that involves staff who can speak the right languages and even down to meals that the children are used to eating.”

However, John says his “standout moment” experiencing Volcafe Way took place in Peru.

“High in the mountains outside Jaen, we were shown a farm run by a gentleman in his late sixties. One of the young Volcafe Agricultural Specialists had been working with him for a couple of years. The farm had been suffering from bouts of coffee borer disease and the specialist had advised the farmer to re-space his trees – increasing the distance between plants meant the borer moth found it difficult to fly between the trees,” John says.

“The farmer took the advice, removing trees on a small patch of the farm as a trial. The results were startling. With healthier trees, the yields were substantially higher than before. To see the trust and bond between the young specialist and the farmer was incredible. What made me smile was that, during lunch, the specialist was served an extra piece of chicken; he’d become part of the family.”

John says knowing farmer support and the on the ground sustainability strategy is behind every bag of Volcafe coffee is important. Despite COVID-19 and its impact ay origin, the support network remained fully active:

“For all of us in the CofiCom team, being part of this dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate origin network has a value way beyond dollar terms. It’s also personal at every relationship level – from us to our origin colleagues and the growers.” 

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This article appears in the February 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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