BY THALEON TREMAIN
This is what a coffee executive should look like.
About ten years ago I met an amazing coffee farmer in Costa Rica, up in a cloud forest near Monteverde. Sabino Montero was one of the first farmers in Costa Rica to embrace organic production, and his family’s lush farm, thick with greenery, was beautiful. At the time, I was considering working with his cooperative to launch a farmer-owned brand of coffee in the United States. Montero figured that I was just another American looking to document and market his family’s story to my clients. I’ll never forget his words, spoken carefully and sincerely, but not unkindly.
Amigo, who are you to brand our coffee as “Fair Trade” when we don’t even have a voice in the definition of fairness? What’s fair about that? You know, what my family truly needs is access to your rich customers!
Indeed, who are we to make claims of fairness? What is fair and who defines it? Shouldn’t the people on both sides of the transaction have an equal say?
I applaud the efforts of the fair trade movement and the true pioneers who helped to build it. Their intentions are pure. And their contributions are significant. But their solution is top-down, which ultimately leads to conflicts of ownership and dependency. “Fair Trade” standards are defined by certifiers, marketers and retailers. Few conscientious consumers realize that the farmers themselves are left out of the conversation and out of the board room.
When I ask farmers what they want, the answer is often “access to the consumer”. Naturally, they want more ownership in the value-added brand. But, more than anything, farmers want “independence” – the freedom to stay on the farm producing coffee, the freedom to send their children to school. They want to control their own destinies. They don’t want charity; they want an opportunity to compete on a level playing field.
Remember that the Fair Trade supply chain was built in cooperation with small-scale farmers around the world. Hardworking people like Sabino Montero in Costa Rica. Farmers that produce the specialty coffee, the authentic imagery, and the real stories that are brought to market by middlemen in the name of Fair Trade (or even Direct Trade). With very little say in what is sold as ethical coffee, farmers far removed from the marketplace have no power to challenge it.
My experience working for a small farmers’ cooperative in rural Bolivia in the 1990s taught me that conventional, top-down international development is inefficient and unsustainable. What actually works are simple, market-based solutions with direct beneficiary investment. Selling a value-added product directly to consumers, for example. And investment from the beneficiaries themselves (in this case, coffee farmers) is absolutely essential. Ownership matters because it leads to sustainable income, which results in financial independence.
Fair Trade was a needed solution when it emerged 25 years ago. The technology and infrastructure we have now simply did not exist. Today it does, thanks to the farmers, the importers, the marketers, and the consumers who laid the foundation. And let’s not forget the brilliant engineers who built the information technology most of us take for granted, although we use it every day.
I believe that sustainable solutions come from the ground up. And today’s technology can be the root of these solutions. At the base of the economic pyramid, there are a few billion very poor people around the world, and most of them are connected to the Internet or a cell phone. Billions of rich consumers are also connected to the Internet. Why can’t they connect with one another directly, without the aid of charities and middlemen? I believe that technology can provide the tools to build a new model of farmer ownership that goes beyond Fair Trade, in which the farmers own and control the technology themselves, and as a result, their own destinies.
Employing the Internet and today’s technology, I ultimately helped to unite more than 100,000 family farmers from around the world into a global cooperative called Pachamama Coffee. Based in California, the company is 100% farmer-owned and controlled. There is no confusion for consumers. If you want to help farmers, buy directly from farmers.
There are many successful farmer-owned cooperatives. Consider leading brands like Organic Valley, Cabot Creamery, Sunkist, Blue Diamond and Ocean Spray. This is a proven business model with a balance of ownership that better aligns financial incentives for the long term.
It’s no longer simply a question of fairness. It’s a question of ownership.
G.M., Pachamama Coffee Cooperative