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Resolutions for Myself and for the Coffee Sustainability Sector

coffee sustainability

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I’ve always been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They’re a great way to reflect, learn, and get a little bit closer to the person I want to be.

This year, I’m thinking even more about my resolutions because it’s not just the calendar that’s changing, it’s my time zone as well. I am headed home to Hamburg. I’m thankful for my time in New York and hopeful that it has given me perspectives that I can use in my work going forward.

I’m also thinking about resolutions because I’m worried about the coffee sector’s priorities. I’m not sure we’re spending our time and energy in the communities and on the strategies where the greatest impact can be achieved, and I want us to do better.

In the interest of learning from each other, I wanted to share my resolutions, for myself and for our sector.

Resolution 1: Don’t Confuse Meetings With Impact

Coffee sustainability has made great strides in aligning our work and in speaking in one voice about the importance of the challenges we face and the strategies that we want to pursue. We have gotten to this place of alignment by investing in global platforms, transforming a loose confederation of companies and organizations into a sector.

Still, I wonder sometimes about the real impact of these initiatives on farmers and on our sector. These platforms produce plenty of meetings, communications and reports, but do they really yield actionable learnings and spark investments in the field?

With our on-the-ground work, we don’t start a project until an evaluation framework is in place. We know we will be accountable to our partners, both farmers and industry, for whether this impact is achieved. Are the same types of frameworks in place for the platforms and round-tables, and are the platform investors taking an honest look at whether this impact is being achieved? What are their indicators, anyway? New investments into the field? Improved farmer livelihood? Number of lessons learned? Or are we just putting the logo on our websites and not sweating the details?

Because of these measurement and evaluation frameworks, I know exactly what we get for every dollar spent on-the-ground, and I understand clearly what works and what doesn’t. Before I spend any more of my time on another roundtable meeting, I resolve to hold them to the same standard of rigor in terms of defining and evaluating their impact.

Resolution 2: Spend More Time Out of My Personal Comfort Zone

I’m on the road all the time. I spend so much time traveling between New York, Hamburg, our regional offices, project sites, and the many global conferences and convenings where I represent Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS), I sometimes forget where home is. This year, I’m going to be more judicious about where I travel and why.

The global conferences and convenings are fun. I see old friends, stay in nice hotel rooms, and eat well. Sure, it’s work, but it’s comfortable work.

By contrast, time spent at project sites is not always so comfortable. If you can believe it, the hotels and restaurants in rural coffee communities are not quite on par with Bonn, Seattle, London, and Jakarta. However, every time I’m in the field working with colleagues and farmers, I come back with my senses sharpened about what we need to do and with greater clarity about how to get there.

It is tempting to prioritize the comfortable global events, but I resolve to consider whether they’re really the best use of my time, or whether I should make one more visit to the communities where our work is actually happening to convey the reality to our partners and really put farmers first.

Resolution 3: Always Question My Assumptions

The platforms are based on the idea that some strategies work better than others, that we should leverage our pooled resources towards the highest impact strategies, and that a splashy public initiative gets the most attention from key audiences. But these are priorities of the industry, not of farmers.

Can a one-size-fits-all approach ever really meet the wide swath of farmer experiences? What if we picked the wrong strategy upfront? And even if we were right when we set the strategy, what if coffee markets, rural populations and ecosystems have changed so much that our initial strategic choices are no longer valid? What if there are useful new ideas and technologies we’re ignoring because they weren’t available when we made those first decisions? I have been inspired by the work of Enveritas — it helped me to question approach of the farmer support work we do. Their latest research presented at ASIC in Portland shows us that 20 percent of coffee is grown by less than 1 percent of farmers.

Yet we know that it is these farmers who are receiving the majority of sustainability investments. Why? Because these 1 percent plus are the only farmers that are well-enough organized or big enough that we can reach them with our existing methods. Enveritas collects information from coffee communities independent and outside of supply chains — the findings are fascinating and often surprising. Most importantly, the data provide a more representative view on what needs to be done — it made me revise many of my assumptions.

The needs of farmers in Brazil, Tanzania, Guatemala, and Indonesia are all different, and we need the flexibility to tailor our programs to ensure that they’re responsive to these differences. That starts with better understanding their needs through technology such as remote sensing, big data, creative sampling. Thought leaders such as Enveritas have started tapping into this potential, and I’d like to see the sector follow their lead instead of pushing one more platform.

We share a lot of research and reports through the platforms, but we need to actually revise our strategies based on more rapid learning, comprehensive and data driven strategies that are comparable over time. I resolve to push myself, and my peers, to absorb what we’re learning and to adjust our work accordingly.

So what do you think? Will you join me in these resolutions? Do you have any of your own?