Coffee. I’m obsessed with it… but here’s the thing, I don’t just drink Coffee, I grow it. If I tell you I am writing this from the UK – where ‘tropical’ tends to mean fruit juice and not the weather – you might wonder whether I have more in common with a fruit myself.
I have several coffee plants, and like most plants they tend to just… well, sit there. Keeping them happy is a daily task that involves constant ‘misting’ and fertilizing... but for me, coffee is a hobby and a nice way to wake up in the morning.
For 25 million others, producing coffee is a fragile living that can keep families from poverty... Or keep them in it.
At times my obsession has been comical– but coffee is a serious business and its market is deeply embedded in the cycle of extreme poverty.
In history, coffee has enjoyed the same value as gold… and wars were fought over it and societies formed around it. The Sufis drank it to bring them closer to God, and until the 1500's priests named coffee the devil's cup. The fact is, coffee is still causing controversy now. Controversy because the farmers who produce the world’s supply – for Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and Sara Lee- often don’t receive enough money to cover more than the cost of production.
We often talk about the importance of getting girls into education… but coffee farmers are increasingly pulling their daughters out of school because they can’t afford it. Coffee farming is labour intensive, and the relationship between coffee production and consumption requires a large network of transport, middlemen and infrastructure that puts a large number of workers and entire regions at risk when prices are low, harvests are bad, or both.
It’s called the ‘Coffee Paradox’ – where both producers and consumers of coffee lose out. For coffee, the problem is particularly severe as almost 70% of the world’s favourite drink comes from 7 million small scale farmers, not heavily commercialised plantations like tea or rice. There is also more coffee being grown every year than demand, meaning commercial buyers of green coffee beans are able to substantially undercut the production price through the risk of going elsewhere, and are encouraged to get the lowest price possible by an increasing fall in demand for coffee in the world’s cities.
The expansion of cheap coffee production on a bigger scale in countries like Vietnam and Thailand also means that traditional growers of the fruit in East Africa and Latin America lose out to the new market despite producing a superior quality bean.
Drinkers of coffee lose out as while coffee prices crash worldwide, good coffee is becoming hard to find, ethical coffee harder and just between me and you? The coffee you thought was Arabica is more likely to be its rough cousin, canephora.
Think growing coffee in the UK is unusual? – chances are your morning coffee hasn’t seen home either, as coffee production is shifting toward South Asia and declining in Latin America and Africa where it grows naturally.
It costs coffee farmers up to $2 or about £1.20 to produce a kilo of coffee… but coffee cherries are usually sold to middlemen at just 14 cents (about 8p). International coffee buyers like Kraft roast and sell them for a whopping price tag of up to $6 for just 100g.
After coffee companies pay all the costs involved in processing, the estimated profit is between 17 and 24% - or if you want to be technical, HUGE.
Coffee farmers are often trapped in a cycle of poverty – in order to sell at all they sell low and forego other costs such as healthcare or education, while receiving a price that is below production costs means that coffee farmers are unable to invest or save anyway.
New cheaper coffees being grown outside of typical coffee regions means that it is harder for these farmers to access the market – and Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee worldwide has switched to producing low quality, robusta coffee in order to compete – making high quality Arabica beans produced in developing countries the hardest to sell.
Fair trade is one way of making sure you’re coffee is not damaging lives. Buying arabica instead of cheap alternatives is another. You could also buy fresh coffee, which as a higher end product is more likely to have been produced fairly and often donates a percentage of profits back into coffee communities (check the label).
The best thing you can do is stay informed… but keep drinking. And I highly recommend Rwandan - It’s delicious.