Project: Orchestrating Change: A Lesson on Sustainability
Projected Impact: 563,000 coffee growers
More than 50 million coffee growers in the world have farms with less than five hectares of land. This implies significant challenges. The perils of climate change and the need to improve crop yields and quality require industry consensus on what are the most pressing priorities. In addition to agreeing on what is most important, we also need to agree on how we are going to achieve the desired impact by modifying the conditions of a large enough number of coffee growing families. While many coffee stakeholders are ready to provide some support to certain communities in various ways, it is not common to implement far reaching programs that aim to improve the conditions of a large coffee growing population that one could describe as “making a significant difference.”
One significant program that fits those conditions is the strategy performed by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) in dealing with a leaf rust (la Roya) crisis that the country faced between 2009 and 2011. La Roya had not previously been of great concern to Colombia’s campesinos. A significant change in weather patterns, coupled with an intense La Niña weather phenomenon that took place in 2009, meant that conditions were now perfect for the growth and spread of the fungus. All of a sudden, most coffee growers realized how vulnerable they were to the changes in weather patterns.
Hundreds of thousands of Colombian coffee growers, 96 percent of whom have plantations smaller than five hectares, were not prepared to face the pressing challenge associated with the la Roya attacks that put their plantations in danger. Growers like Consuelo Herrera, who lives on her farm that is just north of Pereira in Santa Rosa, Colombia, experienced for their first time the challenge of dealing with diseases brought by weather variations that could even put their own way of life at risk. Consuelo´s farm, about three and a half acres, is by far her most significant asset, and she is heavily dependent upon coffee. While she also grows beans and corn on what little land is left, she was not prepared to cope with the dramatic reduction of her farm´s coffee harvest as a result of coffee leaf rust. In fact, the average coffee farm in Colombia saw a more than a 30 percent reduction in yields over historical productivity levels during almost three years. By the end of the last decade, Consuelo, like many coffee growers around the country, needed someone to step in and help make a BIG difference.
During 2010 and 2011, coffee growing leaders met at the National Coffee Growers Congress to define their priorities. They agreed to put in place programs to distribute fungicides and fertilizers to those plantations that were still young, while emphasizing that the most effective way to deal with rust. The conclusion was to replace older plantations with rust resistant varieties. This verdict was based on a collective decision made by the coffee growers themselves. Colombia now had a plan that focused on the damaging effects of the rust. This is the first condition to making a big difference: to make a collective decision on what is really important for you so that all of the resources are used to accomplish your objective. We had a score.
The FNC took the coffee growers mandate and understood that it needed to provide viable solutions to thousands of Consuelo Herreras, and the only way to do that was by orchestrating change. This meant the need to make sure that all of the different components of a large enough coffee tree renovation program needed to be properly aligned, yearly targets developed, and key performance indicators agreed upon. This is by no means an easy process. One can have a diagnosis, but implementing change is another story. The second lesson is therefore clear: in order to make a big difference, you have to have the elements to implement and move from a diagnosis of a situation to making actions.
Looking back, one can attest that it has been an arduous, and at the same time, a successful process. Most Colombian coffee plantations are now younger and more productive, and more than 61 percent are rust resistant. Achieving this dramatic change required incredibly careful execution. The FNC has helped nearly 400,000 coffee growers since 2008 renew their plantations with younger and rust resistant plants. These efforts have resulted in renovating nearly three billion coffee trees (in a time span of approximately five years), and have significantly improved the productive capacity of small coffee growers in Colombia. Colombian coffee production has now reached 11.5 million bags in the period from June 2013 to May 2014, a 30 percent increase compared to the previous 12 months.
Similar to the skill of an orchestra conductor, the FNC developed a program where success hinges on performing multiple measures simultaneously so that the desired objective(s) can be reached. There were several components –musicians—of this orchestra model for it to play well. Cenicafé, the FNC’s R&D center, developed and certified a new set of improved seeds that became available on time, in the volumes required, and at reasonable costs. The FNC provided the support and technical assistance through its 1,500 strong extension service. It also made it possible to provide the required financial services through a debit card system, known as the FNC´s Smart Coffee ID card. It arranged the necessary credit lines with the help of local banks so that the whole effort could be financed, adjusting the debt service to the new coffee trees’ expected harvest cycles. The FNC also worked with the Colombian government to arrange a set of incentives to help coffee growers become more productive and less vulnerable to rust. It also developed agreements with key industry members and coffee brands to offer additional incentives in certain regions, while at the same time reaching out to local governments to finance certain elements of the plan at a local level.
The implementation of this orchestra model to achieve a common goal is probably the biggest challenge to most sustainability efforts.
There is clearly a need for strong institutions to make a significant difference for thousands of small farmers during these complex times. There is a valuable lesson to be learned, all parts of the orchestra must come together to play the same tune at the same time in order to effectively accomplish change through large enough programs that improve the conditions of hundreds of thousands of growers. This is no doubt an important teaching tool for adapting to climate change that the agricultural world requires.