Coffee, bees, and an appetite for more: how can we shift the sustainability lens from ambition to action?

It’s been a year since we made public our commitment to a more sustainable coffee future through Coffee LENS (Livelihoods, Education, Nature at Scale). Throughout this time period, the industry has battled COVID’s socioeconomic consequences, with many wondering whether this will be one too many shocks for smallholder coffee farmers. However, by 2020, ofi will have assisted over 90,000 coffee farmers worldwide with training, fertilisers, and seedlings, as well as locating buyers for their coffee.

Coffee bean prices have nearly doubled in the last year, owing in part to record freight costs and extreme weather events in Brazil. This, however, does not compensate for years of low prices and climate shocks. And because coffee trees mature at a rate of up to five years, farmers are left to lick their wounds for several seasons. Meanwhile, despite the closures of hospitality establishments, demand has remained stable, with consumers recreating their favourite espresso or cold brew at home. However, they now expect more.

Customers and consumers want to know not only about the origin of their purchases, but also that their coffee has a positive impact on the people and environment from which it came.

These are compelling reasons to remain committed to our 2025 objectives. They push us to do more and do it better. However, how can we make the impact of what we were already doing more meaningful and tangible for the people, communities, and landscapes that grow our coffee more meaningful and tangible?

This is what we have discovered…Take the time to understand each farmer’s reality for a higher return on investment.

In many ways, the majority of the world’s nearly 15 million coffee farmers fit a stereotype. They cultivate coffee trees on a few hectares with insufficient inputs, equipment, and labour. Therefore, for those of us in a position to assist them, providing each farmer with a few bags of fertiliser would appear to be a logical and equitable intervention to assist in increasing their yields and income. However, the reality on the ground is quite different.

Our agronomists and data analysts recognised that the fertilizer’s effect was not consistent across farms. For larger farms, the fertiliser was insufficient to cover all trees, and those that were overlooked did not benefit from increased yields. Other farmers saw no improvement in their crops because they had not pruned or weeded. As a result, the fertiliser nourished weeds and overgrown branches rather than the fruit. Some farmers used it on other food crops or even sold it to earn money to feed their families or cover their children’s school costs. Equal support for all farmers does not produce equal results. It necessitates a customised approach.

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