21 Feb 2018

Fairtrade Coffee's Journey Towards 'Best in Class'

The Fairtrade Global Coffee Team just returned from the African Fine Coffees Association Conference in Kampala, Uganda. The topic of quality was high on the agenda of this year’s conference. At the pre-event quality competition in Kenya, Taste of Harvest, four of the top ten coffees were from Fairtrade certified producer organizations, evidence of the commitment of Fairtrade coffee producers to quality. Given the increasing relevance of this topic, AFCA announced that the theme for next year’s conference in Kigali, Rwanda will be: “Specialty Coffees are the Heart of Africa”.

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Producers handling a sack of coffee.
Image © Roger van Zaal

Coffee is one of Fairtrade’s best-known products, being the first one to hit the shelves when our certification model was launched back in the late 1980s. The first Fairtrade coffee, initially sold in the Netherlands, quickly gained popularity among consumers looking for an easily recognizable alternative that enabled farmers in developing countries to secure a fair deal for their produce. These early efforts primarily went into opening markets and increasing the volumes of coffee traded under Fairtrade terms at the expense of focusing on quality promotion. This is not to say that Fairtrade coffees were necessarily of bad quality. However, partly as a consequence of this lack of promotion, Fairtrade coffees have been haunted for years by a reputation for low quality. Even today many specialty buyers are pleasantly surprised when they first taste a high-quality Fairtrade certified coffee.

For Fairtrade certified coffee producer organizations, accessing the specialty coffee market represents a good economic opportunity and a reputational boost. The ideal formula securing sustainability and premium quality is highly valued, with many buyers willing to pay very attractive prices for gourmet Fairtrade beans. For instance, Maruyama Coffee, a Japanese company considered one of the best roasters in the world, is buying coffee from cooperatives that won the Brazilian Fairtrade Cup of Excellence for the last two years. The average price the cooperative receives for this special coffee is US$7.00 per pound. But for producers getting to this top ranking is an arduous journey, both in terms of improving the quality of the beans and attracting coffee buyers.

"We organized the first cupping session in 2013 at the SCAE in Nice, France, with the aim to promote the quality of good Fairtrade coffees among specialty buyers. This first session was organized in collaboration with the Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association (BSCA). In the following years, we organized more and more global cupping sessions at international coffee trade fairs with samples provided by Fairtrade coffee producers from around the world," explains Rene Capote, Global Coffee Manager of Fairtrade International.

This first cupping session in Nice marked the beginning of a journey to increase visibility and position Fairtrade premium coffees among buyers worldwide.

Working with farmers to supply premium beans

Improvement of quality and productivity are a key part of the development approach of Fairtrade. Our standards foresee a Fairtrade Premium payment of 20 cents per pound for conventional coffee and an additional 30 cents per pound if produced organically. Moreover, at least five cents per pound of the Fairtrade Premium must be dedicated to improve production or quality.

Besides these economic incentives, the Fairtrade Producer Networks have been raising awareness among the cooperatives in their regions about quality issues, encouraging them to focus their training and investment efforts towards quality improvements. Interventions to improve quality typically focus on three key areas: training of farmers to improve their production and processing methods, training of coffee cuppers, and upgrades of facilities and infrastructure to process the coffee.

There are many successful quality-related projects at cooperative level. Brazil and other Latin American countries have been pioneering this approach but nowadays many African Fairtrade coffee cooperatives are at the forefront of these efforts.

One successful case is the one of RWASHOSCCO, a Fairtrade certified farmer owned coffee business including six cooperatives. Farmers at RWASHOSCCO have been able to go beyond coffee production and move towards exporting and roasting their own coffees. The coffee is sourced from specialty coffee farmers (the so called 80+ points cupping score). On the upstream, to ensure quality production of fully washed coffee, the cooperative farmers follow guidelines provided by the Government of Rwanda. Farmers receive regular training from the government agronomists as well as resident cooperative agronomists on how to take care of their coffee trees and cherries. At the coffee washing stations, the cooperatives follow a rigorously quality controlled processing, grading and daily batching (Lot Identification System).

At the farmers' owned roastery (Rwashoscco Ltd), every coffee lot is then roasted separately. The coffee is further cupped at the in-house cupping laboratory to ensure quality compliance. RWASHOSCCO has partnered with the German social business start-up Kaffee-Kooperative.de which imports the roasted and packed high quality Fairtrade certified coffee and sells it directly to consumers and businesses. In fact, the Coffee Brand Café de Maraba is the only Fairtrade certified coffee already roasted in the origin which is available on the German market.

Another successful example is the one of COCOCA. This Fairtrade certified coffee cooperative from Burundi is able to produce and offer a large variety of coffee qualities, ranging from bulk coffees of consistent quality to specialty and micro-lot coffees. The members of COCOCA have been able to develop this broad quality range only over the last years to a large extent thanks to the investments made with the Fairtrade Premium money that they had received.

Changing perceptions

In addition to achieving quality improvements, another challenge is to change the perception of Fairtrade coffee among buyers. To achieve this, the Fairtrade Global Coffee team – made up of specialist staff at Fairtrade International, National Fairtrade Organizations and the three Producer Networks: the Latin America and Caribbean Fairtrade Producer Network (CLAC), Fairtrade Africa and the Network of Asia Pacific Producers (NAPP) – has focused its efforts on organizing cupping sessions at the most important specialty coffee trade fairs and events worldwide.

"At the last SCA in Budapest we achieved an average score of 85 points for Fairtrade coffees, which is an excellent result. Now, we want to maintain and even improve this score, by identifying and giving visibility to the best Fairtrade coffees from around the world,” says Capote.

The Fairtrade Global Coffee Team is also encouraging producer organizations to take part in the Cup of Excellence Competitions held in their respective countries.

Sights set on the future

While great strides have been made in advancing the quality and the visibility of premium Fairtrade coffees, challenges still persist. The most important one is that many producer organizations lack sufficient funds to undertake costly investments in infrastructure and facilities that would enable them to further improve the quality of their beans.

"We will continue supporting our producers as much as possible to improve their qualities and to showcase their best beans at global trade fairs. We also have to continue reaching out to specialized micro-roasters in order to further open the doors of the specialty market and also meet the demand of other buyers looking for specific quality requirements. Only then can we generate more revenue so that organizations can invest in facilities to improve their quality further," concludes Capote.

The journey is certainly not over yet. In the coming years, the Fairtrade Global Coffee team will continue touring the world to promote the quality of Fairtrade coffees and thus reward the efforts of coffee farmers who work hard every day to offer their best beans.

This piece first appeared on the January-March 2018 issue of the African Fine Coffees Review Magazine and is reproduced with their kind permission.