1 Jul 2020

Resilience and re-invention: how a coffee cooperative is adapting during COVID-19

Cooperatives are at the heart of how Fairtrade works. Well run, democratically governed organizations allow farmers to join forces and have more power in trade relations. To celebrate International Day of Cooperatives on 4 July, we’re highlighting some of the important ways that cooperatives are fundamental to farmers having more control over their futures.

The uncertainty brought by COVID-19 has meant many challenges to farmers worldwide, from harvesting tea plantations with half the workforce to a risk of increased child labour. Coming together and developing innovative ways to rise up to this pandemic can therefore be critical. That is where being part of a strong cooperative can mean more resilience and increased adaptability for producers and farmers worldwide.

At Fairtrade we firmly believe in the benefits of cooperatives. Farmers organizing collectively and democratically means they have shared ownership and decision making, are able to collaborate to impact their wider community, and have more stability and resilience. The latter is of utmost importance to farmers’ capacity to embrace new markets, business models and opportunities.

The coffee cooperative Ecological Producers Network of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Red Ecolsierra) is one example of an organization that has been able to draw on its collective resources to adapt to a global market affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With farms located in the highest coastal mountain range in the world – the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia – Red Ecolsierra has expanded to not only grow, but also process, roast and export its own coffee to the rest of the world.

During the pandemic, the cooperative is now embracing technology to better communicate, and to help ensure business continuity.

One major shift is that it has become even more important for producers to be able to carry out business processes digitally rather than only on paper.

“Since the pandemic began, everyone has migrated to online and digital documentation. A document as essential for exports as the bill of lading, which previously customers would have to receive physically in order to pay, can now be digital,” notes Víctor Cordero, general manager of Red Ecolsierra.

In addition, technology is also helping to work around transportation restrictions that are impacting the usual channels for sales and deliveries. Red Ecolsierra has adapted its sales model to embrace e-commerce with home deliveries, since many people cannot get to the offices to buy coffee.

“We have been doing home deliveries and we are working a campaign for our virtual store, which is what takes us to e-commerce,” reports Cordero. We have redesigned our webpage, we have been talking to the online payments companies to be able to be prepared because we know this situation will last for a while longer.”

According to Cordero, the pandemic is an opportunity for cooperatives to strengthen their digital communication channels with customers and with their membership, and to start promoting online sales. Even communications and meetings within the cooperative have adapted to be held virtually, with tools like WhatsApp helping to keep cooperative staff and members in touch.

“The situation is pushing us to think about things that historically we didn’t use or that we thought were still in the future,” says Cordero. “We must understand that the situation we are living now is not going to be solved in the medium term – it might take a while. That means we must change our business model – things that we did physically have to be virtual now, we must think about our activities and try to invest more in connectivity platforms.”

In order to provide additional funds for cooperatives to invest in adapting and evolving their businesses during this challenging time, Fairtrade established a Resilience Fund, in addition to a Recovery Fund to meet the immediate needs of farmers and workers. Read more about these funds.