How farmers can benefit from boom in quality coffee

Nespresso sources a good deal of its coffee from East African countries. Daniel Weston, the company’s head of communications, outlines its sustainable strategy.


Climate change is an issue for coffee farmers around the world and the area that is hardest hit is the equatorial belt – that’s where coffee grows.

The result is either intensely long, dry periods and drought or very heavy rainfall – and both of them are as devastating as the other, but it is not a uniquely African problem. While climate change will always be an issue, what seems to affect African coffee most is productivity. One factor is how much each country prioritises its coffee production.

What is interesting is that in some countries we are starting to see more and more coffee production. I think there are two trends – there are countries that see coffee as a real opportunity and they’re investing in it and then there are countries where even though the prices are very high for the coffees – because they are exceptional coffees – there has been so little investment for so long that the level of productivity is very low and farmers aren’t making much money.

Our Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Programme offers free training to farmers to help them to grow better quality coffee and to improve their productivity, in a way that protects the environment – so they can sell their coffee at a premium, and earn more money. In this way we can make an enormous difference, not just environmental and socially sustainable, but also to the high quality and productivity of African coffee and coffee farms.

We believe that coffee can be a vehicle for positive social change. Let me explain: Coffee is a really interesting crop particularity in an African context where farm sizes are very small. That means that there are a very large number of small farms involved. As a result, when you get income into a community at that level, it then recirculates many more times within the whole community and ultimately creates a lot of local GDP.

This then leads to social change; when the farmers start to have more money of course they can then start to do things like sending their kids to school, pay for healthcare and maybe, they can start up a small business on the side. So the benefits of living in a coffee community can be enormous.

We see the effects of this even more where women are involved, either because they are running the coffee farm for the family, or because they are heavily involved in the training. Interestingly, farms run by women seem to have a higher uptake of best practice – the productivity is increased and also the sustainability.

Our Positive Cup strategy recognises how coffee can be a medium for social change, with a high transformational element, and it is our ambition that every cup of Nespresso has a positive influence in the world.

Coffee as a development tool

One area that has caught the world’s attention in particular is South Sudan, especially following Hollywood star, George Clooney’s involvement in the project. The suggestion to consider South Sudanese coffee came from George Clooney, our brand ambassador.

Because of his challenge, we went there and what we found was exceptional coffees. South Sudan sits in a region that is very much the cradle of coffee: coffee grows wild in the area and we also found varieties that we hadn’t found anywhere else.

Our goal is to create a legacy for farmers in South Sudan, helping them to diversify the economic base of the country. The project began in 2011 and we were making solid progress until last year, when the situation deteriorated. However, we’ll resume our work as soon as peace returns.  

One of the reasons that coffee is good for peace is because coffee farming takes effort and time. So it’s quite difficult to walk into a coffee area and take away the value in the same way that you could with cows or capture the harvest from corn fields in two days and then take all that value and wealth.

Historically, also, coffee production is smallholder based farming and the farmers are actually quite busy working on their coffee all year round. That brings a sense of peace to the community. They are selling a small amount very consistently and this builds resilient communities.

These days, consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental and social impact of the products and brands that they choose, and are increasingly demanding the private sector to act sustainably. Sustainability has been at the heart of Nespresso’s approach since the start, however we have never really communicated on it. This is changing, and will change more in the future.

It is important that consumers understand that when they choose a brand of coffee, their coffee should have been very sustainably sourced and that it’s actually bringing help to communities that we work with – so they can be really proud of their own contribution to development.

We invest in agronomy, resources and training because that’s the way we believe you drive change. We developed our programme with the Rainforest Alliance, and we’re celebrating our 14-year partnership by putting their seal on our packs for the first time.

The power of trees

Essentially one of the objectives of the AAA programme is to promote shade grown coffee. We believe trees are great for growing coffee for a number of reasons: One, coffee is a forest crop and when it grows under trees, it matures more slowly which leads to higher quality coffee.

The second benefit is that increasing the number of trees on a coffee farm brings great environmental benefit, in that in periods of drought, the trees help to retain moisture on the ground. On the flip side if you get heavy rain, having a higher density of bigger trees on the farm actually enables the earth to be much more anchored on the farm, so there’s much less likelihood of there being a landslide in torrential downpours.

Finally, the trees could be fruiting trees or timber trees so this gives the farmer another potential source of income. We call it agroforestry and we’ve been investing quite heavily as it is an effective way of insetting our carbon emissions.

Investing in trees insets all of our scope one and scope two emissions – which are from the moment the coffee gets into our hands to the moment it is consumed and recycled by the consumer – and that has a benefit both for us as a business and equally for the farmers. The World Bank Group saw this going on and became interested because they want to amplify tree planting programs in these parts of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia.

The World Bank Group came forward and put together a really interesting mix: a commercial loan used to finance part of our operation which comes from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is the private part of the World Bank, and then alongside that, the BioCarbon Fund gave us a grant because they knew that we already had these very robust management processes in place and very strong supporting mechanisms. They were really confident that that money was going to deliver on the ground.

It’s incredibly synergistic and the loans have basically amplified enormously the efforts that we were making on the ground, and have enabled the tree planting to be on a much broader scale. In fact it involves a million trees in an area roughly the size of Italy. The money from the World Bank amplified it to that level of scale, which can make a real difference.

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