Who Cares if You Buy from a Co-op or Not?

Lynsey Miller
November 13, 2011
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Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager, and Lynsey Miller, Director of Sales & Marketing for Advanced Coffee, recently visited coffee producers in Uganda. Lynsey reflects on some takeaways here:

Check this out.PatrickWogisha Nasufwa

The farmers of Gumutindo co-op in Uganda would not have these things if they just were going at it as a single individual farmer:

The Tangibles

Pulping Stations: Being installed while we visit, these machines allow farmers access to this key equipment right in their own community, near their farm. The alternative would be to travel far (without a car, through very difficult roads) and pay someone else for the service of using their equipment. These machines mean less labor and better quality.

Training: Also being debuted during our visit, the Gumutindo staff created and debuted a short video in the local language of Lugisu, outlining the best practices for each of the many steps the farmers handle: 1) harvesting, 2) eliminating defects, 3) depulping, 4) fermenting, 5) washing, 6) sorting, 7) drying. Knowing the best methods will help farmers submit even-better coffee and receive more income.

Agronomists: Skilled agronomists work in each farming community, helping farmers make decisions that will improve yield, increase quality, and address challenges like pests and climatic changes.

Direct Access to an International Buyer: Equal Exchange staff visits both the co-op staff and the farmers themselves. This week, we offered trainings on quality at the farm level and explained what we look for in the coffee we buy and what farmers can do to increase the amount of quality coffee they produce that will meet these standards. This trip, Beth Ann trained 20 trainers and 95 farmers.

Environmental Stoves: Inspired by the women farmers she met with nine months ago, Beth Ann returned to the U.S. determined to support the women's initiative beyond our coffee purchases. She raised money that will go toward installing 10 environmental stoves each in the Nasufwa and Buginyanya communities. These stoves will help the environment and the health of the women and their families.

The Intangibles

Direct Relationships: Gumutindo and Equal Exchange share challenges and ideas. We inspire each other. Because this isn't simply a paper relationship, it creates opportunities we'd otherwise miss if we didn't personally understand each other's obstacles and potential.

Women's Empowerment: the co-op creates a structure for community dialog and leadership. In two short years, four strong women's groups have emerged and are growing. Five of the nine Gumutindo board members are women!

Youth Staying in Coffee: Co-op support helps to keep coffee farming a viable livelihood option for current farmers and their children. The co-op has just hired about 20 managers (local men and women) who are now living and working with the farmers in their communities. The co-op purposely sought out recent college-educated graduates to bring additional business skills back to the farming communities. This also created an opportunity for young people to return to work in rural communities instead of essentially exporting their skills only to jobs in the cities.

There are a lot of different types of trade models out there these days, touting this or that.

Why does Equal Exchange insist on buying only from small farmer co-ops? (After all, it might be trendier or easier if we did something else.) We're thinking big and want to change the whole way consumers and farmers connect! Sometimes that means I talk about things like systemic change and infrastructure, and while those things are actually true, those words don't convey the passion and the creativity of the changes that are actually happening on the ground.

So many of these things are happening in our network that it's hard to summarize them. So instead, I'm not summarizing; the list above is what I see with my own experience on the ground, that the co-op commitment supports in one co-op in Uganda.

Pretty sweet.