What does it mean to “decolonise” the coffee industry?

The coffee value chain must be reversed
  • Specialty green coffee averages $2.60 per pound, while roasted specialty coffee averages $28.64 per pound
  • The highest coffee consumption is in Europe, with Finland consuming 12kg per capita; while Vietnam – the world’s second-largest producer of coffee – consumes 1.6kg per capita
  • Decolonising the supply chain brings money and control back to producers

FOR SOME, the coffee industry’s social sustainability goals are not ambitious enough and the whole supply chain must be decolonised: a scenario in which control over the final product is put back into the hands of those who produced it.

This is because, as it stands, most farmers relinquish control and ownership of coffee immediately after harvesting, handing it over to co-operatives and processors to get ready for the next crop. Farmers have been pigeonholed as producers, and the places their coffee is exported to are the consumers.

Yet, value is added to coffee in consuming countries. Roasting, blending, brewing, and retailing coffee creates most of the value.

This puts money into the hands of consuming countries and removes power and influence from producers. As their crop gets shipped away, so too does most of the value created through coffee.

“It’s a simple analysis,” says Abbigail Graupner, the business development director for Chica Bean – a Guatemalan specialty coffee roaster. “Look at where economic value is seen and that is in the roasting process. You have the price for green beans, which fluctuates a lot, at around $2 per pound; but for roasted beans, you are looking at $10 to $20 per pound,” 

In dozens of producing countries, there are not large consuming markets, therefore most coffee is exported as green beans.

The “first wave” of coffee was catalysed by European colonial powers establishing themselves in coffee-producing countries, and farming coffee on a scale not yet seen.

Throughout the 1800s, coffee consumption grew exponentially until it became a globally traded commodity. The coffee industry today continues to have exploitative systems, echoing the past.

“This crop would not exist here if not for colonisation”, Abbigail says. “The coffee seed was stolen from Africa and brought to the Americas.” So too were the slaves that worked on the estates.

“It’s an exploitative model in which countries that work on the farms must sell their coffee cheaply to consuming countries,” Abbigail adds. “Consuming countries then retain any value added – with the producer seeing nothing.”

Roasting at origin enables producers to sell their coffee for higher prices. Chica Bean does just this, creating an additional 95% in value for Guatemalan producers.

While this goes a long way to inject money into coffee-growing communities, it does not mean the whole value chain can be so easily reversed.

Decolonising the coffee industry means reversing the coffee value chain

Reversing the value chain

It will take a long time to unpick the threads of colonialism, but disrupting coffee’s colonial systems can start bringing farmers a higher price for their crop.

Abbigail says decolonising the supply chain “can put power back in the people’s hands”. Shifting the focus to where the value originated from is a way of balancing the value chain; a step towards addressing the inequity that has defined the industry since European colonists began trading coffee in the 1800s.

Overheads associated with exporting green coffee can be significantly eliminated. For example, the cost of warehousing would be reduced if there was a constant, domestic demand.

Establishing producer-run mills at origin is another way to put control back in the producer’s hands, rather than sending their harvest off to large industrial cooperatives.

Moreover, if there is an investment in the infrastructure that is required to process and roast at origin, this will support growing communities to realise the value of their coffee

A lot of the problem is inequity in knowledge; but by bringing investment and infrastructure to producers and adding value at origin, this will help coffee-growing communities understand the true value of their crop.

However, it is difficult to take away the value addition from consuming countries. Most producers face barriers to the investments needed – they do not have access to the funds, or education, that consuming countries do.

What’s more, if consuming countries are pushed to purchase higher-value and higher-priced coffee, they could simply turn to other origins that offer cheaper coffee, allowing consuming countries to continue adding value at their end.

Education is a good place to start, at both ends of the value chain.

For example, there is a conversation about decolonising the flavour wheel. The SCA-approved flavour wheel carries cultural bias against those who don’t have access to those flavours; flavours based around a European sensory experience. One solution could be creating region-specific flavour wheels.

Producers should also be educated on the value of their coffee. This can come in many forms. For example, Nigerian scholar Nkiru Nzegwu remarks that the patriarchal structure of coffee is, in some cases, a lingering consequence of colonisation – where systems in which woman and motherhood represented power and influence, were forcibly replaced.

Therefore, restructuring agricultural systems so that women face fewer barriers to entry becomes not just an act of female empowerment, but also of decolonisation.

And recent years have seen several industry-leading female producers adding value back to their communities.

investing at origin means reversing the coffee value chain

Is it the right goal in a globalised world?

There’s no doubt that the supply network is inequitable and more must be done to add value at origin. Farmers adding value to their products means they have extra bargaining power, they would have more control over the price they sell their coffee for, in turn offering more stability.

Abbigail suggests that producing countries must do more to create a domestic market for coffee. “We have to change the perspective of what value is, we can’t just look at numbers. Governments in producing countries should do more to improve the image of internally consumed coffee.”

However, the onus is not solely on producing countries.

“Educating the producers is another empowerment form.” Abbigail says, “We can’t put the weight of changing the industry on producers, it has to come from the consumers. They have to demand a change of the colonialist mindset.”

There are a number of coffee companies in consuming countries that are very good at pushing policies that empower farmers, especially within the specialty coffee industry.

Part of being in a globalised world means value is added at different stages. We have to accept that it’s never going to be truly equitable, but guaranteeing producers a fair, sustainable living income is certainly a good first step.