Why farmers don’t drink their own coffee

  • Approximately 25% of coffee consumed across the world is instant – a popular choice among farmers
  • Coffee farmers typically sell their entire harvest to sustain their livelihoods and fund next year’s crop
  • Some farmers may have a different cultural perspective on coffee than people in consuming countries

THERE’S NO denying that a growing number of people around the world are drinking coffee. Global consumption has increased by 68% over the past 26 years. However, the farmers responsible for meeting this demand show little interest in drinking the stuff.

Instead, coffee is consumed where you might expect. Europe accounted for 32% of global consumption in 2021, and the 74% of US consumers who drink coffee daily continue to drive growth in the world’s largest market.

There are exceptions to the rule, with the two largest producing countries also having a strong domestic market for coffee. Brazil has long embraced coffee drinking, and consumption in Vietnam has almost doubled since 2010. However, this doesn’t mean farmers have suddenly started drinking their own coffee – in these countries or elsewhere.

On the contrary, coffee producers sell what they grow. Many are not in a position to reserve any for themselves; it’s their business, and any income is used to sustain their livelihoods and cover expenses for next year’s crop.

In most cases, higher-graded coffee will be sold to international buyers. This is simply because, typically, they are more competitive and able to pay a higher price than domestic buyers.

As such, producers will often reserve certain coffee on their farms for export, and other coffee will be designated for the local market. As a general rule, anything scoring above 80 on the 100-point scale will be shipped elsewhere.

This has contributed to a situation for most of the world’s producers where coffee isn’t something to be consumed and enjoyed, but to be grown and traded.

Farmers rarely drink their own coffee

Lacking infrastructure

At the same time, the vast majority of the world’s farmers lack the necessary infrastructure to drink their own coffee. It would require milling, processing, and roasting equipment – which is expensive and not readily accessible in most producing regions.

To consume their own coffee, a farmer would need to be more involved in the latter stages of the value chain. “Most producers don’t consume their coffee,” says coffee farmer Max Perez, manager at La Hermosa, Guatemala. “Only some who get involved in the whole value process can.”

Beyond the infrastructure constraint, many producers lack the knowledge and expertise needed to mill, process, and roast their own coffee. Achieving the same level of quality as if it continued on its journey down the supply chain would be a challenge.

Instead, the majority of coffee drank on farms and in growing areas is soluble. Indeed, instant coffee accounts for approximately a quarter of coffee consumed around the world.

As such, rather than going through the significant effort required to consume their own coffee, most of the world’s farmers opt for the easier and more affordable alternative.

Coffee’s cultural associations

Beyond the practical elements, farmers may also have a different perspective on drinking coffee than people in consuming countries.

Coffee is a drink with a colonial past. In many regions, vast European-owned estates produced coffee to be shipped off to consuming countries. While it may not necessarily be a conscious decision, this dynamic has likely weaved itself into the cultural associations around consuming the beverage in producing countries – especially for farmers.

This is a dynamic reinforced by the common practice of reserving lower-quality coffee for internal consumption – which doesn’t do anything to reverse this historical narrative.

As such, many farmers integral to the growth and future of the industry may not consider coffee to be a drink intended for them.

That being said, the status quo could be beginning to shift. In the past three decades, the amount of the world’s coffee consumed in producing countries has increased from 22% to 30%.

Most major producing countries have implemented wide-scale programs and initiatives to change the perspective on coffee and boost internal consumption. This shift has also been accelerated by the pandemic. As bottlenecks at ports and a sharp decline in global demand disrupted exports, many began to recognise the importance of a strong domestic market.

More specifically to farmers, the growth of specialty coffee has led some to become more interested in the quality of their end product. In this way, drinking their own coffee gives farmers a chance to connect with its journey to the consumer and gain insights into the entire value chain, moving forward in a way that growing better aligns with what customers want. Ultimately, by drinking their own coffee, they have a greater capacity to add more value to their product.

“It is important to know and value our own coffee,” says Max. “The culture of coffee consumption is very important and we as producers must be the first to know our product.”

However, this mainly occurs on larger, wealthier estates that have the necessary resources to make the coffee into a consumable beverage, and the expertise to evaluate its quality. And while some producers may send their coffee to roasters to have it sent back for evaluation, the majority of smallholders ship it off never to be seen again.

Yet, some would argue there could be significant benefits in enabling more farmers to drink their own coffee.

Despite the higher prices associated with specialty coffee, it remains a challenging crop for most of the world’s farmers to profit from. Land dedicated to coffee production in Kenya has declined from 180,000 hectares to 120,000 hectares since the 1990s, with farmers switching to more lucrative crops – reflecting a shift seen in many producing regions.

In this context, boosting internal consumption and helping farmers recognise the value of what they are growing could present a real opportunity for coffee production.

Nevertheless, it’s currently uncommon for farmers to drink their own coffee. Before specialty coffee came into play, there was little practical sense to do so; and it lacks the cultural significance found in consuming countries. But as rural migration, climate change, and market volatility drive farmers away from coffee production, shifting this perception could have a positive impact on the industry.

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.