an encouraging discussion on farmer aggregation

Last month I attended the International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) 3rd Coffee Finance Forum in Brazil during ICO’s 50th anniversary meeting.  ICO meetings are open to country delegates, observers and guests from 70 countries, both producing and consuming countries.    The objective of the 3rd Coffee Finance Forum was to identify best practices and disseminate information to members about farmer aggregation (farmers working together and creating farmer organizations) as a platform through which access to finance and risk management could be achieved more effectively.  Country delegates and professionals supporting farmer organizations from all over the world met for a day-long forum.

I was excited to participate in this forum since farmer aggregation and supporting farmer organizations have been a significant focus of my work for the last 13 years.  I have recently written about the challenges and opportunities of farmer aggregation in coffee here. Farmer aggregation could be the biggest development opportunity we have in coffee.  Since most of the coffee farmers in the world are smallholders who are not part of effective farmer organizations, these farmers are missing on those advantages that farmer organizations could bring to smallholders: access to cheaper inputs, access to credit, access to services and support from governments and NGO’s, access to information (about the market, buyers’ expectations), access to ‘better’ markets (closer relationships with buyers, potentially better price to farmers due to less links in the chains).

In addition, the coffee industry could benefit of building more sustainable supply chains that secure coffee for the future.  Farmer aggregation could also increase traceability and improve quality of coffee. Once farmer organizations support farmers with the right information and training, and implement better quality control for the coffee from their members, this coffee that used to be processed in sub-optimal conditions and traded by many intermediaries could potentially reach the consuming markets with higher quality and could be traced to a specific community.

ICO members and observers during the 3rd ICO Coffee Finance Forum  in Brazil

ICO members and observers during the 3rd ICO Coffee Finance Forum in Brazil

The focus of the ICO session was on:

–        Organizing independent smallholders (aggregation of small farmers)

–        Strengthening farmer organizations (with an emphasis on co-ops)

We first discussed a series of case studies that had been developed by ICO/World Bank with information from farmer organizations from Latin America and Africa.

The case studies described different farmer organizations at different stages (formation, consolidation, growth, etc).  It was a great exercise because it recognized the different stages that farmers go through when they try to work together.  Unfortunately, in many cases, different development initiatives treat farmer organizations as “one size fits all”, which leads to wrong approaches when we realize that the opportunities and challenges for a group of farmers just beginning to work together will be very different than those of a farmer organization with thousands of members working together successfully for a couple of decades.  For example, a few farmer organizations successfully use hedging (futures, options) to mitigate risk from changes in prices.  However, many farmer organizations will find other price risk management techniques that will be more appropriate and effective for their specific situations.  Being able to recognize that “one size does not fit all” will help development organizations and governments provide more effective support for smallholder coffee farmers around the world.

After we discussed the studies, representatives from most of the ICO members (co-op leaders, governmental organizations from producing countries) and NGO representatives identified and discussed forces or factors that influence (drive or restrain) farmer aggregation.  This force field analysis was conducted in a participatory process and allowed participants to prioritize those incentives and forces that could be more important to focus on for future work.

This prioritization led to grouping the main forces into the following:

Driving Forces

Restraining Forces

Market mechanisms that incentivize aggregation Lack of participation of women in farmer organizations
Examples of success: co-ops and farmer organizations that have succeeded Lack of education about co-ops and farmer organizations
Management and  Leadership Skills – training and support Poor legal framework in place for farmer organizations + corruption
Risk adversity of managers / members

The remainder of the day focused on trying to identify initiatives that ICO and its members could take to support the driving forces and remediate the restraining ones.

For example, in the first driving force, we discussed creating market incentives for organizing farmers.  Some of the ideas identified for working on this force included:

–        Working with coffee buyers so they can send the message (and create incentives) that smallholders will be better off if they are organized.  If farmers get organized and meet the buyers’ standards, there is a market for them.

–        Getting buyers involved could also help us to bring the finance sector to the table and support those smallholders in organizations to access the finance they need

–        Collaboration with “certifiers” could help with information sharing that financing entities and farmer organizations need to work together

–        Sharing more information on how existing market mechanisms incentivize farmer aggregation

In the next months, ICO will begin trying to implement some of the recommendations from the forum.  These recommendations could be used by local government, development organizations and coffee buyers to support smallholders to create farmer organizations and improve the overall long-term sustainability of the coffee industry.

It was encouraging to see the ICO and its members discuss farmer aggregation and recognize its potential.   I commend the ICO and its members for working on farmer aggregation and supporting existing farmer organizations.  This has the potential to bring opportunities to support the livelihoods of millions of smallholders that depend on coffee production.

Read more about the importance of Farmer Aggregation below:

The Silent Majority: Independent Smallholder Coffee Farmers

and to see the ICO summary report of the 3rd Consultative Forum on Coffee Sector Finance (posted in Dec ’13), click here

One thought

  1. Pingback: The Silent Majority: Independent Smallholder Coffee Farmers | coffee gente - the people in coffee

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