Coffee austerity in Uganda.
Phil Adams

What worth certification?

Is certification little more than a brand, a marketing tool to make us feel good, to sell more coffee?

coffee country, Mount Elgon, Eastern Uganda / Phil Adams

A couple of years ago, I was at a FairTrade meeting. A film was shown. It was little more than a propaganda exercise for the brand FairTrade. It raised more issues than it addressed.

The film showed tea pickers in Malawi, the difference FairTrade made to their lives, a fairer price for their tea, and a premium to be paid for community projects.

The film begged more questions than it gave answers to. Why was the focus not on food sovereignty? They should be growing food, cash crops for extras. Cash crops simply brings villagers into the cash economy, where they are the guaranteed losers, as it is global commodity markets not workers that determine price. One of the workers said, she could barely afford maize (which is their staple diet). Why therefore were they not growing maize?

The Cost of a Cuppa, a BBC Radio 4 documentary looked at tea plantations in Assam, the appalling working and living conditions on the tea plantations, the child slave labour, whether the tea was supplied to some of the most expensive tea suppliers on the market or commodity tea it made no difference, the various designations meaningless, not worth the paper they are written on.

Tea workers in Assam earn 115 rupees a day, just over £1 ($1.50), well below the minimum wage (177 rupees in Assam). This is legal, as part of their wage is paid for with housing, clean water, sanitation, food. There has been a small increase in wages since the programme was recorded.

The housing is not fit for human habitation, no safe drinking water, no toilets, cesspits overflowing, roofs leaking. Plantation owners in India are obliged by law to provide and maintain ‘adequate’ houses, and sanitary toilets for workers.

The women pick the tea leaves, hard work, but not hazardous. In the fields the workmen are spraying hazardous pesticides, no protective gear, wearing only t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. The chemical used deltamethrin, harmful possibly fatal if absorbed through the skin or inhaled. The local hospital sees 5–6 patients a week suffering from pesticide poisoning.

The plantations visited, Rainforest Alliance Certified. A marketing tool to sell tea to make middle class buyers of tea feel good.

The Source, a year long investigation by The Weather Channel and Telemundo gathered evidence that child labour is commonplace during the coffee harvest in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico.

Armies of kids walking down a road, 60–70 lb sacks of coffee strapped to their backs. Kids as young as six, if not younger, picking the coffee cherries.

The coffee is mainly exported to the US, commodity coffee to large corporations, companies like Nestlé and tax-dodging Starbucks.

Nestlé when challenged denied all knowledge, they outsource the certification to a company called 4C, now Global Coffee Platform.

Veronica Perez, who at the time of the interview was a spokesperson for the 4C Association:

It would be absolutely impossible to imagine an audit where every single farmer who is selling his coffee through the cooperative gets inspected. It’s just not economically viable. It’s not possible.

Down on the farm, it is poverty driving these practices, that and the growers being paid a low price for their coffee.

The certification regimes are brands to make us feel good.

4C may inspect as few as 36 of 5,144 farms every three years, a little over half of a percent.

The square- root rule, inspection of only a fraction of the number of farms, less than half of the square-root, then only every three years.

What this means is that for 5,144 farms the reality of any farm being inspected is vanishingly small, a little over 0.5%.

The larger the number of farms to be inspected in an area, then if we apply the square-root rule, the number inspected as a percentage approaches zero.

Phil Adams, Coffee austerity in Uganda:

You are a coffee farmer in Uganda. You till the soil on your patch of mountain with your spouse. You have three children and a dependent grandparent to support. You have a roof over your head and, to all intents and purposes, you are self-sufficient for food. You are poor but you are not malnourished. How much money do you need to live off the land in this way? What is the price of minimum viable coffee farming in Uganda?
According to Great Lakes Coffee, a Ugandan coffee trading company that works with and buys from thousands of smallholder farmers, it is $758.

That is $758 per annum to provide a family with the basics of life, cooking oil, fuel for heating, salt, sugar and secondary education for your children. In Uganda, primary education is provided free by the state, secondary education costs $150 per child each year.

NGOs step in, launch projects, outsiders, with no local knowledge, no long term commitment.

As Phil Adams reports, they have a name for these projects in Uganda.

Project has become a dirty word. In Ugandan coffee farming circles it means “fuck things up and take pretty pictures”.

Certification may have been a useful stick with which to beat corporate coffee chains, an infinitesimal percentage of the expensive undrinkable cup of over-roasted commodity coffee may find its way back to the grower, but in essence it is a marketing tool to make us feel good.

If we want excellent coffee, we go to an indie coffee shop that takes a pride in the coffee they serve, sources quality beans. Quality beans commands a premium for the farm.

Therein lies the solution, partnership, traceability, transparency.

Colombian El Tambo roasted and served in Makushi

When I have an excellent cappuccino in Makushi, the beans roasted in-house, they can tell me about the beans, where they are sourced from.

Next time you are enjoying that excellent, well-crafted cappuccino, ask the barista where the beans came from, the conditions on the farm, the price paid.

The key is traceability, which we only get through direct trade.

It is in everyone’s interest, the quality of the beans.

We can only ensure that through direct trade.

Alvarado coffee beans from Honduras roasted in-house on sale at Makushi

When was the last time you saw on the back of a bag of beans, the history of those beans, or on a chalkboard in the coffee shop? Why not a QR code for more information?

If we look at three periods, 1971–1980, 1981–1990, 1991–1999, the percentage of earnings to growers has shrunk (from an already small percentage), whereas to consuming countries (which started at over 50%) has dramatically increased.

One of the scandals of coffee, beside that of tax dodging by Starbucks and Caffè Nero and what they serve is an affront to any coffee drinker, is how little of what we pay for a cup of coffee finds its way back to the growers, and of that diminishing return, how little finds its way to women.

According to a UN report, The Role of Women in Agriculture, small holders in developing countries, 43% of the labour is provided by women, the same sector that provides 70% of the world’s coffee.

The women may provide 43% of the workforce, but of that diminishing return to the growers, only 10% finds its way to the women. And they own less than 10% of the land on which they work.

According to the UN, if these women had equal access to resources, crop yields would increase by 30%, the number going hungry would drop by 17%.

137 million people no longer going hungry, by the simple, simple though not simple to achieve, expedient of greater equal access, nothing more.

According to the World Bank, when women have greater status within the family, more of the income goes to child nutrition, health and education.

An example from Burundi of this lack of status within the family. When a woman’s husband died, if she sold the land, all the proceeds would go to the brothers of her husband.

The farm should be dealt with as a coop or family business, where everyone has a say, especially the women.

Partnerships, not exploitation.

Coffee is not a commodity. Supply chains should not be abstract and anonymous.

Phil Adams, Wake up and smell the broccoli:

For a start the language is all wrong. Coffee is not a commodity. It is a precious and fragile gift. And these are not abstract supply chains. They are circles of human life and international trade that connect us to very important but ridiculously undervalued people in fragile high places.

On the farm, food crops, for local consumption and local markets. Coffee not the primary crop grown. There must always be food sovereignty.

Falcon Coffees

The future of the coffee industry lies in the hands of the estimated 25 million smallholder farmers who grow most of the world’s coffee.

It is in the interest of the roaster or supplier of the beans to ensure a quality crop.

A quality crop, the farmer can command a better price, is no longer dependent upon international commodity markets.