By Raymond P. Diamond 

Portland’s Coffee By Design hosted “Navigating Economic Justice and Sustainability in Coffee,” a conversation with four visiting coffee producers from Burundi, Ethiopia, and Uganda, on April 17.  pulled back the curtains on an industry at whose core are hard-working people, a coveted product, poverty, and a fragile ecosystem at risk of collapse.  

Sharing the reality of their lives  producing coffee were panelists Heleanna Georgalis, representing Moplaco Trading of Ethiopia; Nico Herr and Kenneth Barigye from Mountain Harvest of Uganda; and Alexandre Mugisha, representing Kalico Coffee in Burundi. All agreed that in order for the coffee industry to survive, change is needed. 

“Being a coffee farmer across the world is associated with poverty,” explained Georgalis, adding that youth who see the reality of the coffee farming industry are disinterested in joining the profession. According to all the panelists, in some East African countries, the average age of a coffee farmer is mid-sixties.  

The issue comes down to whether or not consumers in the U.S. and other countries are willing to pay for high-quality coffee so as to ensure that farmers are treated fairly and to help smaller producers survive. 

 “How much are we able to charge, and how much are buyers willing to pay for our product when they may be able to find another product at a cheaper price, even if it is of lesser quality. Do [you] want good coffee, or do you want something that just feels like [you’re] drinking coffee?”

Heleanna Georgalis

Georgalis, Barigye, Herr, and Mugisha all emphasized the connection between high quality “specialty coffee”and attentive, tender care of the product by farmers during the harvesting process. Commercial coffee, on the other hand, is produced on a massive scale, using corner-cutting measures, and is saturated with herbicides and pesticides.  

Mugisha explained that Kalico Coffee was founded by his mother and that exceptionally delicious coffee requires hand harvesting. The only way to sustain Kalico Coffee, he said, is to work with  “responsible companies like Coffee By Design, that buy and work fairly, hand-in-hand with coffee farmers (as a)  valued part of the supply chain.” 

Herr and Barigye explained that their business model focuses on the sustainability of Mountain Harvest, as well as of the coffee industry itself. They said they work to hold business partners and industry buyers accountable, explaining that in East Africa youth and children have seen their families living in poverty while working in the coffee bean farming industry. “They know what coffee farming may lead to,” Herr said..   

Herr and Barigye  want business partners  interested both in high-quality coffee and  in establishing long-term relationships with their business partners that benefit  the farmers themselves. Herr noted firmly that she wants “farmers to have the power of negotiation,” and explained that the power discrepancy between buyers and producers is complicated; additional mediators are necessary in the buying and selling of beans to avoid unbalanced bargaining dynamics. 

A clear takeaway from the conversation is that consumers can help sustain the industry by holding their local coffee roasters accountable. Ask the hard questions, the panelists agreed: Where do your coffee beans come from?  How many farmers work on the farm where they are harvested? What are their working conditions? What is their rate of pay? How do you, as invested, industry professionals,protect farmers’ interests?