Tuesday, January 28, 2014

8. Impact of Microlot Premiums - new research published

Jan. 27, 2014
The "microlots" topic hits several issues that are extremely relevant to resiliency in coffee.  So it is significant that today, Counter Culture Coffee posted Phase II of their research to understand the impact of microlots.

Click here to read their helpful introduction to this phase of the project and click here to see the full report, also posted on Artisan Coffee Imports website. Artisan Coffee Imports assisted with the analysis of the data collected in this phase of their project -- a wonderful collaboration that provided learning for all sides.

Resiliency issues, and reasons why this type of research is important are:
"Direct Traders" claim they are benefiting producers, they even claim they are benefiting producers more than the Fair Trade system. Is there evidence to support it? Do all "direct traders" operate the same way?

Resiliency has to do with bio-diversity. Are there ways incentive systems, like those employed by Virmax and discussed in this report, can be used to encourage bio-diversity and thereby improve producers ability to absorb shocks?

Research issues also came to light with this report:
1. A pilot run of the questionnaire, or even several pilots run with producers could help fine tune the questions. Also, the pilot data (both quantitative and qualitative) could have been assembled so that it was clear which types of analysis the full data (once collected) would enable.

2.  A control group or baseline data would help to verify that the impacts and benefits of the microlot program can be attributed to the microlot program.

3. Cupping data collected on all the coffee included in the study (microlot and the control group) would enable more conclusive insights one which growing practices may be having an impact.

Going Further and Farther With This Research:
There is much more that can be done with the data Counter Culture has collected. Even more could be done if Virmax continues to collaborate and find value in understanding which of their innovative processes are doing the most to improve producer livelihoods. The following are questions that could be pursued in phase III:

Does paying microlot premiums increase the volume (quantity) of 86+ coffee produced in a region? Another way to ask this question is, 'at what level of premium payment, does the premium actually change a producer's decisions on the quantity vs. quality trade-off?'

Does paying incrementally higher premiums for incrementally higher scoring coffees impact the average cup quality of all coffees receiving microlot premiums in a given region? In other words, does a roaster's investment in incentive programs actually "pay off" in terms of creating more higher quality coffees than would otherwise be the case?

Add controls for exogenous factors that occurred over the three years of this study -- price volatility, Federation policies to encourage planting Colombia varieties, etc.

We will look at more of these types of questions in the upcoming blogs.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

7. How Artisan Got Involved in Counter Culture's Research Project

Jan. 22, 2014

I was honored to be allowed to work with Counter CultureCoffee (CCC) to analyze the data in their study, "Impact of Microlot Premiums on Smallholder Coffee Producers in Southern Colombia: How Premiums Are Invested and Farming Practices Employed." As a coffee importer (www.ArtisanCoffeeImports.com) and a master’s student studying sustainable development for coffee communities (www.csus.msu.edu/), studying the impact of any program designed to benefit coffee producers would be of interest. This one was extra tantalizing for a few reasons:

1. I had not yet seen any research on the impact of microlot premiums using parametric (i.e. numerical) data, so this seemed to be ground-breaking. 

2. I myself was very curious to see some rigorous analysis of the assumption that “paying more helps the producers.” When Kim Elena Ionescu lead the roundtable discussion at the Roasters Guild Retreat in August 2013 on “microlot myths”, it was frustrating to me that research results in that workshop were so vague compared to the next workshop. In the following workshop, SCAA’s “coffee scientist” spent two hours walking us through her randomly controlled trial experiments to test the effects of roast degree on coffee taste. My interest was to see impacts on producers investigated with the same care and validity, and here was an opportunity to be part of helping that happen. 

3. The research combined quantitative and qualitative methods in a way that, in my experience so far as a development economist, is rare. However, qualitative research has come a long way in the 20 years since I studied for my first masters degree (in international development). So I was curious to see how the combination could work.
4. The data was already collected, cleaned and formatted. It was just waiting in spreadsheets to be analyzed. In other words, much of the hard work of primary research was already accomplished. This meant getting the work into a final report was realistically doable – even within the three month timeframe it would need to be, to fulfill the criteria of a final paper for one of my classes. In other words, timing was perfect.

5. The study was done with a participatory mindset. From the outset, CCC promised to share the results with the producers who participated in the survey. They made good on that promise. This week (as I write), Hannah Popish (from CCC in North Carolina) is in Colombia presenting the findings to the growers in Huila, Cauca and Tolima. And it's not just presenting, it's visiting. Each meeting includes small groups and the intention is to learn as much as it is to share the research results so far.

6. I said at the beginning of the blog I was 'honored' to work with CCC. That deserves an explanation. For me it's an honor because I admire CCC's boldness in reaching for and developing resiliency. They have been instrumental in developing direct trade relationships in Burundi and now Democratic Republic of Congo. Now I learn Tim Hill has worked on iterations of cupping forms to find a method that will more effectively help him communicate with producers about growing quality coffee. I believe CCC is on the Collaboration for Food Security Council and now participating in an innovative collaboration between Food for Farmers, Root Capital and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to bring focus and resources to battling leaf rust in Latin America. I understand they will also support the 2014 Potato Taste Conference in Kigali, Rwanda. I could go on, but I'll just say that they also have great  coffee. Try some!

7. In case you feel like this is getting to be a bit too boring, reading about the great things CCC has done, don't worry. My critical side will include them, too. Stay tuned...

Monday, January 13, 2014

6. The Value of Participatory, Qualitative Research for Coffee

Jan. 13, 2014
How would you define research? Something about uncovering truth? Finding new knowledge? My off-the-cuff definition is, "a systematic process for uncovering new knowledge." As I've re-entered the world of graduate school this past fall, I've been refreshed to see an appreciation of how valuable qualitative and participatory research can be. It seems I'm not the only economist trained during the 80s and 90s who decided that to really understand what happens in developing countries, we need more than predictive econometric models that come close to being randomly controlled trials.

Quantitative methods are important, but they can be more effective when combined with the insights one gets from open-ended questions and in-depth interviews. Ethnography and exploratory study has taken on new levels of competence and value in the world of market research and academic investigations.  What is particularly relevant to coffee are the ways in which we are including interviews and discussions with producers themselves. We are placing more value on the opportunities to talk with the people who have generations of knowledge about growing coffee and about the places, the environments and the cultures which surround and support their coffee-growing places.

Example and case in point -- the microlots research on which Counter Culture Coffee and Virmax have collaborated was designed from the ground up to include, not just limited choice type questions, but open ended questions also. (Get a preview of the upcoming study here.) The study is being done with a participatory approach to the extent that the results of the work are being presented and shared with all 122 producers who were surveyed back in January 2013. That, in and of itself, is a "research step" that is too often forgotten. Do we share the results of our research with those who contributed to making the research possible? It may not always be desirable or feasible, but I would suggest that in most cases where it involves coffee producers, it could be extremely valuable.

It seems so easy and so logical, but I think this is a relatively new phenomena: this effort to more comprehensively integrate the things we, as actors at one end of the coffee supply chain, know, with the knowledge producers and other actors at origin have. Qualitative and participatory research can help us get closer to an understanding of where solutions may lie.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

5. Testing the Impact of Cherry Red Bracelets

Jan. 11, 2014
When I read about Portland Roasting's red bracelets, I was so excited. Michael Sheridan, Director of the Borderlands Coffee Project for Catholic Relief Services, seemed energized, too. Thus he was the one to write about it in his CRS Coffeelands blog

The bracelets, intended to be worn by people picking coffee to help them remember to only select the ripe ones, are a perfect example of appropriate technology for coffee. So I wrote to my friend Mark Stell (president and founder of Portland Roasting) and arranged to have a few of these cherry red beauties sent to Artisan Coffee Imports. Collaborating with Mario Serracin, agronomist for Rogers' Family Coffee in Rwanda, a plan for a controlled test has been hatched.

Background: a critical issue for the quality (and therefore price) at the farm is to pick only the ripe cherries (which are red, like the bracelet). For example, grassy off-flavors are often caused by harvesting under-ripe beans.

Basic test design: test bracelets vs. no bracelets

Hypothesis: if the bracelets are used by one group of pickers and not by another group of pickers harvesting at the same farm, (just a slightly different area), tests of the sugar content of the coffee liqueur will shower higher sugar concentration in the lots picked by pickers-with-bracelets.

Artisan will bring bracelets to Mario in Rwanda in March. Watch this space for results!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

4. What is Good Research?

Jan. 9, 2014
The professor in one of my graduate classes at Michigan State University yesterday offered this list to help evaluate "what is good research." This was of extreme interest to me, having just been in the trenches of field data analysis with Counter Culture Coffee. Artisan Coffee Imports assisted in the final phases of research on the topic of "the impact of microlot premiums for coffee producers in Colombia". I am happy to share that I believe Counter Culture's forthcoming report will score relatively high marks on most of these seven points. My comments shed light on the ones that can be difficult or may be less applicable in some cases. Counter Culture's project is a great illustration of #7: good research points the way to doing even better research in the future.

Good research:
1. Is based on the work of others. (Difficult to do as a business with little time for conducting literature reviews. Employ an intern to help.)

2. Can be replicated. (Thus it is important to document both the methods of data collection and the methods of analysis.)

3. Is generalizable to other settings. (This is true for quantitative research. Often qualitative research and assessments are not as concerned with generalizing to a larger population.)

4. Not done in intellectual isolation.
5. Is doable (scope is not so vast the research is never complete.)
6. Is apolitical.
7. Research is on-going (always generates new questions.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

3. Counter Culture Talks About How to "Just Do It"

Jan. 8, 2014
Counter Culture Coffee has shared some insights with the coffee industry on the study they've conducted at origin, with producers in three Colombian states (Huila, Cauca and Tolima) to better understand the impact of microlot premiums. Artisan Coffee Imports has been very excited to be a part of this project. It's refreshing to see a direct-trade roaster decide to investigate carefully the assumptions many have about the benefits producers are receiving when we pay higher prices for coffee.

This is a YouTube video of the Google-hangout Counter Culture hosted earlier today. It runs a full hour:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2. Resiliency - What is That?

Jan. 7, 2014
Resilience - this concept that is becoming a new anthem in economic development seems particularly relevant to specialty coffee. Within the world of coffee, it seems particularly relevant to coffee producers. It is the idea that life is full of surprises -- sometimes ones we can manage, but sometimes they can be devastating. (See the book by Walker & Salt, ResilienceThinking, 2006.)

Ben Corey-Moran, Director of Coffee Supply at Fair Trade USA, talks about the "Materia Gris," or "grey matter" that is the focus for COMSA, an innovative cooperative in western Honduras. His description of COMSA's values as an organization captures well what we mean by "resilience" and capacity building in coffee in this blog. (See the shortarticle in the on-line journal, Daily Coffee News, published by Roast magazine on Oct. 28, 2013). This was just before the start of "Let's Talk Roya" in El Salvador. COMSA is living relatively free of the devastating La Roya pest plaguing their neighbors and much of South and Central America. The coop's leadership attributes their situation to the cooperative's long-term focus (already in place for years, it seems) on "5 Ms": microorganismos (micro-organisms), materia organica (organic material), minerales (minerals), moleculas vivas (amino acids & proteins), and materia gris (grey matter—i.e., brains).

“The fifth M is the most important,” says Neri Gonzalez, COMSA’s chief agronomist. “It’s our creativity, ingenuity, and inventiveness that allows us to create and evolve these technologies to serve our needs.” COMSA is thus a great illustration of resilience in coffee. The coop seems to blatantly recognize that challenges, large and small, will never end in coffee farming.  So the best way to face them is with confidence in the producer's ability to adapt and innovate in sustainable ways, and with systematic processes to help the soil be as healthy as it can be. Combined, the coffee producer has resilience to withstand the onslaught of diseases and other stresses (often weather related).

Monday, January 6, 2014

1. The Concept of this Blog

Jan. 6, 2014
The Concept of This Blog
(Disclaimer - this is a blog for coffee industry people, probably not so much consumers.)

This week marks the beginning of a season called "Epiphany" in the Christian church. "Epiphany means "to show" or "to make known" or even "to reveal." Thus, it seems to be a fitting time to begin a blog about researching and measuring what works (and what doesn't) at origin. Research is a process of revealing and making known things that are there, but not well understood. Some say research is "uncovering truth." In this blog, the truth we will be after is, "what works at origin to build capacity among coffee producers?" and "what methods and processes can help us answer this question?"

"Resiliency" is in the title of the blog because that is my hypothesis about what works throughout the coffee value chain. Where producers have built up systems and infrastructure for producing quality that are resilient in volatile markets, I hypothesize that that is where we will see wholesome standards of living. Also, when roasters and importers take the long term view when investing in their supply chain, my hypothesis is that that is where we'll see processes and programs that make a supply chain resilient. More on resiliency in the next blog.

Supporting Producers: Maybe I'm wrong, (because I haven't measured it carefully), but I believe I have witnessed in these past five years a growing desire to support and assist producers in more constructive and efficient ways than we have seen in the past. This is sometimes expressed by coffee roasters when they figure out what they don't like about a current labeling system (e.g. Fair Trade) so they create their own system and they label it "Farm Friendly" or "Farm Direct". It is sometimes created by the undeniable stresses global warming puts on our planet, so coffee-growing estates seek out certifications like ISO 14000 in order to work more sustainably over the long term. I've seen coffee roasters turn away from a shot-gun approach to helping at origin, where they help a little bit on lots of different issues, but are not able to show much significant progress or develop transferable and synergistic know-how. So some of these companies have decided to focus on a single issue like water (Portland Roasting) or food security (Green Mountain Coffee Roasters).

Improving the Supply Chain: Other "players" in the coffee industry have worked to enhance the core of the industry itself and the way it works. We now hear rumblings that "the industry is broken" from the likes of Sarah Beaubien at Farmer Brothers/CBI and David Griswold at Sustainable Harvest. These companies therefore seek to fix their own supply chain at least, changing what doesn't work so well in the global coffee market at large. Paying more for coffee through direct buying relationships is a pretty common denominator between all "fix the supply chain" approaches (and a good place to start, I would agree).  After that, improving access to inputs such as credit, training and agricultural technology (fertilizer, eco-depulpers, etc.) are often the investments these companies make. A frequently used term for this is "capacity building."

Whether they have started their own label, or helped to fund teachers or books, or whether they've forged a new way of paying premiums for high quality lots of coffee -- coffee companies and their programs are now also attempting to measure impact and assess effectiveness in some credible way. Thus we see the corporate social responsibility reports multiplying and becoming more detailed and getting better with their message and their consistency of metrics. To name just two examples of individuals and their organizations, Kim Elena Ionescu at Counter Culture Coffee and Michael Sheridan at Catholic Relief Services are on the frontier of measuring impact at origin. Others are on the forefront, too, and you can read about them here.

This blog: This blog will provide a forum for discussing both the projects related to resilience capacity building and the systems used to measure and assess such programs. To us, program design and program evaluation are inseparable and connected in an on-going cycle. This blog will share about projects where Artisan gets involved in directly, as well as highlighting what we see others in the industry doing.Welcome aboard!