Coffee is a Game of Telephone
Who are the 27 actors between you and the farmers who grow your coffee?
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There’s a common phrase used to describe how coffee gets to us: “seed to cup.”
There’s no explicit definition of this phrase, but if you do a Google image search of the term, lots of flowcharts charting the journey coffee takes—starting as a seedling, up to its final destination in your cup—pop up. They capture a rudimentary story: Coffee is grown in the ground in coffee-producing countries, and then sent to coffee-consuming countries. Sometimes these two overlap, sometimes they don’t.
But that’s a wildly simplistic way of thinking about coffee.
In this week’s podcast conversation with Jim Ngokwey of Mighty Peace Coffee, we talked about an article he wrote called “Eight Questions Sustainability-Minded Roasters Should Ask Importers.” In particular, we focused on two of those questions:
Do you pay producers directly, through a cooperative or through another third party?
If you pay producers through a third party, how do you verify that producers received what they’ve earned?
These questions might seem out of scope for an article about sustainability. But early in the piece, Jim points out that there are 27 different actors across the coffee supply chain—far more than the simple “seed to cup” narrative might suggest—and such a complex system means there are opportunities for payments to go missing without direct verification:
Jim: For people involved in getting coffee from the farm to a roaster or coffee shop, it’s very easy to basically hide the money across the line and in the end, the farmers and producers—the ones that actually produced the coffee—get the crumbs or get nothing really. It’s important to be able to understand how people get paid and to verify that they did get paid.
Let’s say for example, we pay a cooperative, we wire the money to a cooperative. We do that through a bank. Through the bank, we wire the money with the bank account and we know the producer that was involved in our coffee. But even though we trust the cooperative, just as a business and our own due diligence, we also do have to verify that the farmers themselves got paid.
Not in our case, but we’ve heard stories of a coffee being purchased and basically all the people in the middle [get] paid, but the farmers actually didn’t get paid at all. So it’s very possible to hide that money and say you didn’t receive it when you did, or just basically not give the full amount—say the payment was late, we never received the full payment, so we definitely keep track of when we pay, but we also verify.
The number Jim cites—27—is not random. It comes from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) and a coffee systems map it published in 2020. (I tried to buy the map, but unfortunately the SCA online store is down until 2023.) I would argue the number 27 isn’t referring to a specific number of people, but rather groups of actors (there can be hundreds of coffee pickers, for instance, or a handful of people working on a ship to export a container of coffee). This map is very different than the simplistic flowcharts chronicling the journey of coffee, and instead uses a web-like design to illustrate how intricate the relationships are among all those who work to move coffee from where it’s grown.
In an interview about the map, SCA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Kim Elena Ionescu says that they worked with a committee consisting of “more than 50 percent coffee producers” to develop the map and focus on actors that are often lost:
Kim: We gathered for two days—there were about 75 of us in total, in tables of 8 to 10 people—and had each group look at a “seed to cup” diagram. The first step was to just fill in who was missing, not thinking about who has more power or less power, or how information or money flows between the different stages…
The first group that comes to mind for a lot of people, or at least people who have been listening to the SCA for the past few years, is farmworkers. Farmworkers are not explicitly noted on the seed to cup diagram; it just starts with producers—like “a producer produces coffee!”—so that was one case where we could identify that their absence is associated with not having power. But when we condense coffee trading down to just the logistics of taking the coffee from the port of origin to a roaster, we’re missing a lot of roles. The importer doesn’t own the ship, they don’t drive it; that’s actually the shipping company.
(I picked out the most salient excerpt for the sake of space, but I think anyone interested in this topic should go back and read her complete interview.)
Furthermore, as Jim describes, it isn’t uncommon that “farmers and producers—the ones that actually produced the coffee—get the crumbs or get nothing,” given the complexity of the coffee supply stream and how information travels.
This isn’t to say that every actor along the supply chain is lying—complexity will always lead to errors and oversights—but it is important to remember that some do. If you’ve been a Boss Barista listener for a long time, you might remember my interview with Karla Boza, who recounts a story about how her father was told by a coffee buyer that his coffee wasn’t good, only to go to a coffee event and find out that it actually was pretty incredible—you can see for yourself.
As Karla describes, being misled by one of the many actors along the supply chain happens far more than it should: “What makes it worse is that this is the most common story that you will find across coffee farmers,” she says. “We have all had this happen to us. It’s not something unique to [our farm].” (Karla is coming back to Boss Barista next year, so if you haven’t listened to her episode, this is a good time to revisit).
Coffee has always been a game of telephone. I’m not sure if this is because we previously lacked systems to connect all members of the supply stream, or if it simply wasn’t in the interest of powerful actors to do anything about it, but what is clear is that these patterns are beginning to change. For example, the answers to the questions Jim poses are surprisingly simple: I’ve heard of many importers using social media and WhatsApp to talk directly to farmers and verify payments. Jim and his team at Mighty Peace have employees on the ground who can double check with their farming partners to ensure payments are received in full.
This all goes back to sustainability: If coffee farmers aren’t getting paid not just fairly, but accurately, then the entire system begins to crumble. Jim mentions that his questions aren’t meant to be accusatory but rather offer members of the coffee industry the ability to set data points, to track where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go.
Ultimately, thinking about sustainability is about making predictions and recommendations for the future, and if our data isn’t accurate, if we’re not doing our due diligence (by “we,” I mainly mean roasters—as Jim points out, these are questions that roasters should be asking, and the onus of checking how ethical our products are shouldn’t rest solely on the consumer), then our work towards that goal will be severely hampered.
One of the questions I’ve always been curious about when it comes to coffee is how we know what we know. We’re an industry full of claims—“better for you,” “ethically sourced,” “this-or-that free”—and it’s important to ask how we know these claims to be true. Sometimes, getting the answer is as simple as sending a text.
Photo by Markus Spiske