> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Consolidation and investment in coffee brands is reaching a fever pitch, according to Andrew Daday, Director of Coffee for Stumptown Roasters. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, and the modal coffee farmer is a smallholder living near or below the poverty line, resulting in unique value chains in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. These value chains are characterized by factors like the commodity coffee markets, agronomics, organization/associations of growers, government coffee marketing institutions, and the state of rural financial services. Specialty coffee is characterized by meeting particular quality standards. Specialty coffee production allows some farmers to escape the vicissitudes of the commodity coffee market and to capture value commensurate with their product’s quality and input costs. In the United States, 55 percent of the 48 billion dollars of coffee retail value consumed falls into the specialty category – representing immense growth in recent decades. If bullishness ratifies the growth prospects for high-end coffee in the U.S. and abroad, it is worth looking into how scaling will manifest at the agricultural end of the value chain, because the relationships coffee farmers have with downstream firms impact their well-being in a number of ways, including via their access to financing.

Agriculture finance for smallholders can be an operationally-intensive, high-risk enterprise. However, financial institutions like the Netherlands’ Rabobank and Mexico’s Banorte express that agricultural credit is especially viable and profitable if “producers are well-integrated into a viable value chain.” Linking into a larger firm’s supply chain is a boon to small business growth in many contexts. Besides serving as a “springboard for growth” for small businesses from increased market access, buyer-supplier linkages yield exposure to key industry information and data points along the value chain that contribute to better capital allocation and financial accessibility for qualified entrepreneurs. Linking with a value chain may also enable a transition from informal lending, which can rely overwhelmingly on local knowledge for underwriting, to the formal financial services sector.

Viability of financing increases when value chain linkages are stronger and are used as intangible collateral. While building relationships with farmers, buyers consider smallholder attributes similar to those examined by credit underwriters. This translates into easier screening of potential borrowers, disbursement and repayment of loans, and management of collateral and risk. A detailed understanding of the quality of value chain linkages can further assure lenders of farmers’ future revenue streams. Lead firms in the value chain depend on supplier quality and resilience, so they may actively play a role in facilitating outside financing, or in rarer cases directly finance their partners through product and receivables financing.

In specialty coffee, value chain integration is diligently forged. The direct trade model is defined by a transparent relationship between farmer and roaster starting with contract negotiation, and continuing through a long-term alignment of interest in the farm’s growth, stability, and sustainability. Scalability is built on a knowledge network supported by government coffee institutes and international coffee raters, like the Cup of Excellence or Coffee Analysts, as well as roasting companies. In different manifestations of specialty coffee trade, this network is tapped in order to scale the number of producers as demand grows. So as coffee consumption grows, and the market share of specialty coffee increases, more farmers will enter close relationships with international firms.

For example, Starbucks runs Farmer Support Centers to ensure the company can meet growing demand. They administer an array of resources and support to growers, and bring new farmers into the company’s fold.

Specialty coffee allows farmers to recoup investments in increased quality by assuring that their produce will be processed and sold by a series of actors that will recognize the beans’ quality and distinctive identity. Additionally, the degree to which coffee farmers capture returns on their products’ distinct value attributes determines a significant component of their market power. Daday explained that third wave coffee roasters (specialty coffee roasters which consider coffee more an artisanal foodstuff than commodity) buy beans from a single origin in shipping container-sized quantities, and at a premium price. This further entrenches a mutual dependence, and cements the negotiational potence of specialty coffee producers relative to their counterparts who sell coffee destined for the commodity market.

Beyond the rarified world of third wave coffee roasters, retailers are investing in their value chains, often with regard for the financial externalities this avails to their businesses and those of their partners. Starbucks’ Director of Coffee Sustainability and general manager of the Starbucks Agronomy Company notes in a 2006 seminar that sustainability and risk control are paramount in the company’s value chain. This might manifest in partnerships with impact investors who can finance growers with whom the coffee company hopes to build a long term relationship. Recently, Keurig Green Mountain, Coffee Cooperatives, Starbucks, and USAID partnered with Root Capital to target the Roya blight, a leaf rust endemic to Latin America which causes a half billion dollars in losses annually when left unmitigated. Their efforts will allocate $23 million, including $15 million in investment capital, to technical assistance and farm-rehabilitation efforts. Part of the technical assistance includes advice on negotiating ongoing Roya prevention costs into contracts.

From coffee to cocoa to other crops, there are roughly 500 million smallholder farmers around the world. As lessons learned in supply chain sophistication and agriculture financing amass in the growing artisanal produce and mass market grocery industries alike, the prospects for entrepreneurial smallholders may significantly brighten.

Image credit: CIAT

This post was modified from its original version on March 4, 2016.

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