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Making the Case for Quality: Lessons from Root Capital and Intelligentsia’s First Joint Workshop

When actors across the coffee supply chain invest in quality, everyone benefits—from the farmer who earns better prices to the consumer who enjoys a better cup. Last month, we teamed up with specialty coffee pioneer Intelligentsia and coffee producers from across Colombia to learn how to make coffee better—for the people who drink it and those who grow it.

Without support, smallholder coffee farmers are structurally disadvantaged in a global economy that rewards efficiency and scale. Many farmers are located in high altitudes, where coffee thrives but access to markets is difficult. Operating alone, they can’t acquire farm inputs or training that could boost productivity. Often, these farmers lose the bulk of their already razor-thin profits by selling to middlemen who are the only available buyers. No matter how high-quality their harvest might be, it will often be mixed into lower-quality blends sold at lower prices. 

By working together, producer organizations, financiers like Root Capital and roasters like Intelligentsia can offer a different path. Producer organizations aggregate far-flung farmers; boost profits by eliminating the need for middlemen; and offer inputs, microloans and training that can maximize producer efficiency and coffee quality. Financiers like Root Capital can offer those businesses the credit they need to purchase raw materials from farmers or invest in new equipment as well as training that helps them make strategic, financial or operational improvements to their business. And roasters like Intelligentsia—in addition to providing farmers with a consistent buyer—can engage producers in the quality process, promote transparency and pay prices that reward outstanding results.

Done right, this model offers a win-win-win for producers, buyers and consumers. But the entire thing revolves around a high-quality cup. That’s why, together, we launched the first-ever ECWx conference in Colombia—bringing together 40 farmers and coffee business leaders for a four-day workshop to teach growers how to boost coffee quality and market competitiveness.

When Intelligentsia and Root Capital came together to plan ECWx, we envisioned a local version of the global Extraordinary Coffee Workshop (ECW) gathering—one that addressed the specific needs and challenges of Colombian coffee producers. To that end, we combined the core ECW model with a series of visits to coffee farms and trainings on business management, coffee quality and information management. Over the course of the five-day workshop, we intended to give Colombian farmers and business leaders the space to build skills, network and share common experiences.

The first day of the workshop began at a relaxed pace, as participants from all over the country trickled into the southern city of Pasto and met over dinner. The second day, Root Capital and Intelligentsia staff guided business leaders and coffee producers through workshops in coffee quality and the importance of business management. On Wednesday, we got up early to trek to the hills above the city to visit two coffee farms: La Mina, a small-scale operation that has won Colombia’s Cup of Excellence seven times, and La Florida, a larger processing plant that sources coffee from throughout the region. Producers and managers guided our participants through the techniques they use to maximize quality at origin, from elaborate drying systems to on-site quality control labs.

Thursday morning, we took a deep dive on information management—a critical but often-overlooked component of running a successful coffee business. Representatives from CropsterCOOCENTRAL and Pastoral Social presented examples of how information management can increase efficiency and competitiveness of coffee cooperatives. Managers from Root Capital client COSURCA walked participants through the systems they use to manage farmer-level data—innovations that they have implemented with the support of Root Capital’s Advisory team. We then visited a third coffee farm in the outskirts of the town of Tangua before closing out the workshop with a final tour and cupping session at the specialty coffee farm Villa Loyola.

Overall, the workshop was a success and proved that our idea to merge Intelligentsia’s expertise in coffee quality with Root Capital’s expertise in information management and training methodologies had potential. We were especially impressed with how quickly participants came together and connected around shared experiences—whether they were farmers, business leaders or both. In fact, to help participants keep in touch after returning home, we created a WhatsApp group that represents the first informal coffee quality network in the country. 

As we lay the groundwork for the next ECWx in 2019, we’re mulling over how to best continue leveraging the connections our participants made at this workshop to create long-lasting networks that have real value. We also continue to explore which technologies are useful to business leaders and smallholder farmers, so that in future workshops we can train our participants on how to use them. We’ve seen this work well with mobile and information technology that managers can use to gather and analyze farmer-level data, but recognize that innovation is a habit, not an end goal.

When we launched this workshop, we were determined to create a space where coffee professionals who have few other opportunities to connect could make their businesses more competitive by improving their information management and maximizing quality. While this workshop was just a first step (and we have a lot to learn!), we’re convinced that this experiment has the potential to create real value for smallholders and coffee professionals alike.