Java justice? Perspectives on responsible development

I was first attracted to the neighborhoods and communities of Nicaragua in 1998 because they offered me a new perspective on life and how happiness can thrive in the simplest of situations. Grandparents danced, children watched over toddlers, and teenagers obeyed their parents. Culturally, this blew my mind. With much to learn, I began revisiting my notions of family, success, and community.

Over the years that followed, my non-profit and I have had the privilege of hosting over a thousand volunteers, interns, friends, and family throughout Nicaragua. Many of these visitors have returned home permanently affected by the experience, as did I back in 1998. Some even returned to Nicaragua with their own projects and have since made incredible impacts on their adoptive country. Witnessing this transformation on both the personal and community levels has opened my eyes to how new perspectives lead to innovation, and how meaningful cultural exchange can create social and economic development for visitors and their local counterparts.

These days I get to play the unique role of broker, working with and between Nicaraguan communities and growing networks of supporters to increase access to opportunities and resources. These networks include folks from the public and private sectors in Nicaragua, local community leaders, and U.S.-based universities, high schools, and churches. Together, we are helping to awaken slumbering potential in homes and villages throughout Nicaragua in a variety of different ways. I have been blessed to work with some incredible people who I look forward to introducing in future blogs.

I will begin this blog entry with an excerpt from a recent piece posted on the website by Dr. Peter Roberts, a friend and colleague who works at Emory University. His blog reveals  interesting issues that many are not privy to, largely because most of us don’t think beyond the cream and sugar when we enjoy our morning cups of coffee.

Peter is examining what Fair Trade, Direct Trade and other market practices mean for everyone in the value chain of specialty coffee, starting (ironically) with the coffee farmer. Here is an excerpt from his recent blog, entitled “Another Take on Specialty Coffee Prices”:

It seems that whenever coffee farmers enter into discussions about prices, two numbers (variably) enter into their conversations. Folks talk about some multiple of the “New York Price” or talks anchor on the prevailing “Fair Trade Price”. Perhaps one more relevant number might be the current and/or typical prices charged for roasted coffee.

Researchers from the Social Enterprise @ Goizueta program at Emory University have spent the last several months collecting detailed sourcing, marketing and pricing data from a broad sample of North American coffee roasters. After a careful set of internet searches, data were taken from 931 roasters that sell roasted coffee to retail customers on-line. For each roaster, we recorded information about the lowest-priced and highest-priced coffees listed for sale during the December ‘13 to February ‘14 period.

After adjusting for bag size and currency, these data suggest that the average of all lowest-priced coffees was $10.65 per 12-ounce bag (equal to $14.20 per pound). The average of all of the highest priced coffees was $13.71 per 12-ounce bag (equal to $18.28 per pound).

As an aside, note that when we looked for the highest-priced coffee from each roaster, we deliberately set aside all Kona, Blue Mountain, Civet and Esmeralda coffees (what some might call the “Big Four”), and recorded information about the highest-priced of the more “Traditional” coffees. Why did we do this? Because the average price of these highest-priced coffees – among the 177 roasters that offered them for sale – was a staggering $45.53 per 12-ounce bag.

These are fairly impressive prices, indeed. But what does this mean for your average Nicaraguan coffee farmer?

Not much, yet. Most farmers still sell their coffee to coyotes, who come with cash in hand, buying their harvest at a dime on the dollar (prices that are sadly tied too closely to the low and variable “New York C” price), because that’s the way it’s always been. Yet, there might be a better shake out there for these small farmers, an idea we are hoping to prove within the developing Farmers to 40 project.

Stay tuned for additional thoughts about a more appropriate and equitable set of exchanges within the specialty coffee marketplace — something that can only be good for our specialty coffee growers in Nicaragua.

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