Coffee cherries. Photo by: Nestlé

Many nongovernmental organizations are treating smallholder farms like businesses that need to be better linked to markets to alleviate poverty. But it’s a mistake to focus strictly on this approach.

We must remember that farmers are often extremely vulnerable to climate and market shocks that leave them struggling to feed their families and earn a decent income, let alone make improvements on their farms. I’ve found this to be especially true for Latin American coffee farmers, who must contend with wild price swings, crop diseases and climate change.

I’ve taken a close look at what was effective for more than 700 coffee-growing families working with Heifer International over the past 10 years in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru.

It was a volatile decade for one of the world’s most important coffee-producing regions. Six years into the study, much of the region’s crop was wiped out by a plant-choking fungus called coffee rust. The outbreak, which began in 2012, caused more than $1 billion in crop losses and threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

The coffee-killing fungus demonstrated how vulnerable farmers are when their livelihoods are predominantly based on an export-oriented monocrop. Greater market access doesn’t help them feed their families when their product shrivels up and dies in the fields.

The best strategy for NGOs working with farmers includes a two-pronged approach: It helps the farms boost productivity and stimulates new economic opportunities, while also ensuring their food security in between harvests and during periods of prolonged crisis.

This might not be as glitzy as linking small-scale farmers to the global coffee market, but providing such a foundation that helps farmers sustainably meet their basic needs is one of the most profound contributions an external organization can make.

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Here are some of the key ways NGOs can help farmers strengthen their market access, increase food security and diversify their income.

Strengthen their market access

1. Adopt better agroecological practices.

Traditional coffee farming is often seen as having a minimal ecological impact. More recent surges in demand for the crop have led to larger scale production methods, however, with heavy uses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other less eco-friendly techniques. To counter this trend, farmers should receive training in agroecological practices that minimize disease, improve yields, increase soil fertility and curtail erosion.

2. Improve production and business methods.

Farmers need to find ways to add value to their product by improving the processing of the bean. Better mechanisms should be used to wash, ferment and dry coffee beans. Additional value can be added by cooperatives that provide marketing, financial and entrepreneurship development. By owning the product farther along the value chain, coffee farmers can reap greater rewards for their efforts.

3. Cooperatives can be key partners.

Partnering with cooperatives and other community organizations provides stability, credibility and the likelihood of sustainability for an NGO, especially for those that plan to work in a community for three to five years. Cooperatives can help farmers get access to loans. They can also collaborate with government agencies, NGOs and other groups to establish crop insurance programs and early-warning systems for disease. The majority of farmers working with Heifer International in the four Latin American countries reported accessing funds from their cooperative to replant after the coffee rust outbreak.

Improving food security and diversifying income.  

1. Livestock for the lean months.

Providing livestock — cows, goats and guinea pigs— along with training in animal management is key to helping the farm families enrich their diets and earn extra money selling the surplus meat and milk. Seeds can also be provided for home gardens. In all four countries, households improved the quality of their diets as measured by the number of food groups consumed. More than half of the households reported that diversification through livestock and increased food production prevented severe food shortages, disinvestment in coffee production and migration — all usual responses to severe reductions in income. Why is this important? The food security strategy led to increased resilience, the ability to endure a crisis.  

2. Honey pairs well with coffee.

Beekeeping can be an excellent complement to coffee farming, because the initial cost of bees is low, the market is underserved and introducing bees in coffee fields enhances productivity. One cooperative in Honduras set up a weekly market where women’s groups sold their products for a premium price because they were organic.

3. Women’s empowerment.

Women’s activities are the main contributor to resiliency. They are the ones developing the food gardens, caring for the livestock and creating a closed loop by using animal waste to fertilize gardens. They also train other women and set up local markets — serving as the entrepreneurs and provisioners of household food security.

By working with farmers to gain greater access to markets, development organizations are assisting them in potentially becoming more prosperous and successful. But the farmers also become more exposed and vulnerable to market forces and climate change that even the brightest minds in business and academia often struggle to understand.

To become more resilient, farmers need to have food security and income diversification. These help families weather the market storms without becoming poorer, losing their land, divesting and migrating. Farmers also need early-warning systems for disease, improved agro-ecological practices, insurance systems and government- backed research for disease-resistant varieties.

When these things are in place, farmers are in a position to move forward and invest more in coffee production and become more integrated into the international market. Encouraging them to invest scarce resources in coffee before they can recover from likely negative events is not “development.”

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About the author

  • Ellen Fitzpatrick

    Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick is an associate professor of economics at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a scholar in residence at Heifer International. She teaches courses in global development and economics for public service. Her research interests include the integration and evaluation of social capital in developing countries.