What’s your grind?

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Here we are in Vietnam, in the small village of Di Linh. The past couple of days have been very busy, and the two young boys arrived again to pick me up at my little hotel. We start the morning by a small roadside food stand eating ‘pho’ as breakfast and planning the activities of the day. We then jump onto motorcycles and ride along the chaotic highways of the village just to arrive at another house for the first interview of the day.

I came to the Di Linh with the intention to study the coffee industry, one of the biggest agricultural industries in Vietnam and the world. Di Linh is the home of several coffee farmers who are responsible for large amounts of coffee production in Vietnam. Coffee, no matter how small a grain looks like, represents the second most traded commodity globally, and is one of the most loved and consumed grains. The passion for coffee around the world inspires me, and for the last few years, I’ve developed a keen interest in understanding the trends associated with its production, distribution and consumption. The story for the producers, is however, saddening.

Vietnam happens to be the second largest exporter of coffee in the world, and farmers here share similarities with coffee farmers in the world who are mostly of indigenous heritage and owners of a few acres of land. Coffee is their primary source of income and most family members participate in its production. However, conditions associated with production and sales make it difficult for them to afford their basic needs.

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In the last few years, Vietnam has attracted giant coffee roasters and processing companies such as Nespresso and Kraft. It appears though that coffee farmers have not benefitted enough despite these companies making significant profits. Put differently, coffee production is booming in Vietnam but for the farmer, it comes at high costs. Coffee farmers in rural areas, in an attempt to meet up with the growing demand for coffee, become vulnerable to environmental hazards. Exploitation of resources in order to meet the growing demand of the world has left these farmers with terrible environmental consequences that worsen their livelihoods.

‘Observing the life of coffee farmers, they appear to be in an endless poverty cycle with no way out. This phenomenon is almost identical everywhere; penniless coffee farmers, profiting brokers (intermediaries) and coffee roasters. The only difference between Vietnam and other coffee-producing countries is that coffee in Vietnam is pretty new’

In countries like Mexico, my home country, things are no different. A few years ago, National Geographic reported, how a fungus known as “la roya or rust” has been killing coffee plants across the major coffee producing states of Mexico and other countries in Latin America. Consequently, coffee production dropped by 70%, and this exacerbated issues of poverty for coffee farmers. Further, climate change issues and unfavorable trade agreements have negatively affected the welfare of numerous indigenous people farmers.

Limited government support to small scale farmers, the lack of sustainable practices, vulnerability to environmental changes, and lacking technology and technical support all present coffee farmers with significant disadvantages. The vast majority of coffee farmers depend (without choice) on intermediaries or ‘brokers’ offering prices for coffee which do not benefit the farmers. These challenges perpetuate issues of poverty.

Perhaps, about one in two people reading this article consume coffee. This suggests that we can make a difference. As consumers, we carry a huge responsibility. We need to be aware of the products and the brands we purchase. By opting for sustainable coffee and fair trade brands we can help coffee farmers out of poverty and preserve the environment. We can make a difference.