Climate change and economic instability are major concerns for the coffee supply chain. However, technical assistance could help address this. Agricultural development research has shown that farmers who access it experience improved productivity, income, and quality of life.
To understand what technical assistance is and how it helps producers navigate their production challenges, I spoke to the team at Novus Coffee Imports, a member of the Mercon Coffee Group, to find out about their LIFT program, which provides technical assistance to coffee producers.
Here’s what they had to say about its impact on the coffee industry and how it benefits producers.
What is technical assistance?
To understand how technical assistance benefits coffee producers, the term’s meaning must be explored. UNESCO broadly defines it as “sharing information and expertise, instruction, skills training, transmission of working knowledge, and consulting services”.
Craig Russell, Managing Director of Novus Coffee Imports, defines it as “farming communities having access to assistance, training, and knowledge provided by agronomists and experts to increase productivity through teachings of farm practices such as plant husbandry, soil analysis, seasonal or cycle activities, [and] proper environmental practices”.
Craig says that technical assistance has tangibly impacted farming communities, and the world’s rapidly changing environmental conditions make it a necessity. “Climate change impacts the growth, health, and development of the coffee plant, [and] changes or decreases productivity and quality of coffee.”
Decreased cup quality can impact a coffee’s value and price, which technical assistance can help to prevent. Craig explains that technical assistance could help producers see the impact of the changes they’ve made, and how these improvements offer them stability in the face of market volatility.
Let’s delve deeper into how technical assistance can support producers in a number of ways.
How technical assistance impacts productivity & economic wellbeing
Research reveals that technical assistance can improve productivity. A 2004 OECD Study on training projects in India found a positive correlation between training and crop yields, suggesting that technical assistance helps producers upskill their farms and enjoy increased yields, savings, and food security. A 2003 World Bank Study also suggests that no matter the farm size, access to technical assistance is linked to a 7% increase in revenues.
Many coffee producers have experienced the positive impact of technical assistance firsthand. Jose Fermin Ruiz first started producing coffee in 1992 at his farm in Nicaragua. At the time, he was only producing six 60kg coffee bags – far below his harvest potential. He then joined the LIFT program, a technical assistance program designed and executed by Mercon Coffee Group, the parent company of Novus Coffee Imports.
Giacomo Celi, Mercon Coffee Group’s Global Sustainability Director, says he’s observed the impact of the LIFT program, and how it’s improved the quality of life of the producers involved.
He says: “Over the course of five years, I have seen a significant improvement in the lives of producers in Nicaragua. Many have been able to improve the infrastructure in their homes and on their farms. Many have also invested in expanding their farming areas, creating better opportunities for their families and generating jobs within their communities.”
The LIFT program helps producers improve their productivity through social and environmental practices. Jessenia Arguello, Sustainable Production Manager at Mercon Coffee Group, says that it was developed “to create long-term value and benefits for everyone in the supply chain” and “focuses on improving the sustainable wellbeing of coffee farmers and coffee communities”.
She explains that the program starts with a farm assessment from an agronomist, followed by a three year farm management plan, complete with recommendations. Field technicians assigned to each farm accompany producers throughout the entire coffee harvest. Producers also benefit from regular training on environmental, social, and agronomic topics, which takes place on their farms and includes practical activities.
Jose says that participating in the program has helped him increase his coffee production. “This year, we managed to produce 333 60kg coffee bags, with yields of 27 60kg bags per hectare. This is a great advance in comparison to the six bags that we produced at the beginning.”
Other benefits he’s experienced include “being able to generate jobs for my community, being able to support my family, and academically preparing my children, who are now college graduates.”
This is in addition to infrastructure improvements on his farm through the creation of wet mills, fermentation piles, and ceramic washing channels, as well as tools such as a pick-up truck and more land to grow coffee on.
Wilson Leonel Flores Cruz is a farmer from Guatemala who joined the LIFT program three years ago, after inheriting his farm from his father, who was also part of the LIFT program. He says that it’s been a great resource for learning and implementing good farm practices.
It’s also kept him engaged in farm work by supporting him in planning the implementation of his farm’s tissue and soil management. This has helped him improve his farm’s productivity.
How technical assistance impacts environmental protection
Technical assistance can help producers mitigate the effects of climate change and implement environmentally friendly practices on their farms. According to research conducted in 2020 by the Centre d’Economie de l’Environnement in Montpellier, France, technical assistance can decrease pesticide usage by up to 22 percent.
A 2011 study published by the American Journal of Environmental Sciences on the impact of agricultural support for climate change adaptation reveals similar findings. It shows that technical assistance is more likely to improve a farmer’s capacity to adapt to climate change than financial incentives alone.
Jose says technical assistance has changed his perception of farm practices, and shown him its value. “When I started this sustainability program, I thought it would waste my time. But when I started attending the first training and I started receiving technical assistance more often, I began learning new and very important agricultural practices that changed the way I think and the way I work.
“For example, I learned that highly toxic products shouldn’t be used, to protect the health of the person applying it, to protect the environment and water sources, as well as to better manage my farm.”
Jessenia says that when it comes to protecting the environment and respecting social issues, a producer who’s guided and supported through technical assistance is more willing to implement practices that could benefit both the community and those living in it.
Jose says: “As a coffee producer, I’ve had difficulties in this journey. In our farm, we’ve experienced hardships when diseases have affected our coffee, mainly coffee rust, as well as low prices.
“[I’ve also experienced] the country’s [difficult] socioeconomic situation and most importantly, climate change, since it is irreparable damage that we all have to take responsibility for. Thanks to technical assistance, we have managed to overcome many of these challenges.”
Jessenia says that “it’s key to work hand in hand with producers to help them define the best pathway for their own farm towards sustainability and persevere with them to complete it.
“That is why sustainability is a long-term journey that cannot be achieved only with disaggregated short-term actions.”
Both research and the experiences of farmers on the ground suggest that technical assistance is highly beneficial for producers navigating the risks of climate change and economic difficulties.
Please note: This article has been sponsored by Novus Coffee Imports and was originally published in Perfect Daily Grind.