Around the world, green coffee buyers and roasters are increasingly looking for ways to support the communities they buy coffee from. One of the most prominent ways of doing so is through a meaningful contribution to education: something that will benefit current and future coffee producers, with the objective of driving long-term change.
One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. This shows that education is a key part of creating a more sustainable society. But how do we drive education in coffee-growing communities, and increase access to it for those who need it the most?
To learn more, I spoke to Craig Russell, the Managing Director of Mercon Specialty, and Rosa Rivas, the Executive Director of Seeds for Progress. Read on to find out how they work with coffee communities in Nicaragua and Guatemala to improve access to education.
A Focus on Education in Coffee Communities
According to Seeds for Progress’ annual report from 2020, there are two main reasons why families in rural regions have poor access to education: financial challenges and the risk of travelling to rural schools.
The report says that 85% of the families that Seeds for Progress works with are smallholder coffee farmers with an average monthly income that is “lower than the food basket value”. Over 60% of these families travel from farm to farm to harvest coffee.
Without access to education, these families have no way to move forward and improve their income or their farms, and subsequently their quality of life.
It’s also worth noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has only reinforced these difficulties. The UN estimates that 20 years of gains in education have been wiped out by the pandemic, and that an “additional 9% of children in grades 1 through 8 fell below minimum reading proficiency levels in 2020”.
“This is happening globally, and it’s definitely impacting the countries where we work,” Rosa says. “I would say that it’s even worse, because they are developing countries.
“Academic progress and school completion rates are likely to get worse. That gives you a sense of the importance of continuing to invest in education.”
According to Craig, this is why Seeds for Progress and Mercon work together to improve the quality of education in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
“Seeds for Progress Foundation improves access to high-quality education, a basic human right that contributes to social development and sustainable economic growth,” he explains. “Many generations in these rural communities have little or no education or ability to read, write, or understand mathematics beyond a very basic level.”
Quality Through Co-Operation
“The focus is on improving the quality of education,” Rosa says. “This is a way to contribute to sustainable economic growth in these coffee-growing communities.”
As well as better access, improving the baseline quality of the education offered at these rural schools helps to drive up outcomes and unlock more opportunities for children in coffee communities.
Rosa explains that this is why Mercon and Seeds for Progress work with the Ministry of Education in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
However, improving quality means addressing other areas as well as the curriculum for individual subjects.
This is why the foundation has five different programs, including a pre-school program, classes in basic skills like reading, writing, and math, and technical education. In addition to teaching, they build infrastructure, like classrooms, libraries, technological centers, and sanitation facilities, and they also train teachers.
“We have different programmes that we have been developing for more than 20 years, and we adapt our programmes to different contexts in Nicaragua and Guatemala,” says Rosa.
“Mercon directly contributes to the funding of the administration, so all funds donated by others go directly to programmes and projects,” Craig says. “We also donate a portion of sales to roasters directly to Seeds for Progress for general fund allocation.”
From Childcare to Coffee Education
As much as improving the baseline quality of education in coffee communities is essential, schools also fulfill a valuable role in coffee communities: childcare.
In order to maximize their income during the harvest season, parents need to ensure their children are supervised so they can work full-time. However, rather than simply occupying this time, the sector's growing focus is on making childcare educational.
One of the programmes Seeds for Progress runs is called Cultivating Education.
“It provides childcare and education for children during the harvest season, when school is out,” Craig says. “This program provides a safe and educational environment for children while also helping to prevent child labour during the harvest.”
Another programme is called Seeds to Lead. Rosa says that here, children learn the basics of coffee, and look at how it specifically came to Nicaragua and Guatemala. The idea, she says, is to show how and why coffee production is so important for their communities – helping to address any potential generational gaps.
“We want to give children and young people new opportunities to really care for their communities, and stay in their communities.”
She says that migration is an issue, as many young people leave to find “better opportunities”, often in Mexico or the United States. Instead, Rosa believes the focus should be on learning “the importance of coffee for their communities and why it’s important to stay and impact the progress of the places where they live”.
Driving Real Impact in Coffee Communities
“True sustainability is a comprehensive model,” Craig says. “We believe it means a healthy thriving community with access to high-quality education, creating a better future for all.”
He explains that some short-term effects they have seen include higher school attendance and improved retention rates. In the longer term, these can translate to meaningful employment, better health and well-being in communities, and lower migration.
Rosa agrees. She says that investing in the quality of education drives social progress for these communities, and helps them to advance.
“When you think about social progress, you talk about three main things,” she says. “It’s how you provide basic human needs, create the foundations of wellbeing, and provide opportunities for those communities.
“It’s not just education, but education that aims to improve or ensure social development in those communities.”
She says that it can promote improved access to water and sanitation, better nutrition and healthcare, better schooling conditions, empowered teachers, better academic performance, and a local community culture that values school and education.
Rosa also notes that delivering education is becoming more and more accessible in places like Nicaragua, where 80% of schools the foundation supports now have internet access. She says this has been especially important during the pandemic when teacher training was moved online.
“Since we had invested in the schools with technology, internet and training for the teachers, it was easier for us than for other organizations that didn’t have all the infrastructure,” she says. “In terms of the follow-up and the implementation of training programmes, everything was done virtually.”
Despite the pandemic, in 2020, Seeds for Progress reached over 5,800 students, supported over 3000 families, and provided direct support to 341 teachers.
Education & the Value for Sustainable Coffee Production
In the long term, Rosa says that there is no doubt that improving access to education for coffee producers and their wider communities is key to ensuring the sustainability of coffee production.
“If you do not invest in the basics right now, in the long term you will be losing a lot,” she explains. “Most producers are between 45 and 65 years old, so you must invest in the next generation.
“Sometimes you don’t look at things like that, because you may instead be considering how much the farms are producing and what the coffee quality is like, but you have to take a step back,” she says. “If you don’t have producers with the technical knowledge and basic education to communicate it, how can they produce in the future?”
Rosa explains that as a part of their programmes, a lot of what the kids learn in school will be applied on-farm with their families.
She describes this as a “generational splice”, and says it’s “how you integrate the experience of older generations of producers with new technology and all the knowledge that we are trying to build for the future generations”.
She concludes by saying: “By combining both, you can reach better quality or higher yields, as well as sustainability.”
Craig, meanwhile, notes: “Many of these students are now contributing to the betterment of the family by using their education to improve the family business and perhaps keep the legacy of farming going.”
By paying a premium, roasters can support these important educational projects and help build sustainable coffee communities, something that is also becoming increasingly important to their customers.
“Roasters who support these programmes can take pride in driving the sustainability of the coffee sector,” Craig concludes. “They can confidently let their customers know they buy coffee that makes a difference to the communities where they source, and the families that they source from.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how technical assistance supports coffee farmers.
Photo credits: Mercon Specialty