Equitable Storytelling in Coffee | Reflecting on the Traceability Summit by Digital Coffee Future

Posted by Ashley Fleming on

Last year, Pachamama CEO and Co-Founder Thaleon Tremain joined specialty coffee industry leaders across all points in the supply chain to discuss transparency, digitization, and what it means for the future of coffee at the Digital Coffee Future’s 2021 Traceability Summit. 

In the panel discussion “The Storytelling Behind Traceability” Tremain joined Ever Meister, Kim Elena Ionescu, from the Speciality Coffee Association, and moderator Nora Burkey, from The Chain Collaborative. They examined the history and the role of storytelling in coffee and examined how and who benefits from this type of transparency. 

Storytelling—or the narrative building behind coffee crops—began from a desire to create a point of differentiation during the specialty coffee boom. Players wanted a way to show consumers why this particular coffee was better than your average cup and what made it worth the high-end price. Marketers had to prove in a non-tangible way that this coffee was better so they collected information on the crop, the farm, growing practices, etc. to begin to create the storyline of what made it special. In turn, coffee consumption became more than just drinking a cup of coffee, it became about the experience. Not just inside the cafe, but the experience of what the consumer felt when they were told the story of what they were drinking.

Storytelling is a standard expectation in coffee buying. Meister explained that the way we buy products as consuming nations isn't the same way producers buy products. “The number of people (roasters and buyers) that reject a coffee, despite having said that it fits all their needs simply because it didn't have a story to it, is actually quite astounding.”

We, as consumers in the global north, want a story to connect to a product and see why we should purchase one over the other. But for producers, it is all about the quality of the product they buy. The information producers see as relevant to sell their coffee is disconnected from the information specialty coffee consumers desire. 

This begs the question then, how important are farmers' stories to marketing and selling coffee to consumers? If a roaster relies on their story, will farmers be compensated for selling not only the raw commodity but this new narrative? 

If we reflect back to our own culture in the consuming North, the majority of the time when a “creative” is asked to share their story for a brand or a product, they are compensated in some way and credited for that work, but is that how the specialty coffee industry is operating for coffee farmers? Is this story now intrinsically tied to the quality of a cup and the ability to sell it? 

This is where Thaleon Tremain, CEO of Pachamama Coffee, came into the discussion. Tremain has a unique perspective, working FOR coffee farmers and the brand (Pachamama Coffee) that they (the farmers) built, to see the impact of this for producers. Exporters, importers and roasters are put into a position of power holding farmers’ narratives and they’re all being trusted to share producer stories in the correct way. In the last 15 years, the price of specialty coffee at the retail level has doubled. “Where is that value coming from?” Tremain questioned. The tangible value is what we can measure as what it tastes like; but what is different now is the intangible value, the stories about producers and the narratives coming from the top down typically. The story is what makes coffee expensive now. Tremain explained this is a threat and also an opportunity for farmers. 

He continued on to say that when Pachamama was founded, the farmers saw where the industry was going in terms of sharing information from the farm level, so they organized to control the story for themselves and capitalize on this as others were in the industry. The difference between Pachamama and the rest of the industry is that farmers are at the top. The Board of Directors is composed of one representative from each farmer cooperative that owns Pachamama and they govern to ensure farmers' interests are being served first and foremost. 

Ingrained into the business is the system and expectation to pay farmers more every year and budget for this increase, just as inflation happens in the United States costs rise at origin too. Next, if producers’ stories are being used to market and sell coffee, producers need to be compensated in the same way for it. One way is to work with producers and pay them a fixed rate for the use of their images and stories. 

A unique route that Pachamama employs is to redirect money from your marketing budget directly to a farmer to share their story in their own words and create the content for you. Tremain stated, “The best way to empower farmers is to step aside and let them tell their own story and build a platform whereby they are training themselves and publishing their own stories.” This allows them to talk about what they feel needs to be heard by the world, not the narrative that a company wants to sell.

Meister shared an anecdote about her personal time working with producers on marketing their farms. They reflected how producer narratives can be rooted in extractive relationships: the story is their own and not necessarily the place where value should be leveraged. Buyers have to trust the producer to tell their story in the way that they (the producer) feel is appropriate, it might not be what we want to hear but we also have to accept that. 

Growing coffee can be just a job for producers, but in specialty coffee, we have created a pressure for passion, lineage and deeper meaning in growing coffee without accepting the history of disenfranchisement. 

As an industry, we have to reframe and challenge expectations to listen more to producers. Like Tremain said, to trust producers to share their own words in the ways they want to and compensate them for that marketing directly from the origin. 

Consumers do not understand the story because as an industry we have been “sugarcoating” and not telling the true story. The real story is still one of hardship and is rooted in power dynamics that we often try to wash away with these stories of exceptionalism. It is in everyone's interest to get more money back to farmers and also more power back to the producers. Sustainability means it is equitable for everyone along the supply chain not just when it is convenient to do so, but today and forever into the future.

Ionescu wrapped up the discussion:

 “Speaking on behalf of farmers may be uncomfortable because maybe we aren't representing the consumer back to the producer, to become a good interpreter and create two-way communication for both sides of the chain. The platforms that are being built now are seeing this interest in a two-way street. By building traceable platforms to benefit producers and include them in narratives, specialty coffee can begin this journey of creating more equity and compensation for the use of such stories.”

Thank you to everyone at Digital Coffee Future for starting this discussion and inviting our perspectives into the arena. Thank you to fellow panelists for their time spent reflecting on how we can build a better coffee industry together. 

The process of becoming better is a long journey that will cross many paths, but only through honest discussions and reflections like this—including producer perspectives and learning from all points of view across the value chain—can we continue to grow. 

We work for coffee farmers here at Pachamama. It isn’t something we just say, we hold that responsibility to serve them properly and relay their stories justly and equitably.

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