Report from the 4th World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia, Part 2

Coverage of the 4th World Coffee Conference continues


I found day one of the 4th World Coffee Conference ”which was held in early March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia ”to be somewhat of a call to arms for the industry on the most important challenges that need to be tackled in the near future. Day two, which happened to fall on International Women’s Day, had a bit more substance for me, including a Gender Equity session opened by First Lady of Ethiopia, Mrs. Roman Tesfaye. The first session, Trends in Specialty Coffee, included SCAA Executive Director, Ric Rhinehart, who engaged in a conversation on the definition of œspecialty,  a term that was originally adopted to differentiate the quality of green coffee, but has become a much broader term within the industry. While there doesn’t seem to be consensus among stakeholders on how specialty coffee will continue to differentiate itself, there was an agreement that œspecialty  is now defined by the total coffee experience, or œa relationship between producer and consumer facilitated by other actors in the supply chain. 

Report from the 4th World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia, Part 2
The contingent from the International Women in Coffee Alliance gathered at the 4th World Coffee Conference.

One of the more interesting pieces of data from the entire conference was presented during this session: the fact that the United Stated has far surpassed Europe on the œGross Value Added  to specialty coffee. The œGross Value Added  is the difference between the price of roasted coffee and the unit value of green coffee imports X 1.19. Or, in layman’s terms, the specialty industry in the United States has done a much better job of placing a higher value on specialty coffee on the consumer level than our friends across the pond. According to this data, this trend seems to have begun just after the coffee crisis in the early 2000s, around the time when many of the companies who have helped shape the œthird-wave  movement and œdirect trade  programs were founded. This added value on the consumer end is positive, but the question remains: How do small-scale farmers remain the main beneficiaries of the specialty market as consumers continue to appreciate a higher value for these coffees?

Report from the 4th World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia, Part 2
SCAA Executive Director Ric Rhinehart discusses the evolving definition of the term “specialty.”

The climate change session reflected something that I have often experienced in my travels to remote coffee-growing regions: sometimes there can be too many cooks in the kitchen, if you will. Many times, I’ve visited large cooperatives and seen several NGOs working on multiple, parallel projects, yet not collaborating together on the end-goals of these projects for the farmer group. There have been several solutions that have proven to be effective in combating the manifestations of climate change: agro-forestry production systems, eco-system restoration, cultivar research, agronomy training, etc. However, we need systematic plans for collecting and applying data and information on the farm-level. There isn’t an all-in-one solution for every farmer in the world, and as an industry, it is our responsibility to communicate solutions effectively to smallholders to ensure that these farmers are actually benefitting from the projects they are engaged in on their own land.

The most compelling session during the conference was entitled œThe Role of Innovation and Public Policy in Increasing Productivity,  and included Dr. Tim Schilling, Executive Director of World Coffee Research (WCR), and Paul Stewart, Regional Director for the TechnoServe (TNS) Coffee Initiative. I found the information that Dr. Schilling and Mr. Stewart presented to be refreshing, as their organizations have very clear goals to have an impact on global coffee production over the next 15 “20 years, and have already accomplished quite a bit in working toward these goals. WCR’s goals are clear: to contribute to a global coffee production increase of 25 million bags by 2030 in order to keep up with demand.

Report from the 4th World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia, Part 2
Dr. Tim Schilling (right), Executive Director of World Coffee Research, brought his wealth of knowledge from founding and successfully leading the PEARL and SPREAD programs in Rwanda to the East African conference.

Over the past several years, WCR has conducted extensive genetic research and verified 10 œsuper parents  that are being crossed with strong Central American cultivars and will be tested on the farm level beginning in 2020. These new cultivars are also being sent to Kenya this year, to expand this research and implementation into East Africa and begin verifying cultivars on a global level. A coffee plant is a 20 “40 year investment for a coffee farmer, and without a verified seed catalog from which to choose, it can be challenging for smallholders to be certain of what they are planting. TNS has taken the approach of capacity building and farmer training with their coffee initiative in East Africa. They have had impressive productivity improvement results in the region through these efforts and have also heavily relied on extensive community-based means to spread knowledge and communicate with farmers: radio, extension services, community meetings, and involving community leaders. Mr. Stewart mentioned that a $70 million investment in farmer training over the next decade will likely result in increased exports by 3 million bags, which results in $700 million in export revenue for the supply side.

This Public Policy panel also had one of the more awkward moments of the entire conference, where during the Q & A portion at the end, a heckler from the United States posed a very misguided statement to the panel where he associated an increase in farmer productivity to an increase in œslave labor  on the farm level, and accused the panel and attendees of the conference of promoting slavery. While he admitted that he knew nothing about coffee before making this statement, he clearly did not understand that if farmers are more productive on the land they have, they will end up seeing more money for their households and that doesn’t necessarily mean they are having to work harder. The panel, while dumbfounded, respectfully moved on to another question.

Traditional Ethiopian crafts such as basket-weaving were featured at the conference. Photo by Tessa Tucker, STiR Tea & Coffee International
Traditional Ethiopian crafts such as basket-weaving were featured at the conference. Photo by Tessa Tucker, STiR Tea & Coffee International

In addition to the lovely gala dinner at the stunning Sheraton Addis, there was plenty of time to socialize with old industry friends and meet new ones. While the ICO may seem perhaps a bit stuffy from the outside, on my last night I had the opportunity to hang out with a number of the current ICO staff, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s and certainly looking to modernize the ICO in a number of ways and change that conservative image.

Overall, the ICO’s 4th  World Coffee Conference was a compelling event where some critical topics for our industry’s future were discussed. I hope that for the next event in a few years, the ICO jumps at the opportunity to include baristas in the conversation, as this is the segment of the industry that faces consumers every single day and has the opportunity to shape the future of coffee through these important interactions.


image1Since  Stephen Vick  began his coffee career 15 years ago, he has travelled the world with a goal to have an influence on coffee quality from farm to cup. While working for Seattle’s  Zoka Coffee, Stephen competed in the USBC and became a  WBC  judge. After joining  Stumptown Coffee Roasters  in Portland as the Director of Training, Stephen started traveling to coffee growing regions, judging for the  Cup of Excellence, spending more time cupping, and developing a greater understanding that most of the challenges in producing a quality cup of coffee are hurdles that are faced by the producer. In 2008, Stephen shifted gears and joined  Sustainable Harvest  to work on a project in Kigoma, Tanzania, were he worked with the Kanyovu Cooperative to improve quality and market linkages by building washing stations an training cuppers in identifying quality. For two years after, Stephen worked with  Intelligentsia Coffee  as an East African field agent and Quality Control Manager. In 2012, he joined  Blue Bottle Coffee  and worked there as the Green Coffee Buyer before relocating to Nairobi to work as a consultant as well as launch a technology platform, Beanstock, with a team of San Francisco-based software engineers. Stephen also sits on the SCAA Sustainability Council.





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