rwanda deforestation UNEP


A process emerges to systemically address barriers to sustainability.

This week, ICO members, coffee stakeholders, and development partners meet at the annual CEO & Global Leaders Forum to review commitments and concrete actions as part of the ICO’s Roadmap toward a sustainable, transparent, and fair global coffee sector.

By now, most of us have learned that to effectively engage in farming sustainability solutions, we must first listen to the farmer’s own priorities and concerns. For most farmers, the economics have to work out above all else. That is why we must fundamentally understand the costs of production. Even though this may seem to be an obvious point of departure, in reality, few small farmers can accurately respond to the question, “How much does it cost you to produce a pound of coffee?”

While many organizations have attempted ad hoc estimations, there have been few consistent or reliable approaches made available for broad use. This lack of consistent and reliable knowledge presents a major barrier to improving the sustainability of farming systems at origin.

In reality, few small farmers can accurately respond to the question, “How much does it cost you to produce a pound of coffee?

The International Coffee Organization (ICO) today serves as the prime convener of the global coffee industry. The discussions that the ICO facilitates between industry, governments, and producers have identified that helping to calculate the costs of production is an essential element for improving farmer efficiencies and livelihoods. It is likewise essential for evidence-based policy.

This interest in addressing the systemic challenges of the coffee industry led to the creation of a broad global public-private task force to move the process forward at all levels. Four Technical Work Streams with access to the best sectoral expertise were launched to address the critical areas. The topics include: 1. Living and Prosperous Income (led by Sustainable Food Lab), 2. Data and Transparency (led by COSA) 3. Policy (led by UNDP, Global Coffee Platform and the European Commission) and 4. Productive Landscapes (led by Conservation International and Rainforest Alliance). The ICO oversees the fifth Work Stream that coordinates all of these collaborations.

The Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) was selected to lead Technical Work Stream 2 (TWS II), building on its decades of similar collaborations on data and sustainability with the ICO and an array of governments and institutions. In accordance with their public missions, both COSA and the ICO emphatically agreed that the data should be collected and managed by the origins themselves, thereby putting them at the center of such important knowledge for its farming communities and policymakers. While a very few origin countries, such as Brazil and Colombia, have the resources and data capacity, most do not.

The German Government, through GIZ, its prominent development agency, is providing the necessary funding to test and refine the work in two countries: one in Latin America and one in Africa. The governments of Mexico and Rwanda, with 3/4 of a million coffee farmers between them, agreed to partner with us to undertake the initial pilots.

Farmer data: private or public?

The idea that farmer households and communities should retain some rights to their data is emerging as a best practice in sustainability data. This has not usually been the case: almost always, those who pay for the data, own the data and maintain it for private use alone.

Today, more than ever, data interoperability is essential for learning and accountability. The way data is gathered and calculated is critically important to its credibility and nowhere moreso than when undertaking sustainability work. There is no secret to the science of good data, and so when someone withholds the methods or tells you that their data calculations are proprietary, then there is a very high likelihood that you are being deceived or duped!

The concept of Data Democracy 1 goes even further to suggest that those households, farms, and communities that provide data should receive some tangible benefit in return. Today’s data technology makes that possible and relatively easy. But first, it’s important to have good data to start with, and our regular convening of global experts yields the best results.

In order to proceed efficiently and not “re-invent any wheels”, the fifty members of ICO TWS II helped to identify some of the world’s leading technical experts with diverse perspectives and including substantial farming experience from producing countries. After several intensive work months, this International Technical Advisory Panel (ITAP) agreed on an optimal and shared approach to measuring the costs of production.

The resulting indicators and associated metrology were then further developed, by the COSA research team, into standardized survey questions, validation and anonymization procedures, and associated data architecture. This now facilitates a standard and low-cost approach to having reliable data along with processing-analysis that can be automated and validated. In addition to making the data available as a public good by the ICO, the methods are available to any country that wishes to participate and all of it is structured for global sharing and interoperability.

Standardizing how to measure cost

Because costs can be measured in many different ways, it is quite difficult to determine if a calculation is accurate, or how it compares with those of similar farmers, or even just to compare the relative merits of diverse production methods or varietals. So, to understand costs and production efficiency there must be a shared approach to measuring cost. Decades of research conducted by COSA and its partners suggest clearly that such an approach must have 3 basic features in order to work well:

  1. Use science-based open methods, because accurate data for this is critical
  2. Apply universally across most production systems and countries (with modest adaptations) to enable interoperability for reporting, learning, and benchmarking
  3. Sufficient simplicity and low cost so that it can be easily used, even in poor regions or with modest resources, so that there are few barriers to understanding

Leading coffee-producing countries such as Brazil and Colombia have long established their own capacity to calculate the costs of producing coffee. We have learned that to get good and accurate data, it is important to understand the effect that variables such as altitude, geography, and cultivation practices may have on the costs of production. Most countries however do not have such data. Now, this collaboration between the German government, the ICO, COSA, and a host of notable volunteer experts has developed systemic approaches that can dramatically reduce the cost of getting this information in a consistent and high-quality way. Countries with fewer resources can use these approaches to better target policies and investments toward a more productive and more sustainable coffee sector.

Having the data properly collected and secured by the national coffee and research institutions will significantly reduce the costs of commissioned private research studies. Private studies can certainly be valuable additions to the public data especially by adding to or deepening the understanding of important topics. But unless they are transparent they can face challenges, for example, around data security practices and privacy laws, or concerns about the actual representativeness and inclusivity of the data, which may miss a full picture or important nuances if researchers are not adequately experienced in a particular region or country.

Furthermore, it’s rare that privately designed data or studies are comparable with similar data from other countries or regions. Without interoperability, we are not only wasting resources but also reducing accountability and failing to learn. In partnership with the German Government-GIZ, GS1, ISO-DIN, and others, COSA is developing a global standard for traceability and sustainability data to be interoperable. Standardization and transparency of the entire public process make it possible to not only benchmark but also reduce the potential for inaccuracies or manipulation of the results. Our anonymization capacity ensures the privacy of individual data and compliance with increasingly strict regulations without reducing the functionality of the data in any way.

Rigor, with globally aligned indicators and verifiable methodologies, is needed to ensure the quality of the information so that it can be actually useful and reliable for decision-making. As the conversations around value chain distribution and living and prosperous income continue to develop, those who do not have a sound understanding of their cost of production will not have the necessary tools to participate intelligently and serve the sustainability interests of farmers.

The expert International Technical Advisory Panel has helped develop a common global approach to measuring costs of production, income, and other areas of interest. The pragmatic focus on science-based tools2 consisting of smart indicators, metrics, and surveys allows producing countries to apply a standardized approach for an international caliber of credibility and accuracy. Coffee countries can now better rely on their data and even share to thus reduce sector costs while improving important areas of knowledge that help create a more transparent and level playing field for everyone.

From pilots to a new paradigm

We have partnered with the National Agriculture and Export Development Board (NAEB) in Rwanda, and Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP) and the Secretaria de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural (SADER) in Mexico to pilot the work with a representative sample of farmers in each country. To more rapidly scale up the access to good data, we are also engaging actively with leading regional institutions such as the Inter-African Coffee Organization (IACO) and the Programa Cooperativo Regional para el Desarrollo Tecnológico y Modernización de la Caficultura (PROMECAFE). With their recently-funded capacity improvement, they can help ensure dissemination, use and continuity of the program in the countries they represent. 

Working collaboratively with national institutions allows us to better understand the levels of efficiency within each coffee sector, learning from where they excel and supporting them where they do not. This robust and pragmatic data collection system, coupled with the necessary data architecture and analytics to ensure the data is cleaned and anonymized, will allow countries, institutions and private organizations to use data for direct sectoral benefits as well as to better inform policy and investments.

After this initial piloting phase, the intention is to quickly evolve to a new paradigm of how to engage with rural communities, farmers, and their data.

After this initial piloting phase, the intention is to quickly evolve to a new paradigm of how to engage with rural communities, farmers, and their data. The key will be putting the farmer at the center, in the driver’s seat. The development sector generally has been relying on outside researchers and field technicians to collect data through an interview process, which is perfectly ok, but it is now antiquated in two important ways. First, it is expensive, not only in relation to resources needed to send surveyors out to the field but also in terms of the time the farmer invests in responding to multiple surveys. Because it is expensive, it is not frequently implemented, causing the sector to lose perspective. The second problem is that we only get farmers’ views through the lens of researchers who may well be filtering critical data without even knowing it simply because of limited time or understanding or few resources to engage fully, or simply unknown biases.

With the advent of new technologies, especially Agile DataSM approaches, we can hear the voice of the farmer directly in ways that work well for their convenience. This opens a new paradigm for how we understand farmers and their needs so as to provide much more valuable responses to them. Instead of sending surveyors to the field every couple of years, institutions can regularly, and especially during key stages of production such as harvesting or fertilizer application, send farmers questions and get an immediate response. This method can improve data accuracy, provide timely insights, and even allow for a census approach (everyone surveyed, not just a sample) due to the low costs of deployment.

Having a more realistic panorama, the institutions or organizations can now provide farmers with rapid responses and more valuable insights. Farmers get something valuable in return for their data, breaking the cycle of data fatigue that otherwise contributes to the absence or reliability of data.

Entire sectors can benefit immensely by adopting this systemic global approach, especially as businesses and policymakers can have much more realistic and timely information for taking better decisions. But the greatest intended beneficiary is the farmer. Empowering farmers by having them become the direct conduits of data can alter the dynamic of our understanding – making it much more accurate and timely. This approach, applied at scale, can integrate validation methods and pave the way for robust methodologies and Agile Data mechanisms, to improve how we all use data to take smarter decisions.

1. An approach developed by COSA over several years, see

2. science-based tools are aligned with dozens of global norms and agreements from the ILO to the SDGs as well as the work of FAO, GCP, and others.

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