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How to help change the world one cup of coffee at a time

This is a guest post by Hallie Goertz, who recently returned to Seattle after working for nearly four years in East Africa. A coffee break, of sorts, from today’s electoral frenzy. Goertz worked for Technoserve, a Gates-funded project that I wrote about last year on a visit to Rwanda and one of a number of local coffee connections to that nation.


Bells.  That’s what wakes me these dark October days in Seattle.  Not real bells mind you, but the iPhone simile of bells.

After living on the equator the past three years, first in Rwanda and then in Kenya, I’m used to getting up when the sun rises – between 6 and 7 AM all year – and these bells are a jarring reminder that I’m not in East Africa anymore.

On this morning I’m writing, the sun won’t rise in Seattle for another two hours. So in my Pavlovian reaction to the digital bells I stagger to the kitchen to put the kettle on.  While the water boils I get out my favorite mug, pour-over, filter, and coffee and line them up in front of me.  A few minutes later I’m watching my real morning wake-up call drip away, I inhale deeply and take a sip.  The day has now officially begun…

I expect that many of us start our days in a similar way.  Your alarm may sound different and you may use another brewing method, but an appreciation of a good cup of coffee, along with an ability to survive, no, celebrate, our dark, damp winter, runs deep around here.

Enjoying a cup of coffee is a nice way to think globally while acting locally every day.

Farmers sorting coffee beans at a Technoserve cooperative

I had my first taste of the “black gold” – heavily doctored with milk and sugar – when I was 13 or 14.  But, it wasn’t until I moved to East Africa in March 2009 that I really began to understand how those beans make it from farm to cup (which I now drink black more often than not). You might be wondering at this point, what any of this has to do with development.

Well, I left Seattle for East Africa to work for TechnoServe, a US-based, international development organization, on a brand new, 4-year, $47 million coffee project, eponymously named the Coffee Initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The project sought to double the incomes of coffee farmers in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia by improving coffee quality, production efficiency, and agronomic practices.  Rather than give away fertilizers or machinery, TechnoServe sought to build the intellectual and physical capacity of individual farmers, as well as their cooperative groups, in order to create sustainable economic opportunities in the East African coffee industry.

Hallie reviewing financial records with a cooperative officer in Kenya.

Our teams worked out in the fields with farmers training them on how to get better yields by using compost and mulch; we connected small cooperatives with lending organizations so they could purchase the equipment necessary to produce coffee that could be sold to specialty buyers and showed them how to use it; and, we encouraged these specialty buyers to come out and sample these amazing coffees.

Interestingly, outside of Ethiopia where Kaldi, a goatherder, is said to have discovered coffee, many of the farmers we worked with had never tasted coffee aside from the ubiquitous instant powder produced by Nescafe and its local competitors. Black tea, near identical in its doctoring to my early coffee experiments, is the drink of choice in these parts, with room-temperature Fanta running a close second.

I suppose, TechnoServe’s coffee program sounds pretty straightforward, but growing, harvesting, processing, drying and shipping those precious little beans without degrading their quality is challenging in the best of conditions. 

Most of our farmers viewed their coffee as a straight-up commodity which could be processed and dried on the front stoop and sold off to local buyers at a discount. But bills always came due, bad weather might necessitate a 10-mile walk in knee-deep mud to get to a mill to troubleshoot a broken machine, low-literacy required creative training techniques and lots of patience, and social norms, while not encouraging corruption, certainly didn’t discourage it.

The point is, it isn’t as easy or as simple to “boost productivity” for smallholder farmers as it might sound. It’s not just about getting better seeds, better farming techniques or educating people.

Many of the methods we were introducing at Technoserve differed from traditional practices.  Change is hard when, from a farmer’s perspective, you’re gambling with a significant part of your annual income. So it’s no surprise that the farmers were more than a bit wary of the program and often slow to adopt our suggestions.

Despite these hurdles, the Coffee Initiative is working.

Hallie cupping coffee samples from TechnoServe clients in Rwanda with Sajji Ryakunze, Quality Assurance Manager-Rwanda.

The initial data shows that farmers in the program have increased their coffee incomes by about 35%.

With this money they are able to send their kids to school, buy better food, and pay for medical care.  In short, this extra income helps farmers climb out of poverty, a development outcome that I think we can all get behind.

So, what did this all teach me about what to look for when I’m buying coffee if I want to do my little bit to change the world with what I put in my morning wake-up cup?

Well, mostly, I want to be sure that the farmers are getting paid a premium for their beans and that this extra income is actually going into their pockets, rather than paying for consultants or complicated certification schemes or one-time gifts of equipment.  Ask yourself, what would you rather have: a new cell phone or a 35% raise?

In short, I’m looking for transparency.  I want to get clear answers when I ask my local purveyor (or, read their website) how they buy their coffee and what pricing and support strategies they use.  I want to understand the actual costs and rewards associated with those little logos that populate my bag of coffee.  And, then I want to encourage that transparency by what I let drip into my cup in the morning.

These answers aren’t always easy to come by as they represent corporate strategy, profit margins, and competitive advantage; however, as consumers we can, and should, ask for more information.  Just as with any development project, we should be interested in what the actual outcomes are, not just what stickers are affixed to the bag.

This isn’t to say that you have to buy your coffee from that snobby, hipster café on the corner.  The local warehouse store and the mermaid have both purchased beans from TechnoServe clients.  And, yes, you will likely be paying a premium for that cup (I just shelled out $18 for ¾ of a pound of beautiful coffee bought direct from farmers in Ethiopia).

But, won’t it make you feel a little better knowing that you started your morning by doing your bit to help alleviate poverty all the way around the world?


Hallie Goertz has over ten years of experience providing strategic and programmatic support to domestic and international organizations working in the public sector.  She is a graduate of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.