How to Empower Coffee Communities to Thrive

Inside the community-driven mission of The Coffee Trust, NCA 2019 Origin Charity of the Year

The National Coffee Association recognized The Coffee Trust as the recipient of the 2019 NCA Origin Charity of the Year Award, sponsored by Mother Parker’s Tea & Coffee, during the NCA 2019 Annual Convention in Atlanta.

Two Award finalists – meriting special mention – were Pueblo a Pueblo, Inc. and Strategies for International Development.

[Read the NCA News release and visit the NCA Coffee Charity Showcase to learn more.]

Here, Bill Fishbein, The Coffee Trust Founder and Executive Director, explains from the field what makes this organization so special – and how they are happily working themselves our of jobs in communities at origin.

What does The Coffee Trust do, and why?

The Coffee Trust helps indigenous coffee farmers and their families improve their agricultural practices, diversify their incomes, and grow/raise healthy families.

The Coffee Trust trusts [and] believes that the communities we work with know what they need based on their culture, their values and their priorities. Our job is to provide the framework for them to discover, implement, and share their own solutions.

Since 2009, The Coffee Trust has worked in the war-torn Ixil region of Guatemala [pronounce ee-SHEEL] supporting Women’s Savings & Micro-Credit, A Women’s Weaving Cooperative, A Women’s Food & Health Project, A Fair Trade, Organic Honey Cooperative, A Fair Trade, Organic Coffee Coop’s  Sustainable Agriculture Practices including recovery from the coffee rust, and Education for Ixil youth who would otherwise have no opportunity to gain a higher education.

What makes The Coffee Trust unique?

First, we reject welfarism as a development strategy.  We believe in self-determination and local leadership.

[The Coffee Trust] supports coffee farmers and their families in finding solutions to their financial and farming challenges. We provide training. We provide resources when necessary. We provide structure – including metrics with which to measure success.

[We are] community driven – and culturally appropriate.

When they find solutions, we use our framework of farmer-to-farmer, woman-to-woman [communication] to share and spread the knowledge and tools. When they encounter a method that does not work, we keep going until we find one that does.

While the rest of the world is trying to “scale-up” we are more interested in “finding what works.” The scaling will happen organically.

We believe in self-determination and local leadership.

Bill Fishbein,
The Coffee Trust

Second, our investments get results. We proudly work ourselves out of jobs.

For example, the Women’s Microcredit and savings (10% of loan) started with few thousand [dollars], and now has $700K of their own money being reinvested into the community, and has become completely self-sustaining.

Let me say that again for those who didn’t hear: $700K of their own money being reinvested into the community.

The money [originally came from] donors. Now they are going to be their own bank. The introduction of that savings program multiplied everything.

It wasn’t alway pretty – we learned from many mistakes.

Third, we believe in diversification and off-farm income.

Challenges guide our work. With coffee prices so low, we are focused on diversification of family income with an integrated “whole of community” approach.

Is it realistic for a $100 billion industry to expect coffee farmers to survive on coffee supply chain investments alone?

Wouldn’t it be better – if we invested in the whole coffee community to help all boats rise and build a more sustainable community?

Current projects and initiatives include:

  • Honey program (right now we are raising $50K funds to invest in honey)
  • Women’s textiles to the states for wholesale and retail sales 
  • Microcredit and savings
  • Agricultural technical assistance
  • Food sovereignty programs
Francisco Matom Marcos, Roya Recovery Project Promoter, with Bill Fishbein, The Coffee Trust (credit: The Coffee Trust)

What has been your biggest source of inspiration (or motivation) at The Coffee Trust?

The people from the communities we work with. Their struggle is constant. And yet, they continue to survive.

It’s not easy doing our work.  However, whenever our going gets tough, we think of the people we serve and we are inspired to continue. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as an organization working at origin?

The gravitational pull of our own culture can blind us from time to time. We have to be ever so vigilant to avoid imposing our values on our partners. 

What have you learned from your work at origin? Has anything surprised you?

We have learned that the projects we support are the community’s projects, not ours. 

We have learned that our most important goals are for the people to achieve self-empowerment.

We have learned that our greatest success is when the people we work and take full responsibility for their project, and no longer need our support. 

Our objectives are less about the success of a project than the self-empowerment achieved by the people involved in the project. 

We have learned that it is far more effective to work in one region and to support the people there in all aspects of development instead of draining resources [financial and human]. 

There are hundreds of years of history leading up to poverty at origin. Development takes time, a long time. It’s hard work for us and for our partners. There are no quick fixes. 

If the going is easy, we must be going in the wrong direction.

How do you define success?

We have been successful when the community we have been working with has taken full responsibility for the project and no longer needs our support.

Photo: The Coffee Trust via Instagram

What are your goals going forward?

Coffee Trust’s short-term goals are to help producers diversify their income and feed their families, especially when coffee prices are low.

More specifically, we are supporting honey producers to improve production for essential supplementary income and to access new markets for their fair trade, organic honey.

Coffee Trust’s longer-term goals are to facilitate opportunities for coffee producers outside the Ixil region [in Latin America and beyond] to share experiences with our Ixil partners and take advantage of the success that has been earned in one of the poorest, most difficult regions at origin.

We like to say that “If it can be done in Ixil, it can be done anywhere.”

Why focus on coffee communities?

First of all, we love coffee, and we love people.  Our founder is a former coffee roaster who recognized the intimate connection between his [lucrative] coffee world and the deep poverty experienced by the world’s coffee producers and their families.

Until or unless we, as individuals in the specialty coffee trade, acknowledge this discrepancy and make the personal commitment to act on it, not casually, but as if the poverty at origin were our poverty, things will remain the same.  This is morally unacceptable.

It is also economically unacceptable, as more and more young people from coffee producing regions reject the impoverished life of a coffee producer and seek better opportunities in the US, with or without proper documentation.

Were there any moments or stories from origin that stand out, or help illustrate the impact of your work in the lives of the community you work with?

10 years ago, we helped the Chajulense Women’s group develop their savings & micro-credit project. They started with 20 women. We wanted to introduce a savings component to the program.

But, the women were resistant.  They were far more familiar with living from day to day than for the future. After some time, the women agreed to give savings a try. That is when the women began to put wind under their wings. 

Today, there are 3,000 women in the program.  They are providing additional income for their families. They have a voice in their own home and in their community. And, they have a savings fund of close to $700,000. They recently purchased a building with cash for $50,000 and put a down payment on a piece of property that will one day house their offices, a manufacturing facility for their weavings, a conference space and a small hostel.

The women are completely independent. They do not need The Coffee Trust anymore. 

In 2014 the Fair Trade, Organic Coffee Association, Asociación Chajulense, lost 80% of the coffee harvest due to la roya, the coffee rust.  The association was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Coffee Trust was asked to help. We introduced effective micro-organisms (EMs) as an organic defense against the devastating fungus. 

New introductions are not often met with enthusiasm. In this case, the farmers did not want to risk their last remaining 20% of their production on a new innovation.  Some farmers tried it, though, with amazing results. More farmers tried the EMs.  The EMs worked and soon almost all the farmers were using them.  It took close to 5 years, but Asociación Chajulense rebounded for the coffee rust and tripled production. 

The association is completely independent now. The farmers do not need The Coffee Trust anymore.

10 years ago, we sent a number of Ixil students to Universidad del Valle to gain access to higher education that would otherwise have been out of their reach. In February we met one of them in San Gaspar Chajul who had just recently opened a small restaurant.

Almost a decade after he was awarded the Coffee Trust Scholarship, he was now the owner of his own business; an achievement he said would have been impossibility without his education.

Photo: The Coffee Trust via Instagram

What advice would you give to anyone looking to help serve the coffee communities at origin?

Practice your humility. Recognize that crossing international boundaries does not just mean crossing imaginary lines drawn by politics and war, nor simply language boundaries. Walk carefully at origin recognizing that the priorities, values and culture there are different. And, the logic that works in developing countries simply does not work the same way there as it does in more advanced countries.

Walk carefully and with deep respect for the people being served. They may not have the same kind of education offered in more advanced countries. But, these people and their families are survivors. They have survived generations of poverty, economic exploitation and numerous natural disasters. And, they are still here, producing some of the world’s finest quality coffee.

Awe. That’s a good place to start.

If you can get people to take away one idea from your work, it would be:

Hand outs don’t work. In fact, they do more harm than good.

Your goal should be to help your partners take full responsibilities for their own development. 

How can people get involved and support The Coffee Trust?

  • Write a check. That’s the first step. But, don’t stop there.  That merely gets you in the game.
  • Join us on National Coffee Day [September 29] and get your customers involved.
  • Spread the word about The Coffee Trust and our work with producers on Self-Managed Development.
  • Join Us for 1st Cup on January 1, and start your year off by serving coffee producers first. 
  • Buy Fair Trade, organic honey from our partners in Guatemala [available soon through The Coffee Trust]. Producers are paid the fair trade price and, in addition, share 50% of the profits with The Coffee Trust.
  • Buy women’s hand-woven textiles, which adds to family income.
  • Hold a your own fundraiser for The Coffee Trust. We’ll help!

Visit The Coffee Trust to learn more.

Learn more about the NCA Coffee Gives Back Showcase & Award

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