Next Gen Interview with Bambi Semroc of Conservation International

NCA Next Gen recently had the chance to chat with Bambi Semroc, VP of Sustainable Markets and Strategy at Conservation International. The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Bambi Semroc

Next Gen: How did you first become interested in conservation and sustainability work?  Did your Peace Corps work in Togo help set you on this path?

Bambi: As I was finishing undergrad, I started becoming more and more interested in international development and in working overseas.  One of my professors, however, challenged me, asking what skillset I would bring with me if I went abroad. What can you do that those in your hosting region couldn’t do better?  So, realizing I needed to bolster my skill set, I went back to school to study international development with a concentration on the relationship between gender and successful agroforestry systems. This led perfectly to my Peace Corps assignment in Togo, where I was living in small, rural community located next to a protected area and worked on agroforestry and other community development programs. Returning from Togo, I joined Conservational International (CI), which was just developing its Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, and haven’t looked back since.

Next Gen: You’ve spent most of your career with Conservation International (CI) following your time in the Peace Corps. What about the work and culture at CI keeps you excited and motivated?

Bambi: Well, when I first joined CI, the idea of an environmental NGO working with the private sector was still relatively new. It took some effort to convince the corporations we approached that we were not looking to launch an attack, but rather that we wanted to collaborate with them. It was an exciting time. Overall, CI has a culture of innovation. It allows you to stake a course for yourself, and there always seems to be something new and exciting to work on. 

Next Gen: How has your career at CI evolved and how did you come to lead the Sustainable Coffee Challenge (SCC)? Have you always had an interest in sustainability within the coffee sector?

Bambi: It’s evolved from an internship while in grad school to now leading the coffee program and forming a new Center for Sustainable Lands and Waters.  And while I have worked on coffee the entire time, I don’t actually drink coffee. Rather than a love of the beverage, my drive comes from a love of the coffee tree.  It’s a crop that can grow under a tree canopy and holds great potential for rural development. So, my role at CI is constantly evolving, and coffee is only a portion of the work I do. Leading the SCC, however, is basically a dream job: managing the coffee program, engaging with major corporate leaders, and working closely with local communities.  Can’t ask for much more than that. 

Next Gen: It seems that leading the SCC you wear many hats. Do you have a favorite part of the job?  A least favorite?

Bambi: Overall, I could name two favorite parts. The first would be getting to meet and speak with producers, visit coffee farms, and see amazing natural areas.  The second would be trying to get industry participants aligned on sustainability efforts and goals. Seeing this alignment happen is extremely fulfilling and rewarding.  And, well, my least favorite part would be… trying to get the industry participants aligned on sustainability efforts and goals. While seeing the alignment happen is fulfilling, it takes a lot of time and I know that, when it comes to our gravest environmental concerns, time is not a luxury we have. So, I worry about not being able to drive collective action and alignment fast enough.

Next Gen: You’ve taken on a very exciting role within sustainability and coffee industry. Is there anything you can point to that helped you achieve this success?

Bambi: In the first place, you have to find your passion, then you have to work hard. My first role at CI was an internship in which I had one task: research how to grow cocoa sustainably in one region of West Africa. I poured my heart and soul into that internship. As a result, my research grew and grew, and I received recognition within CI for this effort. I’ve been working side by side for the last 18 years with that same manager who took over the cocoa program while I was an intern.

Next Gen: The SCC’s mission is to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. It seems “sustainability” means something different to each actor in the industry – what does “sustainability” mean in the context of the SCC?

Bambi: SCC recognized that there was not alignment regarding what sustainability means throughout the industry, so we set out to try to establish a common framework. The framework is based around four compass points: Improve livelihoods, conserve nature, sustain supply, strengthen market demand. We are now embedding carbon sequestration more formally in the conserve nature point. However, in additional to a common alignment on sustainability, we’ve also developed a common definition for success.  But yes, in the end, the question still comes up: What counts as sustainable coffee?

Next Gen: During your tenure leading the SCC, are you happy with the changes and improvements you’ve seen across the industry? In terms of sustainability, where do you see the industry heading?

Bambi: We have seen a lot of progress but, ultimately, I feel we are never moving fast enough. This is the reason behind forming the SCC:  How do we catalyze more effort? We have major challenges—climate change, deforestation, freshwater degradation, etc.—but we can get there.  Moving forward, we need to see more innovation around sustainability. We need to talk more about living incomes for producers and workers. We need to talk more about capturing CO2. And, in the end, we need to take a very holistic approach and ask what is good for the producers, communities, landscapes, and regions.

Next Gen: What challenges do Covid-19 pose to the work of the SCC and, more broadly, to the sustainability efforts across the coffee industry?

Bambi: Covid-19 brings tremendous challenges to the entire coffee sector. It’s changed where people drink their coffee, which has profound impacts on retailers and roasters in particular. Covid-19 also forces us to recognize the fragility of the coffee industry – from the safety and availability of workers picking the coffee to those milling and roasting the coffee. Then, it also gives us a moment to reflect on why we are so fragile and how we can find a better balance with people and nature. With regards to sustainability in general, Covid-19 only emphasizes how important the work we are pursuing is.

Next Gen: What advice do you have for someone trying to get involved in sustainability within the coffee industry?

Bambi: Again, first you have to find your passion.  If you want to get involved in sustainability, find exactly what it is within the space drives you and gets you excited.  Then, on a very practical level, field experience in invaluable. It gives you empathy and an understanding of the reality on the ground in some of the world’s most vulnerable places.

Next Gen: What changes would you like to see in the coffee industry moving forward? The audience of this interview is comprised of the young coffee professionals that will drive the coffee industry in the future—what message do you have for them?

Bambi: I see so much hope with the younger generations.  These are generations in which the majority actually care about social and environmental issues. So my hope is that this generation sparks a new wave of sustainability in the sector – that harnesses this interest and passion to truly transition the entire sector to a sustainable and resilient future.

Plant Trees. Save Coffee.

Help Build Stronger Coffee Communities

By Bambi Semroc, Vice President, Sustainable Markets and Strategy for Conservation International and leader of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge


Trees get old. They get sick. They die. And it’s up to us to replant them.

I grew up alongside two beautiful, mature and statuesque maple trees in the back yard. My parents saved those trees when they built our house. Dad said you don’t cut down old trees because it takes too long to grow another one. I watched showers of helicopter seeds fall in the spring. I raked their leaves and jumped in huge piles every fall with my brother. We mulched and planted flowers around them. Those trees are still standing, but my dad is not. I have long-since moved away and so has my brother. My mom now cares for those trees on her own. Last month she called with the sad news that she has to remove one because it is dying. I can’t imagine that tree not being there, and I wonder what tree we will plant to replace it.

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Flavor as the common thread for coffee quality along the value chain

Coffee cupping prep ©2019 Decisive Moment, NCA Convention

The role of cupping in specialty coffee

By Mario R. Fernández-Alduenda, The Coffee Quality Institute
Excerpted from The Sustainable Cultivation of Coffee
Discount available for NCA members


The popularity of coffee is still growing, but the definition of what makes a ‘good’ cup of coffee is complex.

It might be tempting to think that it is largely subjective, with so many types of coffee grown around the world, so many processes to consider throughout the value chain, and so many local and national preferences.

However, the sustainability of the industry depends on the value placed on certain types of coffee. Local economies can thrive or fail, depending on the desirability of their crop.

The growing preference for ‘specialty’ coffee, sold at a premium price, is making the quality question even more critical. The ability to distinguish specific characteristics that make some crops more desirable than standard commercial coffee has become a major consideration over the last 20 years.

Physical characteristics of the bean or cherry are not good indicators of flavor in the cup, so how is this important choice to be made?

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Support coffee farmers – pour another cup!

Harvesting coffee cherries in Nicaragua. Source

The science behind increasing global demand

By Bill (William) Murray, President & CEO, National Coffee Association

I’ve been thinking about the good news, challenges, and opportunities that face all of us in the coffee community – just as I travel to Brazil for the upcoming World Coffee Producers Forum

The good news should be well known to all:  last month California finally gave coffee the all clear, joining scientists worldwide in concluding that coffee does not cause cancer and may in fact protect against cancer and other diseases.

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A Partnership to Protect the Future of Coffee

The NCA is working with the Sustainable Coffee Challenge to help make coffee the world’s first agricultural product

By William (Bill) Murray, President & CEO, National Coffee Association


Here at the National Coffee Association (NCA), we like to say that “we serve coffee.”

With the rising threat of climate change, serving coffee today also means serving the planet. We know coffee’s future depends on coffee being the world’s first fully sustainable crop.

To help make this vision a reality, I am immensely proud that the NCA has joined the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

(Read the official news release.)

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Infographic: Sustainability Sells

Shoppers are expected to spend an estimated $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021

via Nielsen

While we expect sustainable-minded shoppers to spend up to $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021, sustainability is starting to drive gains in everything from resource management to product packaging.

Here’s a glimpse into the myriad ways in which companies are embracing sustainability (and outperforming) along the way.

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Climate for Action: New Uses for Used Coffee Grounds

Recycling coffee grounds is not only beneficial for gardeners, but helps reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.

This post originally appeared on the EPA Blog

By Loreal Crumbley, for the EPA’s Environmental Education Division


Many of you may be looking for effective green tips.  One tip I can offer you is to recycle used coffee grounds.

Coffee mixed with soil can be used as a natural fertilizer. Used coffee grounds provide gardens with an abundant source of nutrition. Recycling coffee grounds is not only beneficial for gardeners but it helps in reducing the amount of waste going into landfills.

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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.

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3 Highlights From the National Coffee Association USA Convention 2019

Specialty coffee cupping session at the NCA Convention in Atlanta
Spencer Turer (Coffee Analysts), Julie O’Brien (The Coffee Trust), and Monica Walker (Walker Coffee Trading) enjoying a cupping session led by Blue Donkey Coffee at the NCA 2019 Convention in Atlanta

Pt. 1: The Crema the Crop


Leaders, experts, and entrepreneurs from across the coffee industry came together for the 2019 NCA Annual Convention in the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, GA. The 3-day event was themed “Coffee at the Crossroads” and sponsored by Community Coffee, which is currently celebrating its centennial anniversary as a family-owned company.

From networking events to specialty coffee education, the jam-packed (and highly caffeinated) conference offered something for everyone.

Here, we’ve highlighted a few of our favorite moments, with more to come in the weeks ahead.

(If you attended #NCA19 and want to share what you’ve learned, share a comment below or tag @nationalcoffeeusa in your photos!)

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Video: The Future of Coffee Pods in North America

john-schnobrich-506597-unsplash.jpg

Learn more about the maturing coffee pod market at the 2019 National Coffee Association Convention in Atlanta

Peaking at $5.7 billion in sales in 2016, demand for single-serve capsules has leveled off after capturing a significant portion of the US coffee market, according to Euromonitor market research reported by STiR Magazine.

Experts say that the industry will need to undergo some major changes in order to recapture some of the old excitement and increase growth rates in the category.

What lessons can be learned from the mature pod markets of Western Europe that could be applied to the category in North America?

The Future of Coffee Pods in North America | Market Research Blog

Find out at the 2019 National Coffee Association Convention in Atlanta, on March 7-9.

Euromonitor‘s Matthew Barry will lead an in-depth educational session discussing the coffee pods market in North America, including the effect of private labels and off-brand pods as well as environmental sustainability.

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