Monday, May 6, 2019

What to Pay for Coffee - Not So Complicated

May 6, 2019
Ejo Heza women's group in Rwanda - sorting cherry

Guest blogger Kathy Tian, MBA/MS 2020, Erb Institute at the University of Michigan and Ruth Ann Church, President, Artisan Coffee Imports

Let's say you're a coffee roaster. Is it complicated to know what to pay for your green coffee? Not so much. Drawing content from two panels at SCA Expo in Boston we synthesize why. Both of these panels rigorously researched costs in Colombia and Rwanda: two different countries and two different continents. In one panel, "East Africa Quality Innovation," Ruth Ann Church shared  the connectedness of marketing, price and quality in Rwanda. Guest blogger, Kathy Tian, spoke on a separate panel: "Implications of Specialty Coffee Farming Costs in Colombia." 

Recommendations to roasters boil down to three steps:

1. Ask your importer if their contract with the producer is a fixed price contract or based on the C-price? Hopefully the importer's answer is that your less-than-container-load of bags of microlot coffee were bought on a fixed price contract. For microlot purchases up to about 300 bags, (sometimes more), this usually possible. NYBOT C-price based pricing is necessary when the coffee volume is large enough to need hedging in futures markets.

2. Ask your importer what is the farmer paid? Hopefully the importer's answer is "we can tell you that no problem." And then they give you a $ per unit answer. If they give you a lot of excuses about how difficult it is to answer, try reassuring them that you can handle doing some conversions if they can't. But shouldn't an importer be able to do the conversions (from local currency to US$; from KG to pounds; from cherry to green)? For example, Artisan Coffee Imports shared the prices Kopakama's members received for the past three years in this chart during the SCA panel:
2019 (projected)
Avg. farmer price* $/lb. green
$.80/ lb
farmgate + 2nd payment + premiums

If your importer seems conflicted or "over asked" when you inquire about the price to the farmer, there's a fair chance that he/she doesn't know. And there's a fair chance they would like to know also, but they have been deflected by their contact at origin when they try to find out. YOU can be the catalyst towards more transparency and education about where value is in the value chain. YOU, as the roaster, have a powerful position in this chain, no matter what your size. If your volumes are small, then your questions and your responses to answers may not change current business practices in the short term. But, when you ask the questions and urge your supplier to get clear answers from their supplier, your voice makes a difference over the long run.

Cherry harvest in Rwanda
3. What is your pricing philosophy? There are many things to consider when it comes to your pricing philosophy, including how much to anchor on the NYBOT C-price, and how much time and money you, the roaster, wants to invest  to understand costs. Also, how much you believe the farmer should be able to dictate their own price. Kathy Tian, based on her experience in Colombia, recommends focusing on the following two thought processes first, which may help simplify and clarify the roaster's approach:
1)      Think about today’s farmers and future farmers. Try to understand the opportunity cost for a young person in the origin country who can consider coffee farming against other options to earn a living.

An importer could potentially play a critical role in helping you achieve this part of your pricing philosophy. For example, perhaps your importer can share what the opportunity costs are of current and future farmers at origin. More than likely, a young person will have alternatives available to them in agriculture. A knowledgeable importer may be able to share the exact value of opportunity costs for you.  

2)      Think about the power that you have in your value chain to lower costs, other than the price paid to the farmer. If you are a small roaster sourcing exclusively from farms of <0.5 hectares, your ability to realize cost savings upstream is very limited. Instead, consider ways in which you could lower costs at the roaster level.
There are a few ways to lower costs at the roaster level. One opportunity is for small roasters to encourage medium size roasters that benefit from economies of scale in packaging, retail, and transportation fees to take action to address the needs of small holder farmers. This is currently happening in the industry but could be amplified to create more rippling impacts in coffee communities around the world. 
A second option is for small roasters to work together and share supply chains—collaborating on sourcing. This should reduce costs of exports and imports by guaranteeing larger order quantities, which can be passed on to the farmer. 
Alternatively, some small roasters seek out green bean importers who act as the consolidator of many small orders and transparently share the cost savings with the producers. "Transparently" in this case means the importer can tell you the dollars and cents per unit (e.g. per pound green) the farmers received. (See 2 above.)