Professor Ans Kolk of the University of Amsterdam Business School is very clear: “My key expertise is research, but I also attach great value to the interaction with practitioners, and to contributing research insights to concrete issues in business and society where possible.”
For that reason, Kolk accepted the position of independent expert on the board of the Douwe Egberts (DE) Foundation in 2002. This foundation was created that year by Sara Lee, the parent company at the time, as a reaction to major international campaigns linking coffee to poverty. The finger pointed straight at large coffee multinationals. Kolk: “That period saw DE’s 250th anniversary and campaigners launched the slogan ‘it’s Douwe Egbert’s anniversary but there’s no reason to celebrate’. When the regulated quota system for coffee, which ensured stable prices, ended in 1989, prices dropped and poverty increased among small coffee farmers. For campaigners, coffee served to illustrate the poverty problem in developing countries and the large coffee roasting and instant manufacturing companies were called to account.”
Protests led by organisations such as Oxfam Novib proved to be successful. Now, over 10 years later, coffee multinationals all show their support for moving towards a sustainable coffee sector. Kolk has followed development in the coffee sector over the years. For example, she studied the issues related to production and certification of sustainable coffee, including the various sustainability labels (such as Fair Trade, UTZ, and Rainforest Alliance) and the position of small farmers. Kolk: “As a researcher I believe it’s my task to contribute to good insight into the complexity of the coffee market, so that it becomes clear what does and what does not work in current approaches to stimulate sustainable coffee. About 70% of the coffee worldwide is produced by small farmers. They are essential for a sufficient supply. And local production, under good social and environmental conditions, is incredibly important, particularly for alleviating poverty of the farmers, their families and communities.”
Kolk also followed the projects funded by the foundation. “The DE Foundation has initiated a number of small but very challenging projects that teach us much about how difficult it is for small farmers to get their coffee certified. For large plantations, for example in Brazil, this is less complex. It’s clear that everyone wants sustainable coffee. The question is how to determine that coffee is sustainable and how to organise this. If certification becomes mandatory on a short term, as some NGOs propose, then the smallest farmers, especially found in Africa, will be excluded from the market. They will be unable to meet the costs needed to acquire and maintain certification. That could never be the intention a sustainable coffee chain.” The costs of certification include external audit fees and labour intensive internal control systems.
DE Foundation projects in countries such as Vietnam, Uganda, Honduras, Cameroon and Colombia have clear objectives: offer small coffee farmers access to the world market with better quality and preferably certified coffee, leading to higher prices. Improved agricultural techniques can increase harvests on the available land and place less of a strain on the environment. All of this contributes to possibilities for further improving the standard of living and labour conditions. With the financing from the projects, farmers are trained and stimulated to share knowledge. They learn to keep logs in farmer field books, records of which practices are effective and which aren’t. By learning how to organise themselves better, farmers can negotiate better prices and bypass middlemen.
These are all small but helpful steps towards finding a solution to the extremely complex coffee production chain where small farmers in developing countries produce for the world market. Kolk: “Recent research has shown that training is an important tool for improving the situation of small farmers, perhaps more than the certification itself. But you can’t set up projects that fund this training everywhere, there just isn’t enough donor money. Other ways have to be found for bundling expertise in developing countries to support small farmers, for example through agricultural extension services, preferably with a national scope. Perhaps a national institution can help to organise and facilitate inspections in a joint approach on a larger scale in a more efficient way as well. There is a clear role for the government here. But this brings us to a major obstacle in alleviating poverty amongst small farmers: the poorest countries often have weak governments.”