If Coffee is Such a Valuable Commodity, Why Are Coffee Farmers So Poor?

Photo by Allison Shelley for Lutheran World Relief

By Rick Peyser and Nikki Massie

Lunel Calixte is a coffee farmer living in Carice, in northeast Haiti. Up until the 1980s, coffee was a good source of export income for Haiti, but recently, climate change and crop disease have created major challenges. Lunel says his family has grown coffee as far back as he can remember. But lately, his family has struggled. "At one point we had to cut the number of meals we eat to one," Lunel said. He also had to pull his kids from the quality school they were attending in favor of a less expensive, lower quality education.

Lunel's story is just one of many smallholder coffee farmers around the world who are struggling to make a living. But why do coffee farmers struggle so much?

Globally, there are approximately 25 million farming families growing coffee. Most of these families farm on small plots of land and live in poverty. This is mainly because the supply chains--all the steps from the farm to the final product--involve many people like processors and exporters.

Unfortunately the farmer, who does most of the work, receives a disproportionately low amount of the profit made from the final product. Coffee farmers also often tend to rely on that single crop to support their families, leaving them vulnerable to a variety of shocks, including changes in the climate and global market.

As a result, coffee farming families tend to lack access to sufficient nutritious food all year, clean water, education for their children, medical care, and more. Another big problem is that farmers who grow these crops are aging (with the average age in the mid-50's) while young people are migrating to urban centers where they see better economic opportunities. These things all threaten the sustainability of coffee, which has the potential to be a lucrative and sustainable source of livelihood for many farmers.

Addressing these issues will take the coordination of various stakeholders--not only coffee farmers, but their cooperatives, non-governmental organizations and local/national governments--to address the factors we can control. These include:

  • diversifying crops on coffee farms to create more income and food security
  • working with cooperatives to provide better technical services •to their members
  • helping farmers and cooperatives improve their processing of coffee and getting them involved in more parts of the agriculture value chain, so that they can capture more income from their coffee crops

Ground Up, a coffee & cocoa initiative of Lutheran World Relief, is helping coffee and cocoa farmers address the basic challenges they are facing and enabling them to move out of poverty. We're partnering with other community organizations, governments and corporations, like the Starbucks Foundation, and providing technical assistance that helps farmers generate more income from their crops in sustainable ways and helping farmer cooperatives develop greater capacity to meet the needs of their members.

As a part of this initiative, LWR is working with Lunel Calixte and other Haitian coffee farmers through our local partner, RECOCARNO, a federation of coffee producers. Together, we are helping farmers diversify their crops - for food security, additional income and for coffee tree shading - as well as helping farmers quickly identify and treat crop diseases, like leaf rust.

Our hope is that, by maximizing earnings from their crops, coffee and cocoa farmers will ultimately leave poverty behind. We also hope to help farmers diversify their sources of income to reduce their dependency on a single crop and market prices that are set thousands of miles away. By helping farmers to create additional sources of on-farm income, they are then able to improve and invest in their own productivity and livelihoods without external support.

Rick Peyser is Lutheran World Relief's Senior Relationship Manager for Coffee & Cocoa, and Nikki Massie is LWR's Staff Writer.