ECWx | The Big Idea

Before joining the team at Intelligentsia in 2016, I spent 14 years working for an international development agency.  A long-time collaborator in that work with a track record of innovation had so much success in rolling out new initiatives in part because he thought through them so carefully.   He challenged our thinking constantly, routinely asking of new proposals: “What’s the BIG IDEA?”

Last month, we partnered with our friends at Root Capital to adapt our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop for a new context and format we call ECWx.  Below, I share the BIG IDEA behind ECWx.

For an annotated photo essay of the event, click here.

ECW and ECWx

The Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, or ECW, is one of the signature innovations of Intelligentsia Direct Trade.  Since 2009, we have convened our global Direct Trade network in a different country for a week devoted to exploring and celebrating everything that makes coffee, well, extraordinary.  The event generally includes field visits to coffee farms and mills, sensory exercises in cupping labs, presentation of advancements in coffee research and lots and lots of caffeinated discussion of coffee among growers, millers, exporters and members of the Intelli team.  Through this combination of formats, ECW delivers inspiration and actionable insight to coffee farmers to help them improve the quality of their coffee and their competitive position in the marketplace.  Next month in Bolivia, we will convene our Direct Trade partners — more than 50 partners from 15 countries — for our 10th annual ECW.  Meantime, we are celebrating the success of our first-ever ECWx event in Nariño, one of the leading specialty origins in Colombia.

ECWx is to ECW as TEDx is to TED — a more intimate version of the original that plays by the same rules as the big event but focuses relentlessly on issues of local relevance.  For the inaugural ECWx, that meant a deep-dive on all things Colombian.  The event featured 40 Colombian smallholder farmers and representatives of smallholder coffee enterprises drinking Colombian coffee, visiting Colombian farms and discussing opportunities for Colombian coffee.

ECWx, Social Inclusion and Social Impact

ECWx was created explicitly and exclusively for smallholder coffee farmers.  Why?  Because we believe specialty coffee’s clearest path to improving social impact at origin is through the inclusion of the coffee chain’s two most marginalized groups of participants: smallholder farmers and coffee farmworkers.  Contributing to greater participation and profitability among smallholder farmers, and helping expand opportunity and improve working conditions for farmworkers, are the best ways to expand the promise of specialty coffee.  ECWx is part of that effort, bringing the value we create for Intelligentsia Direct Trade supply chain partners every year through ECW to a broader audience of smallholder growers.

While smallholder coffee farmers in places like Nariño can’t compete with growers in places like Brasil on the basis of productivity and farm efficiency, the landscapes in which they grow coffee and their labor-intensive production and post-harvest processing practices give them a clear advantage in producing quality-differentiated coffee.  And in a global marketplace that forecasts an acute shortfall of specialty coffee in the years ahead, that is a significant opportunity.  ECWx is designed to accelerate the engagement of smallholder participants, many of whom are not currently focused on quality, with the specialty market.

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

We partnered on our first ECWx event with Root Capital, a non-profit financial services provider based in Cambridge, MA, that has been a leader in social innovation, inclusion and impact.  It is hard to think of a better partner in our effort to expand the impact of our model on smallholder farmers.  Personally, I have always thought of Root Capital as the Apple of non-profits: by the time mainstream NGOs caught up to what Root was up to, it was already several generations of innovation ahead, piloting the next big thing in enterprise development or social impact.  And Root Capital has been amply rewarded for its innovation with just about every social enterprise award in the marketplace.

But the organization’s visionary founder, Willy Foote, has insisted that Root Capital’s real impact lies not shiny new objects, but its commitment to learning and continuous improvement over a narrow range of activities, most centrally, its commercial finance operations.  Root was born out of a central insight — that grassroots enterprises around the world are stuck in the “missing middle” of the credit market.  Too big for microfinance institutions, considered by commercial banks to be too small, too risky, or both, coffee cooperatives and other grassroots coffee enterprises are part of a billion-dollar segment of the credit market that is systematically underserved.  Root Capital was born to meet that need, and its success is the surest validation of its initial diagnosis of the need for more liquidity in the missing middle of the market: Root Capital has made more than $1.2 billion in loans to grassroots enterprises since its inception.  

Over more than a decade working with smallholder farmer organizations in the Americas, I came to appreciate the importance of access to commercial credit as an essential precondition for the growth.  More often than not, the first Root Capital loan marked a milestone in the history of the successful cooperatives and smallholder coffee enterprises I worked with, one that changed their trajectories and put them on the path of continuous growth.  ECWx deliberately paired our focus on coffee quality as a source of competitive advantage for smallholders with Root Capital’s focus on building the financial management skills of smallholder enterprises to succeed in the competitive specialty marketplace.  Collaboration between Intelli and Root Capital was, as Willy said during one of the early brainstorming sessions that led to the collaboration, born of a mutual desire to “get our chocolate in your peanut butter.”

For an annotated photo essay on ECWx 2018 in Colombia, click here.

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ECWx was co-funded by USAID and Root Capital as part of a larger project called the Feed the Future Partnership for Sustainable Coffee, also funded in part by Keurig Dr Pepper. The U.S. Agency for International Development leads the U.S. government’s international development and humanitarian efforts in more than 100 countries worldwide.

 

ECWx in Pictures

Intelligentsia partnered with Root Capital last month to adapt our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop for a new context and format we call ECWx.  We convened the first ECWx in Colombia for 40 smallholder coffee leaders as part of our commitment to expand the social impact of our model.  This annotated photo essay provides a glimpse into the event.  For more on the big idea behind ECWx, click here.

11 July | Day One | The Case for Quality

While we were as anxious as any of the participants to get to the field, we needed the better part of a day to explore quality coffee from multiple perspectives: what it tastes like, how we measure it, where it comes from, its economic implications, what we do as buyers and roasters to conserve and optimize it.

Geoff Watts, our Vice President of Coffee and Green Coffee Buyer for Colombia who built Intelligentsia Direct Trade, opened the event with a guided tasting — no better way to begin  developing a shared understanding of quality.

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I shared some perspectives on the promise of quality based on more than a decade of work in the field with smallholders, including the 1,600 participants in the Borderlands project in Nariño, 

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And to close the day, Alexandra Tuinstra, Vice President of Advisory Services at Root Capital, led a team of presenters from Root Capital which explained how Root Capital’s financial services can improve the competitiveness of grassroots coffee enterprises.

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12 July | Day Two | Quality Field Trips #1 and #2: Buesaco and La Florida

On Day Two of ECWx, we split into two groups to see what a quality-first approach looks like in two different production models: a small estate model in Buesaco and a washing station in La Florida operated by a smallholder organization.

In Buesaco, we visited our Direct Trade partner Franco Héctor José López, pictured here, is a five-time winner of Colombia’s Cup of Excellence.  

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His La Mina farm isn’t significantly different from those of his neighbors in terms of elevation, cultivars, shade cover or agronomic management.  But even with inputs that don’t seem to be out of the ordinary for Buesaco, Don Franco turns out extraordinary results.  (So do his daughter Cielo and son-in-law Nilson, who have some CoE hardware of their own.) . So we walked the farms at Don Franco’s La Mina and San Antonio, one of several farms owned and operated by Cielo and Nilson, to see what award-winning operations look like.

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Yes, the landscapes are stunning, but that’s par for the course in Nariño.  What sets the López family apart is the exacting focus on quality through the harvest and post-harvest stages of the process.

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Meanwhile, over in La Florida, the leaders of the audacious smallholder enterprise ASPROCAES led a demonstration of cherry reception and processing in the washing station they operate — a first in Nariño.  

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Given that there are no other washing stations in the region, the organization is designing everything from scratch, including the processes for cherry reception and grading, conversion to parchment calculations and payments.  The day closed with an invaluable session in which participating farmer organizations offered their assessments of the process and recommendations.

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13 July| Day Three | Enterprise Management and Quality Field Trip #3: El Obraje

We spent the morning of Day Three back inside, hearing a series of insightful presentation from a range of organizations on the importance of information management for decision-making and competitiveness including pioneering Fair Trade cooperatives, the supply chain information management platform Cropster and an organization in Nariño that produced the first-ever Blockchain lot for the Dutch market.  In the afternoon, it was back to the field to visit El Obraje, a large estate by Nariño standards that was designed with architectural precision by its architect owner Pablo Andrés Guerrero, pictured below.

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The farm was built from the ground up to produce quality, featuring traditional and exotic cultivars, and employs an experimental approach with short learning and innovation cycles applied to shade cover, renovation, irrigation and other production variables.

14 July | Day Four | Villa Loyola

During the fourth and final day of the event, the entire operation decamped to Villa Loyola, a century-old farm owned and operated by the Jesuits that won the 2008 Colombia Cup of Excellence, to explore the entire coffee process, from soil management to the cupping table.  

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Fr. José Aguilar is the Jesuit priest who oversees the farm.  His first order of business when he took the reins more than five years ago was to convert the farm to organic production, remineralizing the soil and boosting its organic content with pulverized rocks obtained locally and homemade organic fertilizers.  He has since turned the wet mill and drying facilities into centers of experimentation open to smallholders in the community.  The wet mill conveys cherry with harvested rainwater, which it recycles, and uses water-efficient technology.  The ingenious drying facilities are built almost entirely of a local variety of bamboo that is both fast-growing and strong.  He led the group on a tour through the entire process —  a highlight of the week for many of the organic farmers who participated in ECWx.

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The event closed with a cupping of coffees from across Colombia.

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ECWx was co-funded by USAID and Root Capital as part of a larger project called the Feed the Future Partnership for Sustainable Coffee, also funded in part by Keurig Dr Pepper. The U.S. Agency for International Development leads the U.S. government’s international development and humanitarian efforts in more than 100 countries worldwide.