ECWx Notebook: Small is Beautiful

ECWx Notebook: Small is Beautiful

It’s been more than 18 months since I published this account of our inaugural ECWx event: ECWx 2018 Colombia.  At the time, the memory of the event was still fresh. I was excited by the potential of ECWx to deliver real value to smallholder coffee growers while helping us expand our smallholder sourcing network.  But I also recognized that there was lots of room for improvement in the design and execution of the event.

So we went back to the drawing board to identify what worked well and what specifically we might improve, working closely with our friends from Root Capital who we partnered with on that first ECWx. We agreed that the deliberate focus on small was good.  There was the small in smallholder, of course — limiting participation to the small-scale growers we want to include more of in our supply chains.  But there was also the small size of the workshop itself.  We were intentional about keeping it small enough to be intimate, and capping participation at 40 people seemed to be just right, bringing lots of different perspectives to the table while allowing for the development of personal connections with each participating individual over the four days of the event.

We also agreed that there is some magic in bringing smallholder growers together with mid-sized estates that have more resources to invest, more appetite for risk, and more of a track record where quality is concerned.  The idea is not that small-scale growers make the kinds of capital investments that larger-scale growers do, but that they get some exposure to quality-focused operations and begin to think differently about how they might incorporate some quality-first principles into processes on their own farms and in their own organizations.  In my experience over many years, these contacts are exceptionally rare and extraordinarily valuable.

And throughout 2019, we worked to improve the event in various ways, making it more participatory and more sensory.  And we added one critical wrinkle — the offer to purchase coffee from organizations that participate in the workshops.  Not a lot to start, and not necessarily even the very best.  The idea is to start slowly, with a small volume of coffee for blending, with the hope of finding just a few bags we might be able to release as single-origin ECWx coffees.  The real value will come over a period of years as we patiently grow volume and work with select groups to improve quality and build lasting relationships.

We retooled the event to include these updates, applying them to ECWx 2019 Honduras, the second of three ECWx events scheduled with Root Capital, and to ECWx 2020 Guatemala, which we co-hosted with Catholic Relief Services.  The results were encouraging, with deep engagement from everyone involved.  We found that the possibility of a contract seemed to a particularly effective motivating factor for participants.

In closing each event, invited all participating groups to send us samples of their coffee, and told them that if they wanted to offer coffees to us for sale, we would be delighted to consider them for purchase.  But we also told them that even if they weren’t interested in selling us coffee, we would commit to a full analysis of their samples so they could have a reference from our cupping lab regarding their current levels of quality.

As of this writing, we are awaiting samples with the expectation that soon some ECWx coffees will be available in our cupboard as ingredients for blending recipes, and hopeful we will be able to offer an ECWx lot or two on our single-origin menu this summer.