ECWx | The Big Idea

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.