The signal and the noise

The signal and the noise

Arguably the most important principle of our Direct Trade model is the one implied in the name: a commitment to direct engagement with the farmers who grow our coffees.

Collectively, the buyers on our sourcing team routinely log a quarter-million miles a year traveling to visit with more than 50 Direct Trade partners in 14 countries.   This commitment to tireless travel grew out one of the company’s early insights: that our influence over quality would always be limited if we were only controlling variables related to the roasting and extraction processes.  We came to understand that the quality frontier of a coffee is determined primarily by the ingredient, the raw agricultural product that we purchase. This insight set us on a collision course with coffee’s origins and direct collaboration with growers as part of our commitment to source, roast and serve the very best coffees in the world.

It is a commitment that amplifies the market signals transmitted to growers and reduces the noise.  With no intermediation of the conversation between growers and buyers, there is no distortion of the complex messages we send growers on issues of quality, volume, price, communications, innovation and more.  

Think of the common salon game Telephone: a simple message is whispered from one person to the next around a dinner table, and the distortions, sometimes radical, are the source of some entertainment.  Now consider that we generally play this game with friends who share the frame of cultural reference and same language, and often a similar social class and education level.  Imagine what happens when that game is stretched across continents, time zones, cultures, languages and social class, and rarely played in real-time.  And now consider what happens when the messages being conveyed are nuanced.  Clearly, the potential for distortion is higher when coffee-related communication is conducted through a network of supply-chain intermediaries, and the likelihood of crisp execution of innovation projects is lower.

In my previous work in the international development space, I felt like this basic commitment to being there, which seems so simple, was everything.  Anything seemed possible when communication was direct and unfiltered. I used to liken it to a professor telling you what questions would be on an exam before it was administered: it was still possible you could fail, but that failure would be a direct result of your preparation and execution, not one of understanding what was expected of you.

Direct engagement is not necessarily sufficient on its own to build a lasting relationship.  A roaster still needs to deliver a compelling value proposition to growers. But it sure helps to build the trust and mutual understanding on which the best and most enduring relationships are based.

As a development professional, I found myself consistently privileging collaboration with roasters, like Intelligentsia, that made this commitment to direct engagement precisely because it delivered so much value to the growers with whom I worked.  That perspective was validated during my first year as Intelligentsia’s Director of Sourcing when I sent a survey to our Direct Trade partners: they identified the regular visits of our buyers as one of the most significant sources of value created by our Direct Trade model.

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This post is the third in a series of seven summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.  Image courtesy wikicommons media.