Growing pains: tackling coffee’s youth exodus

The climate emergency has become a top priority for coffee businesses around the world, but with young farmers leaving the industry in droves, implementing solutions at origin is a growing challenge. Eduarda Cristovam, Director of Coffee Quality and Sustainability at Matthew Algie, speaks to 5THWAVE about the importance of supporting young farmers today to ensure coffee has a bright future tomorrow

Three generations of farmers from Fazenda Santa Lucia, Brazil. Oswaldo Antônio Vicente (right) has been working at Santa Lucia for 24 years, his son Wellington Vitor Vicente ‘Chico’ (left) has worked at Santa Lucia for 15 years. Chico’s son (middle) wants to be an agronomist | Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Matthew Algie



The chilling effects of the climate emergency on the world’s coffee production are well documented. Up to 50% of the land used for growing coffee worldwide could become unsuitable for its cultivation by 2050 due to rising temperatures and extreme weather. Meanwhile, 60% of wild coffee species face extinction by the end of the century.
 
A lesser acknowledged symptom of the climate emergency is that young coffee farmers around the world are leaving the industry in droves. With the climate emergency further entrenching financial instability, growing coffee is an increasingly precarious career prospect for the young innovators sorely needed to preserve the future of global production.
 
A lack of skilled management and labour, particularly among the more vulnerable smallholder farms that collectively produce around 60% of the world’s coffee, has become another major headache for coffee farmers around the world.
 
As Eduarda Cristovam, Director of Coffee Quality and Sustainability at Matthew Algie highlights, this challenge must be addressed if efforts to mitigate climate change and preserve the world’s beloved coffee varieties are to be effectively implemented.
 
“We all know that rising temperatures are adversely impacting coffee production. It’s very likely that droughts will increase, insect species will decline, pollination is going to become more challenging and production levels will fall,” she says.
 
“Yes, you can work to tackle climate change. But if you don’t tackle youth engagement in coffee, we will not have anyone to implement those wonderful sustainable practices – it’s essential that we invest in the next generation too,” Cristovam urges.
 
In tackling this issue, Cristovam says businesses should examine the root causes of the youth exodus from coffee.
 
Coffee production is an inherently labour-intensive exercise involving early mornings and hard physical work – a sacrifice that many young people simply aren’t willing to make given the low returns and instability from running a coffee farm.
 
“Young farmers face waking up at 4am and it’s back-breaking work.
 
Many work on their parents’ farm and face an uncertain legacy of inheriting the land if they’re one of many siblings. A prosperous future is by no means guaranteed.
 
“Nowadays young people have much more access to technology and are opting for jobs in the city where it’s more comfortable, there’s electricity and there isn’t the risk of crops failing because of climate change.
 
“It becomes a no-brainer for many,” Cristovam says.
 

Empowering more female leaders in coffee growing communities can drastically improve access to education as well as increasing coffee quality and yields

 

Learning lessons

 
Motivating and training the next generation of coffee farmers will require improvements to local infrastructure and education provision, the lack of which frequently deters many young people from taking on a smallholder coffee farm.
 
“Keeping children in school at origin in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, can be challenging. Infrastructure and roads are often poor, especially if the weather is bad. Farms can also be very far away from schools.”
 
However, as Cristovam highlights, empowering more female leaders in coffee growing communities can drastically improve access to education as well as increasing coffee quality and yields.
 
“Women tend to inject any additional resources they have into their children’s education, make sure they stay at school and have development and career opportunities.”
 
Cristovam also observes that female leaders often have a knack of diversifying family coffee farms. Whether making bags and clothing, producing yoghurt and cheese or collecting honey, these additional revenue streams all contribute to improving overall financial stability when coffee crops are impacted by a weather event.
 
“If we were to close the gender gap in coffee production, you would probably see production volumes and quality rise and much more involvement from young people seeing a future in coffee,” she says.
 
Matthew Algie’s work in Honduras shows how this approach can be effective. Since 2007 the Glasgow-based roaster has worked with a group of female coffee farmers and entrepreneurs in the Central American nation to increase opportunities for women.
 
Founded by eight women in 2007, the community of Pashapa, La Labor Ocotepeque, the AMPROCAL co-operative has grown to 134 female members who provide for their families and promote the socio-economic development of the municipality.
 
The group has made huge progress in improving the local area and the organisation’s facilities, such as machinery and equipment, through the purchase of land. They invest about 30% of the Fairtrade Premium funds they receive in organic fertilisers, fruit trees and tools, thus providing a strong base for the next generation of coffee farmers who might otherwise have left the industry altogether.
 
Another example is Matthew Algie’s work at the Ascarive cooperative in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil. Founded in 2008, the organisation is comprised of around 120 small-scale, family farmers and has used Fairtrade Premiums to invest in improving soil quality, reduce production costs and build septic tanks to avoid cross-contamination of water sources.
 

Cristovam urges coffee businesses seeking to make a positive impact to focus their efforts on community projects at origin

 
Cristovam recently met an energised young farmer from the cooperative who was in the process of taking over the family business from his elderly parents, producing approximately 70% coffee and 30% milk on the land.
 
“I asked him what he would choose if he could produce just milk or coffee and without hesitation he said ‘coffee’. He told me coffee was a fantastic product to work with but not as reliable as milk.
 
“He then began listing all the things he was doing to secure the future of the farm – agricultural qualifications, cupping courses. It was amazing to see that energy coming from a young farmer. He then asked me: ‘What about you – What are you going to do to help us?’ It was a very powerful moment.”
 
With the success of these projects in mind, Cristovam urges coffee businesses seeking to make a positive impact to focus their efforts on community projects at origin, where the most effective solutions to climate change and the skills crisis can be implemented.
 
“We can invest in training, development, trials to prevent leaf rust, improve waste management or control water pollution, but if we don’t get younger people to stay in coffee all that investment will be for nothing.”
 

This article was first published in Issue 11 of 5THWAVE magazine.
 
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