Why Some Farmers Struggle to Produce Specialty Coffee

About 70 countries produce coffee, but not all of them are able to effectively engage with the specialty market. In some, producers struggle while growing and harvesting coffee for commodity-grade prices (and sometimes at commodity-grade quality).

The question is: why? What’s preventing these producers from accessing the same high-paying markets as other farmers?

I recently conducted research that sheds light on this exact issue for International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), as well as a case study with CARE International in Lao P.D.R. Read on to discover my findings.


Is Coffee Growing More Sustainable?

Optimism has spread. The United Nations Development Programme announced in 2015 that poverty has gone down. The digital revolution has connected people. The majority of children worldwide are at school. Access to clean water and sanitation has improved.

All of this has contributed to increasing coffee producers’ capabilities and enabling competitive coffee enterprises.

At the same time, third wave and specialty coffee gives customers unprecedented choice in their drinking habits. It’s an opportunity to “do the right thing” for smallholder producers and the environment – all while enjoying a “unique” artisanal experience, of course.

As consumers, we have agency; our purchases send signals to the market and to producers. We know that we can help drive the trend towards better prices for quality coffee and sustainable farming practices.


However, sometimes we can forget that considerable challenges remain for many coffee-producing communities. Persistent poverty; conflict; instability; business hurdles; inadequate access to credit; price volatility; market barriers; and entrenched gender, youth and disability inequalities with regards to resources, decision-making, economic opportunities, services, and influence…These all pose difficulties for producing coffee, and especially specialty-grade coffee.


“To meet the consumer demands of speciality coffee – sustainability, quality and unique or exemplary coffee – is a challenge for poorer coffee producers as well as coffee traders,” says Stephen Leighton, Managing Director of Has Bean Coffee.

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