Covid-19 adds to coffee’s brewing crisis

Smallholder coffee farmers around the world were already battling tough conditions such as poverty and drought when the coronavirus pandemic struck and worsened their situation.

Every year, tens of thousands of Nicaraguan labourers travel south across the Costa Rica border in time for the coffee harvest season. For five months between October and February, they pick the ripe, bright red “cherries” off the trees by hand for later processing. It is labour-intensive and difficult work. They begin at sunrise and do not stop until they have met their daily quota. Whatever money they make is often the only income they’ll receive throughout the year.

That border is now closed. Tensions have long existed between the two Central American neighbours, but they came to a head on 8 May when Costa Rica began testing truck drivers entering the country for the coronavirus. 

This chafed against Nicaragua’s stance on a pandemic that President Daniel Ortega first ignored, labelling the virus an “atypical pneumonia”, and about which he has now actively sought to conceal the truth. Only 64 deaths have been officially reported in the country, despite outspoken doctors and patients portraying a very different narrative.

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“The situation is spiralling out of control,” said Mallory Plaks, a representative of Enveritas, a non-profit organisation with a mission of ending global poverty in the coffee sector by 2030. It faces an uphill challenge. Over 60% of the world’s coffee is produced on smallholder farms comprising about 12.5 million farmers. Of those, 44% are living in poverty and 22% are living in extreme poverty.

“Many Nicaraguans depend on that work in Costa Rica for their livelihoods. Costa Rica depends on that labour for its coffee production. If the borders stay closed it could be a real issue,” said Plaks.

This is just one example of the impact Covid-19 is having on the global coffee trade. The conditions in Nicaragua, where 12% of the population live off less than US$1.25 (R20.5) a day, according to the Unicef, could escalate into a humanitarian crisis. But the outlook is bleak around the world.

Undated: Women sort picked coffee cherries in Kenya. Any unripe, overripe or diseased cherries are removed before processing. (Photograph by Christopher Pillitz/ Getty Images)

Deepening poverty and food insecurity await

“Even if we come out of lockdown tomorrow, the damage is already done,” said Plaks. “There are a lot of people who depend on the coffee industry. We will see many of them moving into poverty and food insecurity. That has made the mission we have set out to achieve more challenging and more important.”

Sensing that not enough of the world’s attention has focused on the plight of farmers and farm workers at the source of origin, Enveritas undertook a sweeping survey and conducted interviews in 13 of the world’s largest coffee-producing countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Though the figures are not wholly representative of the overall populations of farmers, some unsettling trends have been unearthed.

In South America, particularly in heavyweight producers such as Brazil and Colombia, restricted access to labourers has stalled production. Though some larger farms are mechanised, much of the production is done by hand.

Lucas* is a 70-year-old farmer in the southeastern Brazilian province of Minas Gerais. His country is the second hardest hit by the coronavirus, with around 1.4 million cases and more than 60 000 deaths at the time of publication. As such, he is taking every precaution possible to avoid contracting the disease. He now hires the wives of his more permanent workers, thereby reducing the movement of people from different regions who might be contaminated. 

This practice has been mirrored elsewhere. In Ethiopia, Solomon* was forced to use family labour to weed and compost his stumped coffee, while Kouassi* in Ivory Coast could not tend to his crop for two weeks. As a result, his harvest was not finished on time.

20 December 2013: Workers dry white coffee beans in the sun at a fair-trade coffee farm in Jimma, Ethiopia. (Photograph by Eric Lafforgue/ Art in All of Us/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Time, money and survival

It takes four years for a coffee seed to grow into a tree bearing fruit called cherries. Once ripened, they are cleaned, dried, milled, roasted, ground and brewed. The profit margins increase at every stage of production, but so too do the costs and time required. Many farmers are now forced to make a difficult and potentially life-altering decision. Either cash in now and sell wet cherries, or hold out in the hope of better times ahead. With the very real threat of destitution looming, most are choosing the more immediately available lifeline.

“I used to dry coffee because it was profitable when dried, but I have had to sell cherry the last two weeks,” said Miremba*, a farmer from Masaka, Uganda.  

This reduction in income, whether temporary or long term, is also coinciding with an increase in everyday expenses. As economies struggle under the weight of depression, food prices rise. One farmer in Ethiopia cited a mounting risk of hunger if the pandemic continues. This, in turn, has led to farm workers asking for higher wages to meet these costs. 

But farmers are battling to match their demands. And with no funds to pay workers, crop production will be affected, forcing farmers to accept a loss on whatever crops they can produce. It is a vicious cycle with the potential to transform into a dangerous vortex.

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In May, the International Coffee Organization, an intergovernmental body founded in 1963 under the auspices of the United Nations, filed a worrying report. Titled “Volatile Coffee Prices: Covid-19 and Market Fundamentals”, the paper presented “unprecedented joint supply and demand shock” to the global coffee sector. No one in the supply chain would escape the sting of this crisis. 

Duong*, a farmer in the Lam Dong province of Vietnam, a country widely praised for its decisive handling of the pandemic, is less concerned with contracting the virus than he is with its long-term impact on his business. “We are not worried about Covid-19 as much,” he said. “The [biggest] concern is low coffee prices while [there are] too high input and labour costs. Our surrounding coffee farms have changed to other crops due to low profitability.”

15 February 2013: Workers at a coffee farm in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. Movement restrictions because of Covid-19 mean some farmers are struggling to secure enough workers, many of whom work seasonally. (Photograph by Reza/ Getty Images)

Impacts in the short and long terms

To compensate, farmers are diversifying not only their crops, but also the ways in which they cultivate them. As many as 39% of farmers interviewed by Enveritas said they had modified their practice. 

A Colombia farmer has had to produce his own fertiliser using cow manure as he cannot access the more productive fertiliser he ordinarily uses. Those with the means are moving towards mechanised production to compensate for the lack of labour available. While the adaptability of farmers is laudable, the impact this will have on the industry in a few years might result in further unemployment and strife.

Those farmers who have been able to produce money-making crops are further curtailed by the restriction of movement. In Colombia, the challenge Matias* faces encapsulates the frustration many farmers around the world feel. “Because of the time restrictions imposed by quarantine, there have been problems transporting the coffee,” he said. “For example, sometimes the coffee is not dry enough, but because they only have permission for one day each week they have to transport even if it is not ready. This affected quality and price.”

Every splutter along the line decreases the likelihood of a positive return. Even before coronavirus, the fate of coffee farmers was not entirely in their own hands.

“There’s always an element of luck in agriculture,” Plaks said. “There has always been an issue with timing, and a delay of a few weeks here or there can be seriously damaging. Harvest seasons are contingent on the rainy seasons, but with climate change this is becoming erratic.”

Drought and closed coffee shops

In Latin America, where farmers are delaying their harvest, a severe drought has gripped the region. Recently, the World Food Programme appealed for international solidarity and funding to prevent widespread hunger. 

Across the world, Minh* in the Dak Lak province in Vietnam spoke for many: “We are not worried about Covid-19 as much as drought as there is no rain to date. We do not have enough water for irrigation. Some of my coffee trees have died.”

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Of course, the final stop on the production line has also been impacted. With coffee shops and cafes closed, what coffee there has been available has not landed in the takeaway cups served by your favourite barrister. Stockpiling has seen a dramatic bump in larger retailers’ sales: in the United States alone, coffee sales in supermarkets shot up 250% in the first few weeks of lockdown. But as Plaks points out, not every coffee farmer sells their coffee in the larger stores. Even if they do, the margins on coffee sold there is much lower than coffee sold in smaller shops.

So what can we as consumers do? This rather depressing story does not have a happy ending. Not yet. The most immediate, productive and simple response is to remain conscious that the shot of caffeine we so desperately need to kick-start our day has undergone a long and complicated journey to reach our lips. 

“It’s crucial that we all remain mindful of where the products we consume come from,” said Plaks. “Keeping that in your mind might change where you invest your money. Drinking a pound of coffee a month won’t change things on your own, but together we can make a difference.”

* Names have been changed to protect farmers’ identities

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