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Global Coffee Platform’s collective mission

From the November 2018 issue.

Global Coffee Platform Executive Director Annette Pensel on how local action can transform into global change, and why the industry needs to think courageously.

On the day Annette Pensel was unanimously voted by board members to become the Executive Director of the member-based association Global Coffee Platform (GCP), she recalls feeling three things: energy, determination, and humility in view of the task at hand. “It was humbling and inspiring at the same time, and I still went out to celebrate that night,” Pensel says.

Since that memorable day in October 2016, Pensel’s daily diary is filled with strategic work and contact with GCP members, partners, and donors around the world, giving practical guidance on operational issues, and regular travel to North America and origin.

“It’s quite diverse and never boring,” Pensel says. “I fully understand that I have a huge responsibility in this leadership role I have here at GCP. It’s early days but I’m proud to have worked with a great team to build necessary foundations, and now there are a lot of opportunities and a strategic focus to bring in more roasters and attract more donors to accelerate activities in producing countries.

“Bringing different interests and agendas together and moving forward is not easy, but we’re on a journey together and I’m willing to play my role.”

Determined past and present
Pensel’s vision is a big one; some might say courageous. Her goal, and that of GCP and its members (producers, traders, roasters, retailers, governments, donors, and NGOs), is to enable the coffee sector to accelerate its sustainability journey through tackling local priorities in a systematic way via country platforms.

GCP was co-created by the Sustainable Coffee Program of IDH and the 4C association, of which Pensel was Deputy Director and Director of Innovations.

Throughout her career, Pensel lived and worked in Europe, Latin America and Africa and travelled intensely throughout Asia, particular Vietnam and Indonesia. She enjoyed learning about the business realities and needs of coffee roasters, traders, and particularly coffee producers. She also worked with different companies on corporate responsibility and sourcing strategies and programs. Pensel played a key role in designing and implementing an entry-level sustainability system called the 4C Code and Verification Scheme. This innovative concept was developed in response to the 2001/02 coffee crisis. It was rolled out throughout coffee supply chains in more than 25 producing countries to help farmers become more profitable and embrace sustainability practices.

“I’m very grateful to have had those experiences, to expand expertise, and understand what it means to have or not have opportunities as a farming family in rural areas – be it coffee or any other crop – and what is needed to be able to move forward.”

Prior to her origin adventures, Pensel worked in cocoa, sustainable tourism, and renewable energy industries where she specialised in public-private partnerships before coming back to coffee. Pensel’s track record of managing complex change and expertise in the coffee network made her the perfect candidate for the leadership position she now holds at GCP, and for the global coffee industry.

“It’s marvellous to be able to work in a sector that brings so much joy to consumers, but at the end of the day, it needs to bring joy and possibilities, and a better way of living to the many coffee farmers who are not currently experiencing that,” Pensel says.

That’s where sustainability comes in, she says, “the big word that means many different things to many different people”. There have been numerous sustainability investments in the coffee sector over the past decades – first came traditional development projects, then Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and other coffee standards. More recently, there’s a trend among companies defining their own sustainability requirements for their coffee supply chains. Now, Pensel says, sustainability has reached mainstream consciousness.

“We’re at a stage where more big and small companies recognise that sustainability is an integral part of doing coffee business in the future,” she says. “With increasing consumer expectations regarding sustainable coffee, especially among millennials, I believe the coffee industry should step up to be a good example to other agricultural sectors. But sustainability needs to be working for coffee farmers and workers alike, and then throughout the supply chain.”

GCP has big plans to make that happen with other organisations and initiatives in the coffee sector. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, as specified in Vision 2030 and the Sustainability Progress Framework and facilitated by the Sustainable Coffee Challange and GCP, have inspired this transformation to a sustainable coffee sector. Now, Pensel says, it’s time to become bold about the actions necessary to achieve this vision.

“I very much believe that top-down sustainability requirements will not change the game. Sustainability needs to be owned and embraced and worked towards as a journey from all sides of the sector,” Pensel says.

A key part of the plan is to bring public and private sectors together to align their vision and goals, and start working on priorities with clear benefits. This is what GCP supports in various coffee producing countries and at global level through its membership.

“Fundamental change to a sustainable coffee sector, and overcoming some of the pressing sustainability issues in our industry is quite complex. It requires time, trust, commitment, and eventually resources, otherwise it’s just a dream,” she says. “It is about going beyond known and experienced pathways and trying out new ways of collaboration through public-private partnerships.”

This is happening in Brazil, Vietnam, Uganda, and Indonesia, where local stakeholders are working together to enable smallholder farmers to benefit from locally developed national sustainability curricula and targeted investments addressing some of the issues.

Big Issues
Founded in 2016, GCP exists as an open, inclusive sustainability platform and catalyst. Its core purpose is to collaboratively address some of the “big issues” in producing countries that neither the private or public sector can handle alone.

Pensel lists issues such as climate change, working conditions, and gender inequality, but also the economic viability of coffee farming that is challenged by systemic factors such as ageing coffee trees and farmers, low productivity, lack of access to good planting material, inputs, services, and market access. Other persisting challenges in some countries include cases of slave and child labour. The solution to such complex challenges, however, requires experimentation of new, collaborative approaches.

Through GCP, members are able to learn and invest in sustainability initiatives that address these issues at a local level in collaboration with national coffee sustainability platforms and GCP networks in producing countries. Pensel explains that GCP works with the country platforms on their priorities and global topics, such as economic viability of farming and climate smart agriculture.

“Local ownership is important. Once basic tools and programs are in are place, stakeholders can start to measure where progress is happening and work on sustainability gaps together with our members in a more focused, fact-based way,” Pensel says.

“Using key data smartly, you can see what needs investment. It’s astonishing to see how little we actually know in some parts of our sector. Coffee is a multi-billion-dollar industry with so many people and lives involved who depend on coffee, but in certain parts we don’t know the basic facts. That’s why we need a better understanding of the scope of the issues, clarify responsibilities, and measure – to ensure that sustainability efforts actually bring change and impact on the lives of coffee communities and nature they have been designed for.”

Shared responsibility
Pensel says that while some countries have good model farms, others are lagging behind and need attention. In particular, smallholder producers need proper training of agricultural practices, new varietals, market access, and access to finance if they are to increase their productivity in a sustainable way.

To initiate change, GCP has been working with various producing countries in different ways, including Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In all countries, the first step is to bring coffee stakeholders together in public-private country platforms who define strategic priorities to advance their coffee sectors towards sustainability.

“Experience shows that several countries have benefitted from having jointly developed a national sustainability curriculum to articulate and own a common understanding of what sustainable coffee production means concretely, and how farmers can benefit,” Pensel says.

The application of these curricula through public and private extension services, and policy influencing, are aiding the process to improve a coffee farm’s business environment, or what Pensel calls “the business environment for sustainable coffee”.

The business environment is beyond farm gate, or beyond coffee farmers’ individual influence. It is determined by the existing or lacking structures, institutions, and service portfolio in a country. This includes coffee research, training, and extension services, access to adequate inputs and financial services, efficient markets, and political stability.

As such, GCP works with country platforms to create favorable business environments, and improve the effectiveness and impact of various sustainability investments.

“We see a lot of need to accelerate improvements in this direction so that coffee farmers can actually make progress, and that young producers see a future in profitable coffee production,” Pensel says. “Only then can we have a virtuous circle instead of a vicious circle.”
Right now, Pensel says this not the case in several producing countries.

Local Action
One such example is Brazil. Some view the world’s largest producer as a very professional producing country, but Pensel says many smallholder farmers still face restricted access to information and knowledge to advance their economic sustainability. 

To address this, the Brazilian Coffee Platform has brought together public and private stakeholders to develop a National Sustainability Curriculum (NCS), which has been rolled out with thousands of Brazilian farmers through existing extension structures. Public extension services in Brazil’s five major coffee producing states have an annual budget of US$70 million, and have started to incorporate the NCS into their training outreach. Similar steps have been done in other countries, including Vietnam, Uganda, and Indonesia.

In July, GCP took part in the official launch of Kenya’s first public-private supported National Coffee Platform. While known for its good quality coffee, Kenyan production has decreased in past years. The common interest of the stakeholders is to halt this decrease and reverse it so that Kenya can produce more coffee sustainably going forward.

To address the situation, the National Coffee Platform has undertaken a study on the economic viability of coffee, which brought up recommendations for policy change, for example, regarding coffee cooperatives. 

Additionally, GCP’s Kenyan partners have developed a NCS for coffee production, which is now being rolled out.

To identify sustainability gaps and action change with GCP members and partners, the Brazilian Coffee Platform defined sustainability indicators that help measure the adoption of sustainability practices on farms. An app for mobile phones was developed and is already in use, with the first results presented at the Global Coffee Sustainability Conference 2018 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil from 8 to 10 November.

Pensel says GCP helps to address sustainability issues and gaps in a structural way, with co-investments from members, but there are also immediate concerns regarding the current coffee price.

“Right now, with the market that much down, it’s not sustainable,” Pensel says. “If coffee farmers cannot even cover their costs of production, they can’t afford to pay workers well, or protect the environment. Poverty is contradicting the sustainability vision we are striving for.”

Pensel adds another of the reasons why farmers are not getting enough money next to productivity challenges or global market price is an inefficient supply chain. Some of the Coffee Platforms are already looking into those aspects.

Collaborative future
After 15 years in the coffee industry, Pensel has learned how to listen, collaborate, and work with many different opinions on what’s best for the industry. While conflicting views are “a normal part of healthy collaboration”, it’s time to channel those opposing voices to have “courageous discussions”, act, and scale what works.

“At the end of the day coffee is the connector. The coffee business needs to be working in economic terms for coffee farmers and workers, and the rest of the supply chain. Only then will better environmental and social performance be feasible at scale,” Pensel says.

“For sustainability to work, everybody in the coffee chain must benefit so we can make our sector fit for the next generations of coffee producers and consumers.”

All members of the supply chain are encouraged to join the GCP as a member and demonstrate co-responsibility for the future of coffee. To join, visit www.globalcoffeeplatform.org

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