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Coffee Growers Gain Market Power

By Jennifer Hardy

Pablo Prayon's hands are knobby and ache sometimes. They're creased, worn, cracked and dry. Grit builds under his fingernails as he moves quickly to each bunch of ripe, red coffee berries. He's fortunate that his established coffee trees do not require backbreaking labor year-round, but now it's harvest season. And that means long days moving his fingertips as fast as his swollen knuckles will allow.

Filipino coffee farmer Isidra Prayon harvests beans

Filipino coffee farmer Isidra Prayon harvests beans that she will hull, dry and sort before selling to Nestlé and local roaster Kape Maramag. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

With his 80th birthday just around the corner, Pablo and his wife, Isidra, have spent a lifetime growing coffee in the Philippines. Now, Pablo's coffee harvest goes beyond providing for daily needs—it's helping his family invest in the future. Thanks to Catholic Relief Services, our local partners and generous funding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food for Progress program, Pablo's entire family is getting better prices for their coffee.

"Before, we sold to a local trader," says Pablo. "We didn't have a choice. We had to take the price he offered. That's how it's always been as long as I've grown coffee."

CRS has helped organize farmers into groups that can sell in bulk directly to corporations like Nestlé. And with training on how to dry coffee properly and sort it by quality, Isidra can sell a portion of the harvest for an even higher price to local nonprofit roaster Kape Maramag. CRS also provided Pablo's group with a machine that hulls coffee.

Market Knowledge Is Power

"The quality of what we sell to Nestlé is possible because of the huller provided by CRS," says Pablo. "With the huller, we can mill our own beans. Before, we were forced to sell to the trader because traders own the hullers, and Nestlé wanted to purchase hulled coffee. Now, we can process our own harvest and sell to the buyer we choose."

He adds, "I can sell [about 2 pounds] to the trader for [about $1.50]…or to Nestlé for [about $2.10]. It's my choice. I choose selling direct to the roaster."

Knowledge is power when it comes time to sell, which is why CRS has coordinated updates on current coffee prices. If a farmer needs quick cash and wants to immediately sell to a trader, he or she is equipped with knowledge about what coffee roasters are paying and can negotiate with the trader.

Nancy Ngujo, manager of local roaster Kape Maramag in the Philippines, sells fresh-roasted coffee processed on-site at the local bus station.

Nancy Ngujo, manager of local roaster Kape Maramag in the Philippines, sells fresh-roasted coffee processed on-site at the local bus station. The shop pays a premium price for women farmers' highest-quality harvest. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

Imelda Esteban, executive director of CRS partner KAANIB Foundation, Inc., which helped establish Kape Maramag, says, "We're happy to help coordinate this information, and we're also glad to pay farmers a premium for their best coffee for a local, fresh-brewed product."

Gourmet Coffee, Fresh From the Bus Station

As Esteban describes the Kape Maramag roasting operation, it's obvious how the project's support for farmers is changing people's expectations of what it means to be a coffee farmer.

"We are showing people what a modern coffee process is and the economic value of providing high-quality beans for the finest product," she says.

Esteban has to shout at different points while describing how Isidra brings coffee to sell to Kape Maramag. Her voice competes with the rattling engines of jeepneys, a form of public transportation in the Philippines, and buses that lack mufflers. But noise is a small sacrifice for the exposure fresh-roasted coffee gets at the main bus station.

"We wanted to have our roasting facility in a place where many people could see it," says Esteban. "What better place than the busiest transportation hub in town? Now, people can see a modern roaster—most have only ever seen coffee roasted in a pan over a fire, which is uneven and makes the drink bitter. As we teach people about coffee, they understand more of the process and will ask good questions when traders offer them an unfair price."

A Good Problem to Have

Esteban is an excellent spokeswoman for the freshly roasted, ground and packaged coffee prepared on-site. "We are so proud that our coffee tastes better, because it's a labor of love to help poor farmers. We don't help the rich farmers with many [acres] of land. We have the best coffee from farmers whose lives are improved dramatically by fair prices and better income."

Pablo and Isidra Prayon

Pablo and Isidra Prayon, lifelong coffee farmers on Mindanao, Philippines, recently purchased new land with the increased profits they earned by marketing a better product directly to coffee roasters. Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS

When asked about their sales to Nestlé and Kape Maramag, Pablo and Isidra agree. With their extra income, they've been able to make repairs to their home, and for the first time in many years, expand their farmland. They've just purchased [nearly 3½ acres] of land already planted with mature coffee trees, nearly doubling their existing holdings of [almost 5 acres].

The couple smiles as they joke about the extra workload, especially at harvest time. "It's a good problem to have," says Isidra.

Pablo laughs, resting a worn hand on Isidra's shoulder and squeezing her close. "We decided it was a gift for our golden anniversary," he says. "We just celebrated 50 years of marriage."

Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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