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World Coffee Research

One of the most interesting interviews I did with people from organizations I got to know better at the World of Coffee in Dublin was with the World Coffee Research.



About them:


Mission: Grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.


Strategy: “All of our projects are designed to enhance the livelihoods of the producers who are the stewards of both quality and productivity. If we lose them, we lose the game and future of the industry”.


Vision: To create a toolbox of coffee varieties, genetic resources and accompanying technologies and to disseminate them strategically and collaboratively in producing countries to alleviate constraints to the supply chain of high quality coffee.


Impact: Trials and projects in 21 countries       


Interview (with Hanna Neuschwander, Communications Director):


What is the status of the WCR?

It is a nonprofit, global, collaborative research institute.


How did it start?

Our current CEO, Dr. Timothy Schilling, ran two big USAID programs in Rwanda (the PEARL and SPREAD projects) and since he is a scientist (a breeder), it became clear to him that coffee did not benefit from the kinds of advanced agricultural research that other some other commodities crops do; it was under-researched. He gave a talk at the RECO Symposium in 2010, at the SCAA association annual meeting, and people realized it was a big problem. A group of people got together (roasters, manufacturers and importers), and decided to pool some funding to raise 450,000 dollars to get a program up and running With those start-up funds, WCR began working in 2012.

Tim became the CEO and since then we have grown to have 11 people staffing our projects, and many more collaborators. We are industry-funded (50% of funding) and now we are reaching a much broader scope than only the specialty industry.


How do farmers have access to learn and implement what was developed through the research?

It depends on the Country. Some countries have very developed Research Institutes and farmers can go there to get access to new varieties, training and agronomic support, and information on how to improve their crops, and generally we try to work closely with the national coffee organizations and local research institutes. But some other countries don’t have those kind of centralized services or supports for farmers. If that is the case in a place where we are working, we might partner with exporters, NGOs, or others working on the ground with producers to help them access our work.


About the Breeding Program, how does the access to better planting materials work for farmers?

It’s challenging because there is no single way that coffee plants get out on the field for coffee farmers, it is very different depending on the country. Many countries have governmental institutions involved in coffee research and they can potentially bring a new variety to farmers, but sometimes it can be more challenging than that. Even when there are good supports, many coffee farmers still either propagate their own seeds, or get them from neighbors or other informal sources. This poses a major challenge because many farmers don’t really know what varieties they have and whether there are key things they could or should do differently to maximize the performance of those varieties. It also makes it harder to get new, improved varieties into farmers’ hands.


What about coffee certifiers; is there any connection with them in order to implement trainings (on best practices) or requirements based on your research?

We don’t have any formal relationships with certifiers at the moment. But it could happen in the future. For example, we have a big project to install demonstration trial plots on over 800 farmer fields around the world and evaluate whether improved varieties and soil treatments can improve profitability for farmers. It’s easy to imagine a certifier as a partner in that project. In general, though, WCR makes its research findings openly available for anyone to access.


What do you consider its the most important to solve the huge gap in the value chain between farmers and actors in the producing countries and roasters or importers?

Well, as an organization we would say research is the missing link, there are many NGOs out there working on the issues of labor, or environmental sustainability, or financial transparency, but there is an incredible lack of research about the actual plant and its role. Genetic material hasn’t changed in decades but conditions have, such as climate change.


What about the problems with gender equality and youth, although it’s not the focus of the organization do you partner up with other development institutions to combine that to your approach?

It’s easy to see why young people leave coffee. For many farmers it’s not profitable beyond a subsistence level. But doing research and creating better plants can improve outcomes for farmers and make farming a more attractive option for young people. Some of newer varieties have the potential to increase yields by 50%, and are resistant to disease, without loosing quality compared to traditional varieties. But that’s not enough. We need drought tolerance. We need more resilient plants. And still there are a lot of questions that remain to be answered: What are the tradeoffs? Yield goes up, but at what cost? How does a farmer evaluate these things? What is the right kind of plant for the kind of farmer you are?


Cool right? Their approach is completely different from all the other development projects I have seen before and aims to benefit the entire industry. 



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