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Designing a Map of the Global Coffee Sector | Part 1

This piece is the first of a series by KIM ELENA IONESCU exploring the systems map developed as part of the SCA’s year-long Price Crisis Response (PCR) initiative. While this map is still a work in progress, one of the guiding principles of the PCR has been to seek input from diverse sources to challenge our thinking during the process of developing recommendations – not after its conclusion – and the graphic depiction of the system is powerful. Every draft prompts conversation and every conversation reveals new insights about how the coffee system works (and why it doesn’t); we believe this has the potential to be a great tool.

Called “a systems approach,” this way of thinking recognizes that relationships between individual parts of a system are complex and dynamic, as opposed to simple and static. This approach aims to bring about lasting change by altering underlying structures and supporting mechanisms which make the system operate in a particular way.

In our case, “the system” refers to the entire coffee sector, including not only the people directly involved in the value stream but also NGOs, allied industries, financial institutions, governments, service providers, and others who support the products of the system. For our purposes, coffee is the primary product (but it’s not the only one, as I’ll explain later), and the urgency to change the system is prompted by the coffee price crisis. This crisis is a symptom of the system’s inability to do what the businesses, organizations, and value chains of the coffee sector need in order to be viable – now and in the future. The inclusive interpretation of the coffee system is important, but it’s also intimidating in its vastness. The boundaries are vague and the relationships between its component parts are not always explicit, which is why mapping the system is a critical step in the quest to change it. This exercise results in a visual representation of the challenge – complete with players, relationships, flows of power, flows of assets, and knowledge centers – that enables us to identify the best leverage points for the change we want to affect.

The systems mapping workshop for the Price Crisis Response took place in Campinas, Brazil, in July of 2019, at our second Avance event. There, a group of seventy-five specialty coffee stakeholders assembled for two days to develop the map that would be the basis for the PCR’s interventions to shift the system. We chose to host the workshop immediately after the World Coffee Producers Forum, which took place in the same venue, in recognition of the critical mass of coffee system players from around the world who would attend that event. We wanted to “bring the system into the room,” in the parlance of our facilitator, Forum for the Future, with a particular focus on coffee producers. This was by design: Prior to July, the PCR had hosted two workshops in conjunction with events in the US and Europe that saw ample and enthusiastic participation from roasters, traders, retailers, certifiers, and NGOs, but scant participation of producers or producer organizations.

We began with a simple seed-to-cup diagram of the sort that many readers will be able to visualize from a training, a website, or a video that helped you learn about coffee at some point. Some contain six steps (farming, processing, export, import, roasting, brewing); other versions may differ slightly, but they will share some important features, like their orientation (they move in one direction, from seed to cup). In tables of 8-10 people, we were challenged to take this simple diagram and add (with markers) all the actors who are absent from the six pictured stages but nevertheless critical to the successful completion of the chain. Groups identified a multitude of absent actors, from farmworkers to banks, and it quickly became apparent to all of us that there were many more invisible roles than visible ones. Why, then, do we highlight the roles we do? In some cases, the absence spoke to a lack of power, as in the case of farmworkers. Conversely, banks don’t lack for power but are left out because the need for credit pervades the value chain.

The central column of our systems map draft is an expanded version of that simple diagram that includes the original stages and a few more that were universally recognized by Avance participants (the column in yellow on the right). While the stages are still generalized and not comprehensive, it adds complexity to the story, and it is arranged vertically to demonstrate that, like the roots of a tree, activities like coffee harvesting and processing feed the final product of the system. On the left: Names of the actors in the system that don’t appear in the chain but are critical to its current function. In the current map draft, we’ve drawn lines connecting them to one another, as well as stages in the chain, representing where they have influence.


After adding activities and people to our maps, our next task was to depict the relationships between them. To do this, we asked questions like: If the original diagram shows only how coffee moves from one point to another, how does money move? Sometimes payments for coffee are made in multiple installments – such as in the case of a cooperative distributing a post-export premium to a farmer member – and sometimes a single price, like the price of roasted coffee delivered to a retail shop, belies that it’s a compound of coffee, packaging, and shipping costs. Adding these flows of money to the diagram makes it clear just how much of it ends up outside of the linear value chain.

Another question that produced rich results was: How does information flow between actors in this now-expanded network? While following the money reveals how many roles are missing, charting flows of information adds context about the power that some actors possess in relation to others. We noted, for example, that coffee drinkers have access to an increasing amount of information about farmers – including their names and those of the communities where they live, the size of their farms, and varieties of coffee they grow – but that information is typically filtered through some combination of retailers, roasters, and importers, as opposed to obtained directly, and the equivalent information about individual coffee drinkers is not made available to farmers.

Soon it became obvious that the nodes of the network where money and information concentrate are powerful roles and warrant further exploration, which we’ll do in the next article in the series.

KIM ELENA IONESCU is the SCA’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Learn more about the Price Crisis Response.

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