If companies really want to make a difference in the developing world, it’s time to go beyond fair trade and get involved with farmers directly.

When commodity markets crash, smallholder farmers suffer. This is why British consumers participated in Fairtrade fortnight recently, recognising the work the Foundation has done to protect vulnerable groups of farmers and ensure they receive a fair price irrespective of how low the markets may fall.

But is the fair trade model the grandest of them all?

While the benefits are strong, allowing farmers’ co-operatives to attain higher prices and retain access to markets, drawbacks do exist. For example, the minimum price is only guaranteed to the co-operative, and not the small-scale farmer, or their workers at the end of the chain. Prices are fixed without adapting to country context, and costs are often high for producer organisations to become Fairtrade certified. And with coffee, roasters can end up bearing the cost of marketing the Fairtrade brand, through the payment of a licence fee to Fairtrade Foundation as a percentage of sales.

So is a cafe that serves Fairtrade coffee simply asserting they pay producers minimum wage?

Over the last 10 years, artisan coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia and CounterCulture in the USA, and Union in the UK, have pioneered direct trade as an alternative trading model. Ongoing market growth has been increasingly driven by higher quality coffee – so it has been within our interest to engage with farmers able to grow this high quality crop directly and build sustainable, long-term relationships. Prices can be personally agreed that cover the cost of production, and have an additional premium for high quality, with no additional cost to the farmer for certification.

While fair trade promotes ‘protection’ of farmers, direct trade offers ‘aspiration’. The fixed price a farmer receives from Fairtrade will not be affected by the quality produced, so farmers are not incentivised to take on the extra labour and input costs needed to grow a better crop. Quality-centric direct trade, however, allows for bespoke pricing agreements and collaboration in the field. A farmer that may be based in a region with outstanding climatic and topographical attributes for producing coffee, could, through a direct trading approach, become enabled to grow a greatly superior crop, and earn more money as a result.

An added benefit of working directly with farmers is the ability to spot the needs that arise within a community that would improve farming practices, and subsequently the quality of a crop.

Pro-active support in agricultural services for members of Esquipulas Co-operative in Guatemala. Demonstrating building a living wall "barrier vivo" to retard soil errosion on steep terrace.

An artisan company such as Union is driven by providing our customers in the UK with high quality coffee. So if we are able to invest our money in a centralised coffee washing station in Rwanda, or on workshop training in Guatemala that will train farmers to evaluate their coffees and not just to remove defects but to select for complex sensory attributes, it benefits business as we are constantly able to raise the standards of our coffee, and simultaneously improves the livelihoods of the farmers as their incomes increase.

Direct trade is not without its challenges. Not only is it another confusing term for consumers, particularly as there is no definition so the term can be freely (mis)used. To take up an authentic programme of direct trade takes a significant commitment from the buyer which requires building trust over a long period of time, and costs can be intensive. The obligation to improving quality needs to be at the heart of the organisation.

The overall objective of direct trade is to eliminate the power imbalances that exist in traditional supply chains. Poor information exchange on quality requirements can lead to farmers getting a lower price than they deserve – this builds distrust towards intermediaries in the supply chain and can induce farmers to tamper with the sacks or to augment weight. To counter this, direct trade is an approach taken to build mutually beneficial and respectful relationships between businesses and producers, by fairly distributing benefits and involving producers in decision making processes.

Interviewing farmers to gather information for our Monitoring and Evaluation study by our academic researcher in origin Pascale.

Above all, buyer and producer work together long-term, to produce a high quality coffee, and the farmer is paid a price linked to the quality of their crop. Just as no business would brag it pays minimum wage – so should any industry reliant on commodities be striving to pay their producers in the developing world above minimum requirements, to incentivise innovation, and improvements in quality. It can only result in a better wage for the farmer and a better coffee for consumers at home.

This blog appears on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.

Most commuters couldn’t claim their station coffee was ‘worth the wait’, however at Queenstown Road in Battersea, London, Coffee Affair believe theirs is. Check into the old waiting room to see for yourself, or read on.

  1. What do you love most about your job?The challenge and the social aspect.The more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to know! Coffee is a vast subject which may not be appreciated at the beginning. The chemistry and physics involved in the processing and brewing methods provides challenges and rewards alike. It’s good to be continually tested mentally!Socially, the shop is in a very diverse area not always obvious at first sight. Our customers include classical guitar makers, stone masons, travel writers, designers, architects, location & film crews, many businesses hidden under the railway arches. There is always an interesting discussion to be had or something new to learn.  We love it when customers get to know each other and  have a natter. It’s a great feeling of community.
  2. And loathe the most?!Unfortunately, being in a Railway Station people can be very edgy when they have a train to catch, even when there’s another one 5 minutes later. You are doing your best to craft a little masterpiece in a cup whilst some pace up & down looking at their watch! Another challenge is the amount of queries we get from non customers who march into the shop demanding their travel enquiries be answered!
  3. Time in the industry, and why coffee?Six and a half years. We fell into coffee. Leaving the office environment behind, we set about a plan including coffee and this unloved local Grade II listed station. We started the adventure together when previous work contracts were completed. I thought a year break and I’ll return to my career….but coffee slowly took over and we’ve upgraded from a Piaggio Ape in the freezing ticket hall  to a cosy coffee shop in the old ticket office.
  4. Favourite coffee?It’s not the most exciting answer perhaps, but we love our espresso blend Organic Natural Spirit made of Mexican (Chiapas Highlands), Peruvian (San Ignacio)and Ethiopian (Yirgacheffe) beans. The blend can produce the most wonderful rich espresso with a sweet lemon front, which develops into bitter sweet chocolate. Most recently in terms of drip coffee, we really love a Kenyan we had  from the Karatina Mill.
  5. You’re in a very competitive area, how do you attract customers, and then retain them – with the lure of the high street chains ever present?We don’t compete with the high street. We are two stops from Waterloo and one stop from Clapham Junction…which are full of the chains. It would be foolish to compete with a product which is so different from ours. The ingredients and attention to detail going into each cup means our customers appreciate the time it takes to create. Most of our customers are regulars, some who have been with us since the Piaggio days. It’s a nice feeling to ask for ‘my usual please’ and know it will be carefully prepared. For those who don’t care about the difference between the Speciality Coffee Industry and the chains, we can try to engage with them and hope the coffee does the rest. Luckily enough, there are many who do care and given half the chance we will chat coffee as long as they are interested!
  6. Biggest business challenge at the moment?Being able to price the product appropriately in a very competitive market, where people often don’t fully appreciate the spectrum of costs involved. To achieve a move away from price focus to quality focus and change the notion that being a barista is just a job rather than a profession is a challenge.  For people whose passion in coffee leads them to a career choice, there needs to be sufficient reward financially for this to be a possible option.
  7. Who is your most famous customer? OR who would you most love to serve?With Battersea Park and Battersea Power Station around the corner being used as film locations, we have had a few famous faces coming in for coffee. Michael swears Meryl Streep walked past during the filming of Iron Lady, but if it was her, she passed us by!
  8. Filter or espresso? – And why?!We really enjoy a fruity, lush and well balanced citrus filter in summer, but in winter I go for espresso with its’ rich full mouth feel.
  9. Is there a particular coffee which sells better than others?In terms of drip coffee, we found Central American coffees such as El Dimante, Huehuetenango, Guatemala and Hacienda La Esperanza, Boquete, Panama received great feedback. We have tried other espresso beans, but none get such enthusiastic feedback as Organic Natural Spirit.
  10. What slogan / strapline would be on your advertising campaign?We don’t advertise and in an ideal world we would prefer word of mouth – a more organic journey to growth. Given the newish setup only time will tell if this works, but in the meantime some signage may not be a bad idea with a strap line of ‘worth the wait’!

With the chance of crisp, chilly days still a threat, grab your last chance to enjoy our Winter blend. This medium to full-bodied, harmoniously layered blend is the perfect solution to melt away the last of the winter blues with aromas of plum and candied orange peel, and a lingering vanilla and butterscotch finish.

The elegant sweetness of Liberación from Guatemala is underpinned by the sparkling, citrus acidity provided by Ethiopian Homacho Waeno and complimented by essences of candied fruit from Sumatra’s Gajah Mountain. To finish there’s a creamy butterscotch toffee aftertaste, courtesy of the Bello Horizonte Natural from El Salvador.

How to serve

As an espresso: it’s full and rich and this brewing method will show off the fruity plumlike notes, sweet zesty orange with a nice vanilla butterscotch finish.

With milk: as a flat white or latte, it’s at its best as a small serve of 6-8 ounces to retain the notes.


Enjoy it with


orange gingerbread with cream cheese frosting

Discover the beans

Bello Horizonte, El Salvador

Papaya lemon herbal apple and wine sweet toffee

Varietal – bourbon

Process – natural, sun-dried


Gajah Mountain, Sumatra

Plum, blackberry and sweet candied fruits and a deep rich body

Varietal – typica, bourbon, tim tim

Process – sun-dried


Liberación, Guatemala

refreshingly fruity with notes of floral jasmine

Varietal – bourbon, pache, typica, catuai

Process – washed, sun-dried


Homacho Waeno, Ethiopia

sparkling sweet citrus acidity medium body with a lingering honeyed aftertaste

Varietal – mixed heirloom

Process – washed, sun-dried


Winter Birdhouse photo from Tom Bee’s photostream under a Creative Commons licence

Depending on where the coffee is grown, and what equipment the producers have available, post-harvest processing can be tackled in different ways. The co-operatives we work with have invested in micromills to allow them to control the processing and influence the quality.  Considerations that affect their choice of processing include the cost of the infrastructure, availability of water, and the volume of coffee they need to handle through the machinery. Pascale reports on the systems she’s seen in operation at some of the farms we work with.


A micromill can be as small and compact as this one, located at Beneficio don Sergio. This machine depulps the coffee, and removes the fleshy layer so that coffee is ready to be dried in the sun on raised  or “African” drying beds.  

The mill allows producers to process three types of coffee; red honey, yellow honey and “fully washed” (meaning that it’s what is called machine-assisted wet processing.)  Each type is determined by the amount of pulp retained on the bean. The greater the amount of  pulp that is left, dries to a leave red sticky coating on the surface of the bean – it looks like Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. Having their own micromill means that the producers retain quality control and can craft their coffee to create what specialty roasters want. 

This is what the inside of the micromill looks like. It contains a a pulping machine which removes the skin of the fruit and a demucilage machine. After removing the skin, this depulper takes off as much of the fruity mucilage layer as required. Removing mucilage by machine is easier and more predictable than removing it by fermenting and washing.  Low-water useage machines make the process less water intensive and more environmental friendly.

Fermentation is not used to separate the bean from the remainder of the pulp (as in done in for example washed coffees in Guatemala); rather, this is done through mechanical scrubbing. After removing the mucilage the coffee is ready to be dried.

Dry Mills

This is an example of a dry mill. Once beans are dried, it is called “parchment” coffee. To process parchment into the green beans ready for roasting, all of the layers need to be removed from the beans (this process is called hulling). Occasionally, beans may be polished in a machine designed to remove that last little bit of silver skin.

Beans are then graded and sorted, first by size, then by density. Beans are sorted by hand and mechanically as they pass by on a conveyor belt or by an air jet that separates lighter (inferior) beans from heavier ones. There are also machines with an infrared eye that detect the colour of the bean, separating inferior black beans. Union buys only Specialty grade quality beans. Secondary quality coffee might go to commodity or national markets. When producers process the beans themselves, they can monitor and craft the quality and don’t have to worry about inferior beans from other  outside farms being added to their production.

Wet Mills

This is a depulper at Don Cesar de Leon’s mill in La Libertad, Guatemala. Coffee must be depulped to remove the skin and fruit surrounding the bean. Some producers use motorized depulpers where others need to depulp by hand. When the skin is removed, unwashed parchment coffee goes through a sieve to separate beans that are not depulped correctly or have another defect. These cherries are collected in the blue basket.

Coffee needs to be processed the same day that’s it’s picked. Pickers can work from around 6:00am until 4:00pm, then have to start the processing if there isn’t enough labour. If there is a lot of coffee, this means that there is work until late at night! After depulping, the beans are fermented in a fermentation tank. The fermentation process should be watched carefully but usually takes around 24 hours depending upon weather conditions.

The mucilaginous pulp is removed by a fermentation stage that breaks down the mucilage by enzymatic activity to produce beans which have a rough surface. Care needs to be taken to control the correct length of time for this stage which  is determined mostly by environmental temperature; too long leads to over-fermentation and negative attributes in the cup. After fermentation beans are washed in clean water to produce “squeaky clean” parchment coffee; rubbing a handful of beans together creates a squeaky sound because all the  slimy mucilage has been removed.  After that the coffee is washed in these troughs, called correteos.

Manual depulping

The red and yellow coffee cherry skins you see here are dried to be used as organic fertilizer for coffee plants or garden crops. The blue basket contains undried parchment that still needs to be fermented and washed to remove the honey. Manual depulpers like this, process much less volume per day than the mechanical machines that have a motor or dynamo.

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