Building Coffee Supply Chains

Estelle MacGilp, Green Coffee Buyer

I imagine very few of us stop and consider how far the beans in our delicious cup of coffee have travelled or how many hours of work have been involved throughout the supply chain to ensure these beans make the best cup of coffee possible. These beans which are predominantly grown between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn may have travelled thousands of miles and depending on the supply chain they may have passed through several owners, each contributing to the delivery of the perfect cup of coffee.

So how do we decide where to source these tasty little beans from, and by what means?

This is where we call on the experience and expertise of all those involved in the coffee supply chain from the grower to the processor, to the exporter, to the importer and finally (in our case at least) the roaster.

There is no such thing as a ‘perfect supply chain’, every business has to adapt their sourcing to meet their own strategy and focus on their own model to ensure that they can be confident in what they offer. Whether buying directly from the producer, via importers or a combination of both the important part is to have a mutual understanding of each other’s requirements and to select partners who are willing to work together, sharing their overall aims and objectives. All stakeholders need to constantly review their exiting supply chains, seek to understand the markets others operate in, and look for ways to improve and develop these.

Whether buying a few bags as a speciality micro-lot or buying a full container of commercial-grade coffee, the supply chains will inevitably be different, and a one size fits all approach will not work. It is therefore imperative to be able to adapt accordingly. For some the best way to buy maybe going direct to the farmer, for others it may be to work with importers. However, choosing to work with importers doesn’t need to stop the buyer from creating a direct relationship with the producer but instead it can enhance this relationship through the sharing of information and knowledge.

How to develop and maintain these relationships?

Firstly, we need to understand what is important to each member of the supply chain. Coffee is a cyclical crop and significantly affected by weather which in turn leads to fluctuations in coffee prices as the supply and demand sits finely balanced in one of the most traded commodities in the world. For many producers receiving regular forward orders from buyers, sometimes over a year in advance helps them manage cash flow early on in their harvest and are therefore invaluable.

For roasters, maintaining a constant supply and consistent quality whilst minimising sharp increases in prices is also key. For those that sit in between, such as the exporters and importers, they will need to manage the expectations of both producers and buyers through regular contact and where possible connecting the supply chain members.

Like a marriage, it is important to be there for each other during the more difficult times as well as celebrating the good times and not to swap and change suppliers without looking to work through difficulties together.

Technological advancements have without doubt assisted the flow of information throughout the channels and can also help to bring the coffee supply chain to life. Sharing of films, stories, and photos, for example through social media is becoming more and more popular and a great way to educate others. However, we must not forget the value of face-to-face meetings. And beyond face-to-face meetings, although not always possible, the value of taking the time to meet partners at their own place of work.

As a coffee buyer, arguably one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is to stand in a coffee field meeting the farmers themselves. This is a valuable moment to share the passion for the product we’re all involved in and spend so many hours of our lives talking about and fully appreciate the time, care and attention given to this product by these farmers from the very moment the seed is planted.

And finally...

Like any strong relationship, it doesn’t form overnight but gradually builds overtime with trust and understanding of each other’s roles and how they play a part in the process. Roasters are not expert coffee growers and farmers are not typically expert roasters but through a genuine willingness to learn from each other’s expertise and understand each other’s goals both can work together to maximise the value along every step of the supply chain.

We should be mindful that there is always room for improvement and be open minded, be open to change and ready to adapt and learn from past experiences, whether good or bad. It is important to be as transparent as possible and willing to share with others. We must remember price is just one factor in the coffee supply chain and there are so many other ways to add value which we must be careful not to overlook in our busy day to day lives. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Cynics know the price of everything, and the value of nothing”.

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About Estelle MacGilp

Green Coffee Buyer at Matthew Algie

Estelle sources and selects all of our amazing coffees. She is a certified Q-grader with more than 20 years of experience in coffee sourcing. She has cupped thousands of coffees from all over the world and enjoyed many a trip to origin.

Estelle understands the full supply chain: the importance of each and every step along the way, and what this brings to the final cup. There isn't much Estelle doesn't know or love about coffee!