Southland Merchant has a mission with multiple layers. On the one hand, they supply Australia’s coffee market with high-quality speciality coffee from Brazil. On the other hand, they are involved in a unique venture that is exciting for all layers, from the growers to the end-consumer.
From the moment Nadia and Andre became involved in the coffee market, they noticed the inequality between growers and all parties past the farmers. The hardest working, i.e., the growers, benefited the least from the process for multifaceted reasons. Lack of education on how to run a successful business and a poor channel of communication within the supply chain exposed the growers to exploitation and a peripheral existence with hardly any understanding of the standard of their product in the global and sometimes local market.
“From the moment we started our business, our goal was to improve the communication channels for the growers. We genuinely believe, by giving them a voice, we empower them on multiple levels. Not only do we gain a better understanding of their needs, but we benefit from a better product,” says Nadia.
“Throughout history, it has been evident that the producer has to work the hardest and receives the least in return. This issue is not only concerning money. By acknowledging their importance, we give them the deserved power and motivation they need to thrive.”
Andre adds: “We always had a dream of creating something innovative and unique in the industry. Having an approach that strongly aligned with our values of transparency, sustainability, traceability, excellence and reliability is our mission as individuals on this planet. Watching how the industry was operating, we could see how detrimental it was to growers for the lack of connectedness with the markets they were supplying to, as well as for the roasters who could not sometimes understand the challenges and potentials back in the origin.”
“So, I guess it was natural for us to figure out the means to linking growers with roasters to assist in changing the reality and helping both ends to thrive. We were to make this sustainable connection.”
Digging deeper, it became increasingly apparent that growers lacked the understanding of the importance of direct feedback. Rather than seeking information to guide and change their farming approach, the growers relied on their skills and traditions passed on from their ancestors without questioning the status quo. As a result, they hardly ever tried to alter, adjust and improve their farming style. Nowadays, this is changing, and their ambition to improve is constantly increasing.
“We believe the path is created and ready to be explored. We are all on this learning curve together, and we keep tweaking the process to make it more efficient and transparent. The openness and the transparency we apply to how we go about our approach has already proven how beneficial this could be for growers, roasters, and end consumers,” concludes Andre.
As Nadia and Andre applied their method to collaborate with farmers, rather than just sourcing, they can already witness promising outcomes.
“We have been working with Gil from Espigao farm for three years. We repeatedly share the roasters’ feedback as a guide to improving his coffee. The results are incredible. Every year he delivers a better product which we also remunerate with bonuses,” explains Nadia.
“We also witnessed much progress with Leda from Roseira Farm, with whom we have been working for three years, too. Before our involvement, Leda never exported her coffee. She used the neighbour’s farm facilities to process her coffee because she could not afford to build her processing mill. Today, thanks to our commitment and feedback, she not only owns a processing mill but also acquired a “cherry cleaner” in collaboration with another partner farm we connected her to.”
Seeing these positive results and how Nadia and Andre make a meaningful change in an unbalanced market, where the farmer often misses out on the benefits, is a gratifying and fulfilling exercise. But it is not always as straightforward as they wished.
As Nadia points out, it takes time to reach a level of trust to understand the individual growers’ struggles and what they are not capable of.
“The coffee industry is notorious for unfair exploitation. Crossing the first barrier is a tough job and only achievable through building mutual trust.”
“We practise a frank and transparent trading style, which has helped build the level of trust farmers needed to start sharing snippets of their needs. When we eventually opened up about our desire to cooperate with them, and we showed them our financial commitment, they realised we were serious about creating something unique in the coffee industry.”
“From the moment we started working with the farmers, they were very engaged and showed a deep craving for cooperation. They trust our advice and guidance. But getting to this level does not happen overnight. Through engagement and observation over the last four years, we have become part of their culture and fully understand the reality of Brazil. We ask the right questions, show empathy and genuine interest to help and make a difference in their lives.”
Andre adds: “Most important is to point out how far we have come. The open relationship and legitimate interest to see the growers thrive and to focus on all parties involved have made this sensitive topic look much less daunting to the growers or us.”
And as Nadia and Andre emphasise, seeing the positive results for the growers through to the end consumer, the hard work, effort and the many challenges are all worth the effort.