Rethinking Sustainable Coffee Supply Chains: A Conversation with Konrad Brits, Founder and CEO of Falcon Coffees

June 11, 2019
We sit down with Konrad Brits, founder and CEO of Falcon Coffees, to explore the seemingly inexorable trends of sustainability, traceability, and transparency in the green coffee supply chain.

We recently sat down with Konrad Brits, founder and CEO of Falcon Coffees, to gain some insight into the current and future state of sustainability in coffee and what Falcon is focused on.

Brown Brothers Harriman: On the surface, green coffee trading seems like a simple business model. You source beans from farms at origin and deliver to roasters in consuming countries. However, you’ve quoted Falcon Coffees’ purpose as a business that “profits from sustainability.” What does that mean to you, and how has it changed the way Falcon participates in the green coffee supply chain?

Konrad Brits: I started Falcon Coffees in 2008 with the view to build a company with a dual purpose – to be for-profit but also have positive socioeconomic impact. This has in recent years been extended to include an environmental component in the face of the rising climate crisis. After nearly three decades working in coffee supply chains, some basic truths and realizations have shaped Falcon’s business model into what it is today.

First, by and large, coffee farmers are incredibly vulnerable socioeconomically, while coffee roasters and distributors are far more robust financially. Coffee producers lack access to resources such as credit, education and healthcare. The obvious conclusion is that when the people producing the key raw material to a particular industry are under threat, the entire industry shares that threat. This is why sustainability is such a big conversation in coffee today.

The green coffee trade, which operates in the middle between farmers and roasters, is on the front line. The primary responsibility of coffee roasters and the green trade is to ensure that all stakeholders in coffee supply chains are economically viable. It is only after achieving economic equilibrium through shared value that we can leverage the social and environmental standards required to build a sustainable future.

The second realization is the idea that when you look at the coffee supply chain, the only two participants that add any intrinsic value are the farmers who produce the coffee and the roasters and retailers who ultimately generate the revenue that pays for the entire supply chain. When you look at it that way, the rest of us – from the exporters to importers, bankers to brokers, traders to transporters – all exist purely to facilitate this relationship between the farmers and roasters. It’s the idea of service provision. Services normally come at a fee charged. So, rather than follow the traditional trading model of buy low, sell high (for a hidden margin), we prefer to declare our margin as a service fee. Our clients should feel that the fees we charge are justified by the value we bring to their supply chains.

We have had a very positive response to operating transparently. There is a growing demand in the market for traceability back to individual farm households. You must know who the people are at each stage of the supply chain. Traceability is the first building block in any sustainable initiative. Without traceability, there can be no credible initiative to transfer value or create access to markets and resources.

Traceability has led to economic transparency. A growing number of our clients want to understand who was paid how much by whom in each supply chain. This demand for transparency data is usually requested in conjunction with a third-party certification or verification. The market for commodity-grade coffee is waning, as it does not speak to the rising trend of responsible sourcing.

Falcon’s early adoption of traceability, economic transparency and a culture built on open collaboration has benefited us strategically as the market has moved in our direction.

BBH: Taking a step back, why are coffee-producing countries disadvantaged? Can you name a few origins where the environment is particularly challenging for farmers and why?

KB: If you look at coffee-producing countries, they are often characterized by one of four poverty traps, which make it difficult and expensive to operate, particularly in the agricultural sector. These origins are often subject to bad governance, are landlocked countries surrounded by poor neighbors, suffer the mineral wealth trap, often causing civil unrest, or are in a post-conflict situation. This creates an environment where the cost of doing business is substantially higher due to lack of infrastructure and a high cost of capital. More specifically, if you look at the socioeconomic profile of farmers, they often don’t have land title or assets to leverage, so they are not creditworthy under the traditional due diligence performed by lenders.

Over the past 70 years, the large multinationals that dominate coffee and other agricultural supply chains brought the working capital into those countries to enable the flow of export commodities. Because the coffee itself was the only collateral, supply chains were built to protect this investment. The result is a supply chain built to take control of the collateral as early as possible in the life cycle of the product. On the other hand, farmers are under pressure to sell their crop swiftly, as it is their primary source of income. The impact is that most farmers liquidate their crop as fruit or partially processed beans, denying them the ability to participate in the highest value of their crop, which is coffee at the point of export. Access to affordable credit remains poorly structured and expensive for most coffee farmers.

Capital is a coward. Compare the profile of farmers in Brazil to those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In one, there is a highly developed agri-economy that has invested in increased yield, quality and cost efficiency, benefiting from strong research and development and a supportive government. In the other, ongoing conflict, high levels of institutional corruption and punitive export taxes have collapsed production to 10% of what it was 40 years ago. Coffee is smuggled in the dead of night in dugout canoes to neighboring Rwanda, where stability has brought the investment and working capital to support its coffee industry.

BBH: You talked about the importance of traceability. What are you doing at Falcon to plan ahead and operate in an environment where this is the new norm?

KB: It’s a pivotal moment in the sustainability conversation in coffee. There’s a current trend that I refer to as sustainability drift. That is an adoption by some retail brands of third-party certifications and seals as their total commitment to the sustainability challenge. While these seals provide a valuable set of standards and offer a degree of brand protection, they are not the silver bullet to sustainability. This sustainability drift removes the energy, momentum and investment out of fixing some of the enormous problems at origin, such as climate change, gender inequity and aging farming populations.

However, the move to traceability is reinvigorating innovation in the supply chain by companies like Falcon. That’s the service we provide and the value we add. We have an increasing number of clients demanding 100% traceability in conjunction with the certifications they support.

This is a vital next step in the sustainability journey. Current supply chain audit methodology applies a square root system. As an example, if you have 900 farmers in a single supply chain applying for a certification seal, the auditors will audit 30 farms out of the 900 and then apply that standard to all 900. This does not satisfy the demand for 100% traceability to household level.

The growing demand for this amount of granular data requires us to be far more sophisticated in our approach to collecting the data. As an industry, we’re turning toward digital innovation – the nascent technologies out there that enable us to capture data in an immutable, affordable way in real time. We’re just at the beginning of that journey, but there is significant momentum behind it. I said to someone recently that I don’t feel pressure to win the digital race, but I do recognize it is strategically imperative to be investing in it. We don’t need to be first to market, but we have to be able to meet and match our contemporaries both now and in the future.

These are the things that have come together and made it easy to connect the threat to the future supply of coffee - the humanitarian and environnmental crisis caught and expressed in all that imagery and simplicity. There's this window of opportunity for coffee to lead the way in changing the behavorial culture of agricultural supply chains.

BBH: Why do you think coffee has been an early adopter of this transparent supply chain?

KB: The retail side of the coffee industry continues to thrive and is looking east toward decades of future growth. The vulnerability on the production side of coffee raises the very real question, “Where will the raw material come from to feed the roasters of tomorrow if we are to capitalize on this opportunity?”

This has moved the sustainability conversation from social justice and “doing the right thing” to self- interest – our future survival and profitability as an industry.

This represents a major paradigm shift in the sustainability conversation in coffee. Altruism, caring for the welfare of others, has become critical to business – to the bottom line. As an industry, we are arriving at the conclusion that to secure our future, we have to invest in the welfare and resilience of the millions of smallholder communities that grow most of our coffee.

The size and complexity of this challenge is staggering. Poverty and climate crisis lead to a host of threats, including gender inequality, illiteracy, poor governance, conflict, land degradation, deforestation and an aging farming population. To combat these challenges will require that we empower farmers with a host of tools, such as affordable credit, price risk management, agronomy training for climate change mitigation, financial literacy and so forth.

To deploy these resources effectively, we first need to find everyone, every single farmer. We have to reach the people behind the coffee. The current certification square root audit methodology cannot undertake this task. It wasn’t built for that purpose.

Traceability has become the first building block in dynamic sustainability initiatives. Industry leaders are demanding traceability to household level behind every bag of coffee.

The unintended consequence of traceability is that you decommoditize coffee. It becomes a very human story, linking coffee drinkers with coffee communities continents away.

The specialty coffee community has embraced the storytelling opportunity that coffee origins provide. The coffee journey is simple to capture and communicate. There is not a lot that happens to coffee. It’s very easy for people to understand because you harvest the fruit, extract the bean, expose it to heat through the roasting process, grind it and extract the flavors in water – that’s it.

These are the things that have come together and made it easy to connect the threat to the future supply of coffee – the humanitarian and environmental crisis caught and expressed in all that imagery and simplicity. There’s this window of opportunity for coffee to lead the way in changing the behavioral culture of agricultural supply chains from predatory, short-term profiteering to a collaborative, more nurturing culture of shared stewardship.

I kind of obsess about the need to change business culture. We have all the tools, resources and skills required to overcome the current challenges facing coffee production. We have to move beyond seeing our sole purpose and responsibility as the accumulation of profit on short time cycles. Our business activities, whatever they may be, consume resources and affect people. We need to consider who we affect and invest in replenishing the resources we consume. This speaks to our responsibility as global citizens of our shared stewardship of the environment. It feels like coffee is really thinking about these things and finding its voice.

BBH: You are doing some interesting work with traceability in specific supply chains. Can you talk about the groundwork?

KB: The demand for granular data relating to supply chain traceability and economics is driving digital innovation in rural, hard-to-reach geographies where many coffee farming communities live. It is difficult to project the enormity of the impact that this work will have over time.

What is happening is that Falcon and others that manage supply chains at origin are investing in capturing data digitally, as it is cost-efficient and more accurate. As we deploy more and more technology, the inevitable result will be that we link these previously off-grid communities to the digital world. When this happens, the current outflow of data toward consuming markets will be met with an inflow of digital goods and services from new and future technologies. Our coffee farming communities will become digital marketplaces where access to affordable credit, viable crop insurance and educational tools will all become commonplace. We see our coffee contracts becoming the collateral vehicle through which an array of resources can be sourced and paid for. When this digital wave truly breaks over supply chains, previous hurdles and barriers to scalable impact will be swept away. Supply chain structures will be irrevocably changed.

BBH: We talk about coffee being a leader in this space. What’s the next supply chain or agricultural product where technology innovations will be applied?

KB: The difference between today’s digital revolution and, for example, the Industrial Revolution is that breakthrough technologies like the spinning jenny, the locomotive and the telegraph advanced single industries or limited steps in a supply chain process. Breakthroughs in digital technology like data processing immediately affect every industry and component of modern-day life. So, when we figure out how to build a true blockchain that can capture blocks of immutable, encrypted data on a timeline across an entire rural supply chain, it’s not going to spread industry by industry. It’s going to be everybody at virtually the same time.

The climate crisis suggests that we have a very short period of time to drive enormous change across agricultural supply chains if we are to secure the future of global food security. Our coffee farmers are part of a far larger group of 500 million smallholder farmers that produce 70% of the world’s food crops. If we as a coffee community can build sustainable supply chains in coffee, we would be building the blueprint to sustainable smallholder agriculture for all crops. This would be an incredible legacy.

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