“I do find the world of business fascinating,” says Peter as I try, somewhat confused, to explain why I am going all the way up to North Berwick, not far from Edinburgh, to buy Nicaraguan coffee, which actually came from Pumphreys in Newcastle in the first place.
I am too small, or at least, Doctor Coffee’s Cafe is too small. The cooperative in Nicaragua cannot sell me coffee directly, because it is simply not worth their while to export such small quantities. Instead, I tried Pumphreys, who do get Nicaraguan coffee – from Cecocafen -in stock. But again, Pumphreys do not sell enough pure Nicaraguan to make it worth roasting and retailing themselves. They sell huge sacks of green Matagalpan coffee to Howdah’s Tea and Coffee Company in North Berwick, who roast it to order, and will then sell it on to me, back in Darlington. This is just one example of why my Theory of Commodity Fishnets gets so complicated.
It is also an example of how so many attempts at ‘ethical’ trading are thwarted in this industry. I tried! I really tried! I am writing a paper at the moment for the ‘AcKnowledging Ethical Economies’ section of the Royal Geographical Society conference, and mine concentrates on the idea of Direct Trade. In simple terms, this just means coffee retailers are actually visiting the plantations and buying directly from the farmers, or at least, the cooperatives, and then roasting it themselves, straight to their customers. In academic terms, this serves to strengthen and shorten the links in the commodity ‘chain’, shares knowledge of coffee between producer and consumer and thus, theoretically makes trading somewhat more equal, and allows consumers to ‘engage’ more with what they are buying. There are of course, some flaws to this arrangement: namely, my issues with how much control and influence the buyers have. I don’t think this Knowledge is actually shared that equally, and we’re back to the subjective cupping-as-quality-control problem. But that is a whole other paper.
In economic terms, which for Doctor Coffee is more important, Direct Trade cuts out the middlemen. The less people there are in the chain, the less the money has to be shared. This can mean coffee is a bit cheaper for me, but also that the farmers actually get a bigger proportion of the price. I have managed this with my Costa Rican coffee. Cafe Cristina grow, process and roast the coffee and ship it to me, and I turn it into drinks in my Ape. Simples! But with the Nicaraguan stuff, this simplicity has so far eluded me. Instead, I have to pay the farmers, the Solcafe workers who process it, the importers and the roasters, and chase it around the country before I can actually use it to sell cappuccinos to the Darlington masses.
I would love to be able to tell you that this is why your average coffee is so expensive. But it isn’t the reason. A £2.25 cappuccino from Caffe Nero also includes the cost of the milk, cup, baristas’ wages, rent, electricity, tax, branding, insurance….I have plenty of overheads with Doctor Coffee’s as well, so I am not going to say exactly how much the Nicaraguan coffee works out as. Suffice to say though, the proportion of the price that actually makes its way back to the farmers in Matagalpa is depressingly small. And there seems to be very little I can do about it!