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Project 121: Bringing coffee farmers and roasters together, sustainably

With an enthusiasm as rich as the coffee beans grown in Northern Peru, Santiago Barahona talks passionately about how DRWakefield’s Project 121 is helping to bring recognition to Peru’s coffee farmers and improving their livelihoods by linking and matching them to individual roasters. “These are the heroes of the speciality market,” says Santiago, our Head Coffee Trader at DRWakefield. “To be part of the project you just have to be a good farmer – some of them have as little as one hectare of land but produce some of the tastiest coffees.”

True to our values

Santiago Barahona leads Project 121, which was set up by DRWakefield in 2013 in keeping with our ethos of promoting sustainable and traceable coffees from farmers across producing countries. At its core are direct relationships and quality. “We wanted to create, promote and provide direct channels between roasters and coffee farmers,” explains Santiago as he prepares to travel to Peru to meet those involved in the project. “If you know someone it’s likely that you will care about him/her in a meaningful way, right? So rather than just caring about the coffee, you now care about who’s producing it too.”

Playing matchmaker

The Project 121 pilot was established in Honduras and, following its success, extended a year later into Peru, which is the third largest country in South America and grows the equivalent of around 4 million bags of coffee annually. It’s renowned as one of the largest growers of organic coffee. Under the scheme, a farmer produces a micro-lot that will be graded and prepared to meet SCAA quality standards of at least 83 points.

A roaster is given exclusivity on this coffee for a season. The farmer strives to produce better coffee and gets recognition for the beans he or she produces, and the roaster has the chance to promote a sustainable source; a unique, fully-traceable, great coffee. At DRWakefield we play matchmaker, selecting farmers on the basis of factors such as quality (location, altitude, production methods, varietals, processing, preparation and cup) and commitment.

Sustainable & traceable

The roaster is given the opportunity to enter into a long-term agreement with the coffee farmer with whom they are matched. The idea of the project is to promote long-term relationships that give the farmer security and at the same time give the roaster an excellent coffee that is both sustainable and traceable. All the coffees produced under this project come from organic farms. Every year presents new challenges to farmers who are exposed to extreme variables such as the weather and price fluctuations.

At DRWakefield, we understand that this could jeopardise the livelihoods of many farmers, so at the beginning of every season prices are reviewed and agreed based on cost of production and market conditions. We work very much on providing access to opportunities and represent the farmer by importing and storing the coffee for the roasters who have signed up to the project. “Now roasters have the incentive of promoting a particular coffee produced just for them on an exclusive basis” adds Santiago. “You are supporting a farmer that has now become your supplier. With this project, seventy per cent of the final price will go to the farmer, making it one of the most rewarding schemes within the specialty market with concrete results.”

Keeping It personal

A personal touch is important; every bag has an Andy Warhol, pop art-style stencil of the farmer’s face printed on it, adding to the uniqueness of the project. Fully traceable, the roaster is provided with all the specific details about the farmer, their family and of course their coffee.

“A farmer that was just Joe Average somewhere on the planet now has an image of his face printed on every bag of coffee – now he can say ‘That is my coffee!’” says Santiago. “Many of the roasters are displaying these special bags on the wall and saying that guy is my supplier  – he’s in Peru, he’s in Honduras, and I am very proud of buying coffee from him. The project gives the farmers a lot of pride. They are making more money and at the same time they are being recognised as being good farmers. Before, that didn’t happen.”

A win-win solution

Santiago Barahona believes Project 121 is an entirely positive development given what happened at the beginning of the century in the so-called Coffee Crisis, which badly hit coffee farmers around the world. Prices plummeted and thousands of farmers were forced out of business. It was a stark reminder of how vulnerable coffee farmers are to the volatile international market, but this scheme offers the opportunity for greater stability.

“We shouldn’t forget that just fifteen years ago there was a crisis and it was very dramatic,” Santiago emphasises. “It was very hard. It took fifteen years to start seeing positive changes and awareness around the issue. Everything is coming together and this is the way forward. The roasters are very happy with the quality they’ve been receiving so it’s a win-win.”

Like friends

There are around forty farmers across Peru and Honduras participating in the scheme, and DRWakefield aims to visit them all. “Every time you go to see a farmer you always learn something new,” reflects Santiago. “You tell them you know these guys in the other country who have a solution for the problem you have. We exchange ideas and that’s how we started Project 121, actually. It’s like visiting friends. You know them, they know you and expectations are that the relationship should continue because the business has been growing very well for them and for us.”

And what has Santiago learned from this project and his visits to Peru and Honduras? “There is always more to do,” he says. “Keep thinking, keep opening your eyes and being aware. It is rewarding – you feel that you are doing something positive. And you bring recognition to good farmers, always.”

Look out for our in-depth report on Santi’s trip when he returns. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about our social responsibility, head here. And if you’d like to talk coffee, have a look at our extensive range here, or better still, get in touch.