HATS OFF TO THE MIDDLEMAN
by Brianna Dickey
This article first appeared in the Royal Coffee blog on Wednesday, February 7, 2018.
In the Third Wave coffee market, where the unique qualities of the producer, region, and altitude are
popular to tout, the specialty coffee industry has contributed to a romanticized story of how coffee is
sourced. The storyline which most consumers understand as ‘direct trade’ follows a roaster spending
a significant amount of time searching for the best coffee at origin, finding a farmer that they enter a
close relationship with, and paying that farmer directly for the coffee that’s shipped back home (I
always pictured a modern-day Indiana Jones). While there can be truth in this narrative, the image as
a whole might not be as forthcoming as it seems. Most notably, the crucial roles of the importer and
exporter are completely omitted.
Despite some of the negative press around the term “middlemen” in the coffee trade, importers and
exporters have enormous potential to positively impact the lives of the people they work with. Royal
Coffee offers a shining example of an importer that pushes beyond their role as a broker and seizes
the opportunity to proactively improve the industry. Their unique commitment to making educational
resources accessible and approachable strengthens and expands the coffee community (have you
heard about The Crown?). It wasn’t until recently, when I became a first-time buyer, that I fully began
to appreciate the amount of value that exporters can add along the supply chain too.
Last month, in collaboration with Royal, InConexus hosted their third-annual “Lo Mejor de…” event as
a part-competition, part-origin trip for green coffee buyers from around the globe. Though Royal
works with a number of top-notch exporters across all origins, this Colombian exporter has shown an
extraordinary commitment to improving the quality of coffee and the quality of life of their producers. I
was honored to attend the Lo Mejor de Huila, not only for the chance to cup the best coffees from the
famed region of Huila (check out some of the coffees here) but to witness the principle of “shared
value” in action.
For InConexus, the event was the perfect platform to highlight some of the behind-the-scenes work of
their team while showcasing coffees from Colombia’s recently completed harvest. I quickly learned
that InConexus doesn’t just buy and export coffee; they also run a number of supporting programs to
build mutually beneficial relationships with their partnering producers. They don’t stop at the mantra
“higher quality for higher prices.” InConexus aims to improve the economic, environmental, and social
situation of their producers. In turn, this consistently delivers a product that positions InConexus as
the best source of Colombian fine coffee.
In between the competition cupping evaluations, we toured the regional dry mill, warehouse, and
cupping lab for an inside peek into their exporting operations. With quality as a top priority for
InConexus, their team provides producers with constant analyses, training, and logistical support.
They create a customized approach for each producer depending on their exact needs and farming
conditions and then offer continuous feedback through field assistants, technical assistants,
agronomists, and professional cuppers. According to Adriana Villanueva, the commercial director of
InConexus, it’s not enough to just increase a producer’s income, they need to be learning and
growing towards their potential to achieve autonomy and empowerment.
Lo Mejor de Huila also served as an important opportunity to de-anonymize the value chain and
jointly exchange ideas, opinions, and perspectives between producers and buyers. Adriana explained
that she works everyday to de-commoditize the value of coffee, and fostering a sense of personal
connection to the producers is a key element in achieving that. To break down barriers and
encourage conversations, we toured a few of the top-performing farms and shared dinner – and the
dance floor – with some of the personalities behind the beautiful coffees we were cupping.
Throughout the event, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that InConexus is in the business of people
just as much as they are in the business of coffee. By encouraging their producers to become better
business men/women they are indirectly improving the quality of coffee being produced. They are
“doing good”, not at the expense of their bottom line but in support of it. This idea that business can
be an agent of positive change positions InConexus as a real player and solution-provider in the
quest towards sustainability. Although I did not attend the event with the intention to purchase
anything at the auction, I was so inspired by what I saw that I jumped into the bidding ring and walked
away with my first green coffee purchase under my belt.
Obviously, not all coffee is bought at origin. In most cases roasters buy coffee directly from importers
(enter Royal, stage left) with exporters operating in the shadows. In either case, importers and
exporters are an indispensable part of the long and often complicated journey coffee takes from seed
to cup. Many of them are doing some impressive things for the industry. I’m hoping that encouraging
stories of successful relationships along the supply chain can bubble their way to consumers so the
gems, like Royal and InConexus, can contribute to a clearer picture and replace the Indiana Jones