Introduction to Coffee

Coffee was discovered some five hundred years ago, right about the time of the Age of Enlightenment. I have never doubted the relationship between the two. Once discovered, coffee was shrouded in mystery. Despite heavy guard and heavier penalties, precious seeds were smuggled from nation to nation. When English Tea was dumped in the Boston Harbor, coffee became America’s beverage.

For centuries coffee has inspired poetry and revolutions. Today, coffee is the ignition that starts the day for millions of people before they start up their cars. Cafés flourish on every corner and multinational corporations make fortunes by capitalizing on their ingenuity as well as their efforts to control the coffee market.

But there is a complex world that lives behind every cup and millions of people throughout the world are affected by the economics of coffee.


Hundreds of years ago, great empires subjugated agriculturally sustainable societies and literally turned nations into gardens producing but a few crops for consumption by the conquerors. The era of monoculture began and the economic reverberations have been felt ever since. Formerly self-sufficient societies were forced to exchange their agricultural diversity for dependency on one or two crops and a cash-economy. The names of the empires have changed, but the conquered nations were left with a legacy of dependency, more specifically an economic dependency on agricultural commodities and cash crops.

Next to oil, coffee is the most traded commodity in the world. Additionally, coffee is the largest cash crop of all crops, bar none.

The Tyranny of Dependency

As a result of the birth of monocultures centuries ago, millions throughout today’s world depend upon coffee as their only source of income. This dependency may be rooted in history, but it is very much a part of the current global economy that excludes coffee farmers and their families from the very lucrative benefits of the global coffee trade. There may be a café on every corner here, but the bitter truth is that for these families, coffee and poverty go hand in hand.

The economic impact of dependency is devastating. Without anything else to rely upon, farmers do what they know how to do. They produce coffee. They produce coffee whether inventories are high or low. They produce coffee whether prices are high or low. In fact, when prices fall, coffee-dependent farmers defy the laws of supply and demand by producing as much coffee as they possibly can in a futile attempt to make up for their losses. What else can they do? All they have is coffee. The results are painfully obvious, generations of overproduction, generations of dwindling coffee prices and generations of poverty.

Coffee farmers live on some of the world’s richest lands, yet do not have enough food to feed their families.

Coffee Kids

I began working in the specialty coffee trade close to 30 years ago. My family still runs Coffee Exchange, a small-batch coffee roaster and café that I started in Providence, RI. I traveled to Guatemala in 1988 to meet coffee farmers for the first time in my life. Until then I thought coffee came from the back of a truck.

In Guatemala I met extraordinary people whose lives were deeply rooted in coffee. Their generosity and joy for life was only exceeded by the poverty that was evident wherever coffee was grown. I returned to the U.S. determined to give something back to these struggling farmers who produced the precious coffee that had provided an income for my family and me.

That same year, with two friends, I founded Coffee Kids, an international non-profit organization established to help coffee farming families improve the quality of their lives. Coffee Kids helps farmers in their efforts to create alternatives to total reliance upon coffee as their only source of income and therefore freeing themselves from its debilitating link to poverty.

Since Coffee Kids began, hundreds of coffee businesses and thousands of individuals throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other economically advanced nations have contributed millions of dollars to support projects throughout Latin America and Indonesia. A list of contributing businesses can be found on the Coffee Kids web site at

Coffee Kids understands that solutions to problems rooted in centuries of dependency cannot possibly be found in the very cultures that created the dependencies thousands of miles away, across national boundaries, language boundaries and cultural boundaries. So, we develop partnerships with local, non-profit, NGO’s managed by people who live in the communities where Coffee Kids works. Partnerships are based on trust, transparency and a deep respect for the values and priorities of each community served.

Coffee Kids understands that struggling coffee-farming families would be hard-pressed to disagree with potential donors. Therefore, they invite partners and participants to meet other farmers with whom we work and share their experiences together and learn from each other. We support what we call Encuentros, exchanges between coffee-farming families from one region or country with coffee-farming families from another. These farming communities face similar problems but deal with them differently, some more successfully than others. At these Encuentros, families share their successes as well as their challenges. A synergy takes place. New ideas are formed, not from Coffee Kids, but from the hearts and minds of coffee-farming families.

Projects develop organically following the culture, values and priorities of the coffee-farming families involved. A project may start out as a family gardening project in response to a community’s need for access to more nutritious food. Production that exceeds consumption becomes an opportunity for added income, which might lead to a micro-lending project offering women the opportunity to expand their additional production into a small family business. Added income provides a community the opportunity to invest its savings into any number of projects like education and health care. Coffee Kids provides capital, training and organizational development support.

Coffee Kids at Work

Coffee Kids is not a relief organization. However, after the devastation from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 we responded to the disaster by sending financial support to CECOCAFEN, a fair trade coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. After digging out and rebuilding roads, homes and schools, the coffee farmers of CECOCAFEN expressed an interest to work with Coffee Kids toward the long-term goal of creating additional income separate from the very volatile coffee crop. An Encuentro was arranged with another partner from Mexico (AUGE or Self-Managed Development) that was experienced in organizational development and micro-credit programs. AUGE acted as a consultant while CECOCAFEN crafted a program promoting alternative income that, while similar to the one in Mexico, was unique to the culture, values and priorities of the participants in Matagalpa. In a few short years, close to 700 hundred participants have joined the program with over 1,000 expected in 2007. So far, the groups in Nicaragua have saved close to $100,000.

A few years later, Coffee Kids helped Mexican partner AUGE conduct the first ever, All-Partner Coffee Kids Encuentro, which brought together partners, potential partners and participants from all our programs in Latin America. AUGE facilitated the Encuentro as well as managed the housing, transportation and meeting rooms to bring together hundreds of coffee-farming partners.

Each partner had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience with others. As a result CECOCAFEN became interested in an education project managed by Costa Rican partner, HIJOS del CAMPO. After several direct exchanges between the two groups, a highly successful education project emerged in Matagalpa providing young people the opportunity to attend secondary school, technical school and the university while continuing their work for the cooperative.

Scholarship recipients have become cooperative leaders, volunteering their time to teach adult literacy classes and participating in micro-credit and environmental improvement programs. They not only speak of the future, they are carving it out with the skills they have been given through opportunities from Coffee Kids and with heart that can only come from Nicaragua. The education project has recently taken root in SOPPEXCCA, another coffee cooperative in Nicaragua.

The process has not only opened up the opportunity for coffee-farming families from Nicaragua to diversify their incomes and educate their communities, it has allowed the trainers in Mexico to further develop their capacity to train thousands of others. As a result of the exchanges and myriad projects that resulted, Coffee Kids helped AUGE build an education and training center in Veracruz as a means to share their micro-credit and organizational expertise with many more coffee-farming families. Other Coffee Kids partners will be looking to build more education centers in the future multiplying opportunities for coffee-farming families throughout the world.

The Age of Enlightenment coincided with the age of monoculture, and it managed to balance all the gains in language, art, science and mathematics with debilitating dependency and generations of poverty. It has been over 500 years since humanity opened its eyes. Since then, the environmental and social costs have afforded the most enlightened of human beings a pause to think. By helping without interfering we have been awakened to the limitless power of the poorest of the poor that resides behind every cup of coffee.