Improving sustainability in coffee and cocoa

Improving sustainability in coffee and cocoa Dutch stakeholders join forces to improve sustainability in coffee and cocoa sector. In 2010, a range of public and private actors, civil society organisations, research organisations and stakeholders in the cocoa and coffee sectors signed letters of intent aimed at increasing the sustainability of imports into the Netherlands. The goal was to ensure that 50% of the beans used in cocoa products and 75% of coffee beans would be certified as sustainable by 2015.

A complex challenge

These goals were not set lightly and no one underestimated the challenge ahead. The cocoa and coffee chains are characterised by a large volume of beans supplied by many small producers in developing countries. The sheer number of suppliers involved and the difficulties involved in certifying the beans bought from these smallholder farmers mean that improving sustainability in the coffee and cocoa sectors is a complex matter.

To certify the sustainability of the sector, we must have knowledge about how the technical aspects of the chain – traceability, management & control and chain configurations – affect sustainability. As sustainability is strongly linked to productivity and the use of agricultural inputs, particularly fertilisers and water, many of the voluntary sustainability standards aim to improve productivity and the efficiency of input use.

Action-oriented research

More credible research was clearly needed in order to gain a better insight into more effective and efficient ways of improving the sustainability of cocoa and coffee beans. In 2012 Wageningen University & Research took the lead in the design, coordination and implementation of an action-oriented research programme. The aim was to support the stakeholders united around the two letters of intent in reaching their goal of a significant rise in sustainable coffee and cocoa consumption in the Netherlands by 2015.

This project was made possible by the financial support of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, which gave a strong signal of support for both the research concept and the goal of the letters of intent. Wageningen University & Research worked with partners from organisations directly involved in the initiatives – the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and indirectly the ISEAL Alliance, UTZ Certified, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, the DE Foundation and the Royal Dutch Coffee and Tea Association – as well as other research institutes, most notably the Royal Tropical Institute and CIRAD, the French agricultural research centre.

Innovative efforts

Under the umbrella of the Dutch government’s innovative ‘Top Sector’ policy, the ‘Improving the sustainability of Dutch cocoa and coffee imports: Synergy between practice, policy and knowledge’ project was ran from 2012 to 2015. Scientists, business experts, government agencies and support partners spent four years deploying action-oriented research to improve the sustainability of cocoa and coffee imports to the Netherlands.

  • The project addressed knowledge needs in relation to impact assessment, the upscaling of services delivered to farmers, knowledge sharing and information systems. Below we indicate several key results, with more being explored later in this document: Supporting the development and implementation of impact assessment in monitoring and evaluation. Examples are our contributions to the Living Wage Income Methodology and a study on the role of training in enhancing sustainable coffee production in Vietnam.
  • creating models to upscale service delivery for sustainable coffee and cocoa.
  • Facilitating the embedding and consolidation of strategic research in public-private partnerships. The Royal Tropical Institute and Wageningen University & Research contributed to CocoaCOonnect and we helped design a strategic research agenda.
  • Contributing to information systems for credible, transparent and evidence-based impact reporting. Wageningen University & Research gave important input to the ISO-CEN-NEN Sustainable Cocoa Standard and monitoring the Dutch letters of intent for coffee and cocoa.

What’s next?

The overall results of the project are still being published and the fruits of our work will gradually become clear as the research activities are translated into concrete actions in practice. While Wageningen University & Research has made a significant overall contribution, as a future-oriented organisation we are already looking at ways to take things further.

While the consumption of sustainable coffee and cocoa has been growing steadily, coffee and cocoa supply chains have a long way to go to become fully economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. As Dr. Fédes van Rijn, who took over the leadership of the project in early 2016 from Dr. Verina Ingram explains, more work is clearly required.

“There is a need for impact measurement in complex interventions: which lessons did we learn in terms of methodology and how can we translate these into improved theories of change for the different stakeholders involved? Similarly, while a lot of work has been done in the area of improving service delivery to producers, there is often still no clear business case. There is a need for more research to identify these cases and the conditions under which they arise.

“Another vital requirement is to create space to embed and consolidate existing evidence in existing projects and programmes aimed at enhancing sustainability. Moreover, cocoa and coffee farmer clustering has to be taken to the next level in order to support different value chain actors in better matchmaking between purposes and target groups.

We have learned a lot but we are not there yet. Further effort is required by all stakeholders and we welcome contact with parties interested in taking this initiative to the next level.”

The paper 'Improving sustainability in coffee and cocoa' (pdf) gives an overview of the contribution made by various groups within Wageningen University & Research to reaching these goals, together with other knowledge institutes, industry, NGO and certification standards partners.