This month, we’re running a series of blogs by Dipika Chawla, our New York City-based Online Communities Coordinator, following a recent trip to meet with coffee farmers in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.
It’s 6:30 in the morning in Buon Ma Thuot as I exit the hotel lobby and prepare to leave for my first-ever visit to a coffee farm. Here in the “coffee capital” of Vietnam, the influence of the region’s signature crop had been hard to miss – but it was still a city, and I had yet to see a single coffee plant. As much as I liked Buon Ma Thuot, the reason I had travelled halfway around the world was to discover the origins of coffee and to see what the Rainforest Alliance and NESCAFÉ were doing to improve sustainability at the farm level. Over the next three days, I would be getting my chance to do just that.
Bleary-eyed as a New Yorker would be at this unthinkable hour, I am half aware of the farmers around me exchanging spirited greetings and jokes as we climb into the vans that would take us to the Ea Kao commune. A 6:30am departure does not faze those who are accustomed to beginning their day at dawn! After a few minutes, the van pulls out of the hotel parking lot, and we are on our way. Soon enough, the cramped buildings of the city start to be replaced by simple cement and brick houses separated by small fields. Modest plots of coffee plants start appearing sporadically on either side of the road. We are entering coffee country.
Today, I would be attending the first of six farmer training sessions given under the NESCAFÉ Plan in Vietnam. Nestlé launched this ambitious global initiative in 2010 to support responsible coffee farming, production and consumption. Since then, Nestlé has been working with the Rainforest Alliance, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the Common Code for the Coffee Community (4C) to provide training and support to farmers in how to improve productivity, efficiency and long-term sustainability.
The fields become increasingly bigger and the roads bumpier and narrower the further we get from Buon Ma Thuot. Periodically, we run into small herds of cows and goats trudging steadily down the road. Each time, the van driver slows down to an almost imperceptible crawl as the cows and goats envelop us on all sides for about 10 seconds, and then we continue on our way. After a while, we turn onto a small gravel road and find ourselves surrounded by squat robusta coffee trees, with many taller shade trees rising high up above our heads.
We get out of the van and take the last few hundred feet on foot. Other farmers also heading towards to the training pass us on motorbikes with a smile and a wave. Finally, we arrive at the training site. Chairs, tables and instructional posters have been set up on a dirt path between two large patches of coffee trees. The air is full of anticipation. Most of the 100 or so participating farmers are already there, talking and laughing amongst themselves as they wait for the training to begin.
The Nestlé and Rainforest Alliance trainers at the event have worked hard to get to this moment. This farmer training, the first of six sessions, marks the beginning of the last phase of the NESCAFÉ Better Farming Practices (NBFP) training programme, which comprises the farmer training component of the NESCAFÉ Plan. Earlier this year, agricultural experts from the Rainforest Alliance provided technical assistance and training to Nestlé’s agronomists in Vietnam, who in turn had trained a select group of lead farmers in the Dak Lak province. Pham Phu Ngoc, Nestlé’s Sustainable Agriculture Development Manager in Vietnam, has worked with community leaders for many months to make this training programme a reality. After making a brief introduction, he turns the presentation over to the lead farmers.
Later on, I get the chance to sit down with Ngoc and talk about Nestlé’s broader strategy in Vietnam. He tells me that Nestlé is highly interested in Vietnam, and in Dak Lak in particular. When I ask him why, he responds, “Nestlé is the largest coffee roaster in the world, and Vietnam is the number one producer of robusta coffee in the world.” He pauses thoughtfully, and then adds, “Vietnamese farmers care more about improvement than other farmers. They want to be the best, to always be learning the best techniques. That’s especially true here in Dak Lak. There have been many rural development and community initiatives here already, so they are familiar with working with outside entities, and eager to welcome progress. That’s why we chose this region to pilot the NBFP trainings.”
Indeed, the several farmers I spoke with while in Dak Lak echoed this sentiment. One farmer named Thi Huong Nguyen says she first heard of the NBFP training programme from her neighbour, another coffee farmer. The programme was also publicised by her local farmers’ association. I ask her why she decided to participate. “As a farmer, I am always searching for new things,” she tells me. “The first, most important thing for farmers is widening one’s knowledge. Also, I heard that through this programme, farmers are getting higher yields and reducing the cost of fertiliser.”
Many other farmers I spoke with had also learned about the programme through word of mouth. But, according to Ngoc, this “coffee culture” of fast-spreading advice sometimes presents challenges for the NESCAFÉ Plan. For example, agrochemical companies convince farmers that they should increase the amount of herbicide they use in order to reduce the labour needed for weeding. This advice would then spread quickly throughout the community as farmers eagerly share their newfound knowledge with their neighbours, not knowing that herbicide use can have all sorts of negative implications for worker health and the environment.
Another problem is the issue of direct payments. “Sometimes companies will hold village meetings and advertise that they are giving an envelope of money to anyone who shows up,” Ngoc says. “Obviously, everyone finds out about this. So when we call for a meeting to invite farmers to participate in the NESCAFÉ Plan, people want to know if we are giving out money. We have to explain that we don’t give out money, it is up to the farmers to participate voluntarily because they desire the long-term benefits.”
The long-term benefits of sustainable farming are certainly more difficult to explain than an envelope of money, but farmer participation in Dak Lak has been encouraging nonetheless. About 100 farmers attended the training session that I observed, and that was only representative of one commune within the province.
Though it may take longer than handing out money, Ngoc emphasises that building trust is the most important part of the Plan. By design, an integral part of the training process has been giving the farmers themselves an active role.
“We are different from the other programmes because of the level of involvement from the farmers themselves. We build trust from both sides. We don’t promise anything to the farmers that we are not sure we can do.”
Phung Thi Huu, one of the lead farmers in Ea Kao, confirms that the NESCAFÉ Plan has been very supportive. According to Huu, while other organisations she’s worked with gave out information and then were never seen again, Nestlé and the Rainforest Alliance have been there to offer support and technical advice since she started participating in the Plan in 2011.
At the farmer training session, I can see for myself a rapport borne of continued support and engagement. The representatives from Nestlé and the Rainforest Alliance are comfortable among the local farmers. During the presentations, there is much joking and laughing and farmers raise questions and concerns openly. At lunchtime, we all gather at one of the farmer’s homes and enjoy a meal of farm-raised chicken and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. The mood is festive: many animated conversations are going on at once, small children wander through the room, eyeing the foreigner in the room (me) with curiosity as everyone finds a spot on the floor. If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t think this was a training session on responsible farm management, but rather a gathering of neighbours—of friends with shared values. And in a way, it is.