The Coffee Sector is Programming with Grandpa and Gambles with Its Future

by Michael Opitz, Managing Director HRNS

The situation of youth and their motivation to engage in coffee production are the most critical indicators for the success of our sustainability programming in the sector. But with the concepts and interventions, currently, we are miles apart from working towards a better future for the industry and the people growing coffee in the field. We are falling short in developing convincing support to improve farmer family livelihoods and addressing, in particular, the perspectives for young people. Improving production, productivity, and quality of coffee or complying with certification standards does not really generate a more promising situation in the coffee regions.

Working side-by-side with farmers, their families, and communities, our foundation, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) is confronted firsthand with the difficulties and challenges that smallholder farmers are facing. And we sense the discouraging situation of youth in rural areas. Left with little opportunities, they are starting to migrate at increasing rates to urban centers and some from Central American coffee fields have even joined the recent caravans moving up north towards the border separating Mexico and the US. The numbers in our database speak volumes: we are working with an elder generation. The average age of farmers in our projects in Uganda is 56 years, while the average life expectancy in the country is just below 60 years. Thus, the project investment, to a large extent, is reaching people advanced in age and might even get lost within short.

The situation in Brazil at first glance looks better. Here the average age of farmers in our projects is 46 years, and average life expectancy is at 72. However, only 13% of our project beneficiaries are below the age of 30 despite the fact that their potential is extraordinary; as shown by 21-year-old Deivison Welques Pereira, who won last year’s Coffee Quality Competition of our Força Café farmer support program. Based in the Matas de Minas region of Brazil, Deivison’s winning lot of Yellow Catuaí received a score of 85.68 and was described as having hints of dark chocolate, brown sugar, berries, cinnamon, and jasmine. Deivison produced 10 bags of the winning lot and received BRL 2,209.11 per bag, a fantastic result. Productivity levels of the youth in our projects are remarkable, reaching well above 30 bags/ha on average and peaking at 65 bags/ha and per year.

But what does the situation look like at second glance and what is the state of youth in the coffee areas where our projects operate? To answer these questions, we conducted a diagnostic study with the support of Dr. Paulo Henrique Leme, a Professor of the Universidade Federal de Lavras (UFLA)/Brazil. The study looked at 110 youth in total, ranging from 15 to 30 years of age and I had the opportunity of presenting its findings at the 8th Annual Coffee Exporters Council of Brazil – Cecafé.

The good news is that only 6% of youth interviewed do not want to continue the family farming business. Many are in fact interested, and 37% even want to make changes to the family’s operations while an additional 15% might consider doing so as well. That’s promising and represents a well-needed path for improvement and innovation. But looking at the possibilities for youth to unlock their potentials it is alarming to see that the level of education in the Brazilian countryside is weak. Only 24% of the interviewed youth were currently studying, and of the other 76% that had stopped their education, 88% finished at a secondary school level. However, according to the former Brazilian Minister of Education, Rossieli Soares, “the secondary school in Brazil is a disaster. The vast majority of students between 14 and 17 years old have in practice learned nothing of what was expected in their corresponding course level. Even in the 3rd year of the secondary school level, a majority of the students did not know how to calculate percentages.”

  • Higher Education 7% 7%
  • Technical Education (Vocational) 5% 5%
  • High School 67% 67%
  • 5th – 8th Grade 14% 14%
  • 1st – 4th Grade 7% 7%


  • Drugs 77% 77%
  • Unemployment 62% 62%
  • Lack of Options 64% 64%
  • Unwanted Pregnancies 52% 52%
  • Access to Basic Sanitation 18% 18%

Education Level

The average education level of youth study participants.

Poverty Level

Have a family income of less than R$ 30,000 per year.

Issues Youth Face

Some of the top issues that youth say that they are experiencing.

Furthermore, access to support offers such as technical assistance, credit for youth, ProJovem as the national youth inclusion program, etc. is minimal or not feasible at all. Striking is the fact that 45% of families of the youngsters that were interviewed depend on the Bolsa Familia, a government subsidy program for the poor. 56% of the interviewed youth state that their annual family income is around BRL 30,000.00 (approx. USD 8,000.00) or less. This, for them, translates into a maximum of 2.5 basic wages (“salario mínimo”) per month that should meet the families’ needs. As older aged youngsters are usually still working alongside their parents, family income would need to be split amongst at least 3 people; this would leave way less than a basic wage per person a month to compensate them for their work. The current price crisis is putting further pressure on the viability of coffee farming not to speak of the situation outside Brazil, where this is even more challenging and poverty in the coffee fields is on the rise.

In Brazil, the weak economic performance goes hand in hand with severe constraints for the livelihood situation of farming families and youth in particular. The vast majority of youth see drugs, unemployment, little leisure opportunities, unwanted pregnancy and limited access to basic sanitation and safe water as the most pressing problems in their communities and hope that they will be able to change them in the future.

This small diagnostic study already points to the dilemma: We have good intentions and want to promote sustainable coffee production, but we fall dramatically short in our programming. It is fatal to assume that good agricultural practices and some income improvement create enough added value to bring about sustainable development in coffee areas. These are certainly important elements of a required strategy, but it takes more and, above all, it needs a focus on addressing the needs and expectations of future generations. Even in a country like Brazil, which holds various relevant offers ready, systematic and targeted work with youth as possible coffee producers of the future cannot be seen. Unfortunately, this also (still) largely applies to our foundation. It is unsatisfactory that, with our program, we do not (yet) reach the key players and their great potential for ensuring the future viability of the coffee sector. Of the 100,000 beneficiaries in our projects globally only about 14,000 are under 30 years old. These are the aspects that the coffee sector at large needs to take up urgently. Youth has to get the industry’s primary focus.

The world’s population is growing, and so is the number of young people. Today, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there is approximately 106 million youth in the age range of 15 – 24 years in South America and, as projected by the African Development Bank, around 430 million in Africa. There have never been more young people on this planet, and it’s not slowing down. In Africa, the population is going to double within the next 30 years and the African Development Bank projects the number of youth to grow to around 830 million by 2050. Large groups of these young people in the global south are living in poverty with no satisfactory prospects for their future; and the same goes for the coffee sector, aggravated by climate change and the historically low prices at which coffee is being traded currently. All of this leads to an increase of migratory pressure.

The profile of young people is very dissimilar from the current farmer generation. Their expectations in the globalized world are getting far beyond the demands of their parents, and their thought process is different, for example:

  • Business thinking comes more easily.
  • Numbers are fascinating to them.
  • They use the internet and smartphone as if it were attached to their body.
  • They demand more transparency in making decisions.
  • And they are more open towards gender equality and/or more willing to change their behavior regarding gender stereotypes.

It is essential that members of the industry find approaches that motivate young people to choose coffee as an economic activity and thus ensure that coffee can provide them a stable future.

A “carry on like before” approach is not enough; our work should develop:

We must connect with actors from other sectors with complementary approaches and offers to address the complexity of needs (and gaps) that youth express

Youth access to training and other services needs to be enhanced

Interventions that work beyond coffee productivity and quality

Youth needs to be informed about other employment and income earning opportunities in their rural communities – hired or self-employed

Youth need to be strengthened in their potential to contribute to the development of farmer organizations and communities, also by assuming leadership positions

The process of generational change within farmer family’s needs to be supported for enhancing the level of trust between parents and children and  encouraging the handing over of assets and responsibilities between generations

We must be honest and always question the relevance and effectiveness of our efforts; for this, we need data and information substantively and well researched

We should be concerned with the development of production systems and coffee landscapes in economic, environmental, and social terms and look beyond farm gates

We must give young people the space to think, define, and create the production systems and coffee landscapes of the future and to criticize our approaches

We must systematically address the assumptions behind our projects and interventions

Against this background we started our foundation’s youth programs in 2012. They cover a wide range of issues and approaches such as our “Coffee Kids” program in which we reach youth in Central America and East Africa that already have decided to make a living with coffee. We provide rural business trainings that promote entrepreneurship and offer seed capital, and mentorship, all under the umbrella of community engagement. The “Generations” project in Central America takes on a broader approach, creating opportunities for youth in producing landscapes also beyond coffee. This is done with vocational and entrepreneurship training, internships, or school reinsertion. With the Serviço Nacional de Aprendizagem Rural (SENAR) in Brazil we cooperate within the “Sucessão Familiar Program” for advancing a well-structured and forward-looking process that facilitates generational change in coffee farming families. The “TeamUp” program in East Africa currently brings together three German foundations and the German Government in a cross-sectoral collaboration to provide more comprehensive services to rural youth. This includes professional training and job creation (in and outside agriculture), water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), participation and advocacy, and family planning together with training on sexual and reproductive health and rights. These projects are just examples of the work HRNS is doing with youth to provide positive perspectives for their future; and to gain experience that can inform youth, farmer families and communities, governments and coffee sector stakeholders at large about viable concepts.

We are very motivated by the success of our youth approaches so far and we are pleased to see how dynamically young people make use of them and start to improve their livelihood, and develop ownership. In all our program regions, youth are showing a more positive attitude towards agriculture and coffee production, and develop pride in being a farmer. Taking into account their thirst for knowledge and their desire to achieve a fulfilling life we are convinced that a stronger focus on youth will further increase the impact of our work. It will also increase the efficiency of our project investments, as young people, of course, will work much longer with the improved knowledge they gained and will actively develop it further over time.

We are open to share experiences and evaluate possibilities of collaboration in Brazil or other HRNS project locations. We are interested in action and in partnership with dedicated actors to develop and apply the necessary approaches and to learn from them jointly. We should not lose this opportunity to take forward the rural environments and our coffee sector.

The sustainability journey is just beginning and instead of looking at Grandpa, the essential question the sector needs to address is: What does our work mean for a young girl or young boy in a coffee region?

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