Coffee Knowledge Hub

Coffee and Development: change the way you think about coffee

A deep dive into our new Coffee Knowledge Hub course, presented by Erika Koss – designed to inspire you to think about the roots of coffee’s inequities from colonialism and questioning to what extent we may be still trapped in these inequities due to capitalism

Written by Erika Koss
Posted in Research on April 26, 2022

If you work in specialty coffee, then you probably appreciate that more than three dozen pairs of human hands were involved in its creation from seed to cup.

But did you know coffee is produced in more than 70 countries? And that, in most of these 'single-origin countries', coffee first arrived through European colonial governments intent on using cash crops, such as coffee, as a means of 'colonial development'?

If that term seems like an oxymoron (which it certainly is), it’s because our 21st century use of the word 'development' is usually linked to ideas of 'international development' via humanitarian aid or disaster relief, often through the work of non-profit organizations. But, however much goodwill 'international development' workers may possess, do aid, relief, and development projects address the deeply rooted structures of injustices of the coffee industry?

The structure of aid now is quite different from the past. While the official history of 'coffee and development' centred upon the 1962 International Coffee Agreement, which was led by governments of both of importing and exporting coffee countries, it’s vital to recognize that moment in history in light of what came before: aggressive European colonial rule that used coffee as a specific means of imperial 'development' that seized land, people, and raw materials from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

When it comes to coffee nothing is as simple as it seems. This is an original course that I created first for undergraduate students at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where I live. I have now modified it for coffee professionals and for anyone who seeks to think about the way a global commodity (in this case, coffee) has been, and continues to be, used as a medium for international development.

My 'Coffee and Development' course with the Coffee Knowledge Hub will share a deeper historical analysis than may be available to you. Each class will begin with a synchronous, live lecture by me, based on a decade of my research in the politics of coffee. I will end each class so that you can ask personal questions and we can discuss coffee’s challenges and solutions together.

The injustices in the coffee industry are deeply rooted, based on structures that began in the 18th century. Unfortunately, these continue to reflect many of the challenges in our globalized world. As my background is rooted in literature and political science, I approach coffee through the lens of International Development Issues from a critical standpoint. There has been a gap in social science and humanities research in coffee, and this course seeks to begin a broader discussion around these issues. For example, are current development solutions in coffee promoting equity in our industry? Or are exploitive structures still with us, only masked now with new names?

The set of courses seeks to inspire you to think broader and deeper into the roots of coffee’s inequities from colonialism, questioning to what extent we may be still trapped in these inequities due to capitalism.

Module One will help students understand the history of our 21st global challenges in the coffee industry. We’ll begin by exploring the origins of coffee’s long, complex, and unjust export supply chain that began through the transatlantic slave trade and European settler colonialism. We’ll investigate this from a social science point of view – the politics, economics, and social relations – that shapes today’s global coffee supply chain. Why did, and do, the profits of coffee continue to favour the Global North despite so many global efforts toward 'development'?

Module Two will build upon the learnings from Module One and begin with the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989 and consider the global effect of the Sustainable Development Goals upon coffee (2015-30) in this 'development era.' We will analyze some development ‘buzzwords’ that are frequently used in coffee, using my previously published articles as a launching point for deeper discussions. For example, we’ll look at the quest for 'sustainable coffee,' for 'climate resilient coffee,' and to 'empower women in coffee'—all popular refrains in today’s specialty coffee industry.

Throughout, we’ll examine both challenges and solutions in the coffee industry as we evaluate its state regulations, business practices, marketing campaigns, and White Saviourism. We will question 'the future of coffee' for its people, especially problematic in light of climate change and gendered inequities from seed to cup. The course ends with us considering solutions about ways we might work together toward decolonializing coffee.

I believe that understanding of the root of the unequal power dynamics between the Global North and the Global South, through colonialism and capitalism, is necessary before we can offer long-term solutions for the future of coffee, its land, and all the humans involved.

No prior knowledge on these subjects is needed to attend Module One, but content in Module Two will build upon the lectures and discussions from Module One.

All coffee professionals are welcome to join! If you’re looking for a chance to understand a broader history of coffee, and its power dynamics, then this class is for you.

If you work, or seek to work, on coffee projects that aspire toward sustainability, resilience, and the realization of equity for all peoples, then this course will help you understand the imbalance of power from coffee’s past so that together, we can change these dynamics in the 21st century.


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