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The cup of coffee that sparked a movement

How a surprising discovery led Keurig Dr Pepper to create a sustainable supply chain in the mountains of Uganda

The cup of coffee that sparked a movement
The Rwenzori mountains, straddling the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, posed a unique challenge to tracing responsibly sourced coffee.

In 2015, the head coffee buyer for Keurig Green Mountain made a surprising discovery. Sampling a brewed cup of coffee called Drugar—a dried Arabica variety that’s generally considered lower-quality—the buyer detected something in its flavor profile that others hadn’t: similarities to the high-quality Sumatran beans used in Green Mountain Coffee Roaster’s products.

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Drugar comes from the Rwenzori Mountains, a rugged, rural area straddling the border between Uganda and the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Tapping into that coffee market to secure more coffee with that flavor profile would be challenging for any seller. But it posed an especially unique challenge to Keurig Green Mountain, which as early as 2014 had committed to sourcing all of its coffee responsibly.

“Here we had a source of Arabica coffee that was really this diamond in the rough,” says Whitney Kakos, director of supply chain sustainability at Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP), which was formed when Keurig Green Mountain merged with the Dr Pepper Snapple Group in 2018. “With some targeted investments and the right partners, we believed this coffee could really shine and live up to its potential.”

The very first building block in a responsibly sourced supply chain is traceability. Keurig Green Mountain recognized that in order to deliver meaningful impact and strengthen the future of this supply chain, it would need to be able to track all these beans back to the communities and households that produced them. The area around the Rwenzori Mountains is difficult to traverse and has suffered from regional military conflicts. Ascertaining the beans’ origin in such a disconnected market would require a unique approach. But the company recognized that the effort would be worthwhile.

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A worker sifts through coffee cherries on drying beds at a Great Lakes Coffee center in Uganda.

To that end, Keurig Green Mountain, and now KDP, made significant resources available to invest in improving not just the quality of this hidden gem, but also the lives of the farmers growing those beans. “Green Mountain Coffee Roasters had always set itself apart from other roasters through the social-impact investments it made with coffee farmers, and that’s something we’ve proudly maintained as KDP,” Kakos says. “This effort to build a sustainability agenda in Uganda’s coffee sector is one we’re most proud of.”

FORGING COMMITTED PARTNERSHIPS

To begin this complex task, KDP first turned to Falcon Coffees, a mission-driven coffee trader that has long worked to build supply chains in African nations for a variety of major coffee manufacturers. “The economic bookends of a successful supply chain are the cost of production for the farmer and what the end buyer pays for the coffee,” says Falcon’s CEO, Konrad Brits. Having worked with KDP previously, he was confident that the company’s scale and commitment could support the project.

Until recently, coffee farmers in remote regions of Uganda had no idea that coffee is roasted and consumed as a beverage. That [shows] how far away these farmers are from their end market.”

Konrad Brits, CEO Falcon Coffees

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Reaching the farmers would require another link in the chain, however. Historically, the farmers of the Rwenzori Mountains have seen coffee as an undifferentiated cash crop to be sold at whatever price was offered, with no consideration for quality. “Until very recently, smallholder coffee farmers in the more remote regions of Uganda had no idea that coffee is roasted and consumed as a beverage,” Brits says. “That’s a real indicator of how far away these farmers are from their end market.”

To bridge the final gap to the farmers themselves, KDP needed a partner on the ground to make the case that the time and effort required to improve the quality of their crop would be worthwhile. Enter Andreas Nicolaides, director at Great Lakes Coffee Uganda. While at university in the U.K., Nicolaides became interested in connecting the on-the-ground knowledge his family had developed over 90 years of producing coffee in Africa with the growing market for sustainably farmed premium coffee.

In KDP, Nicolaides saw a partner that not only understood the potential in this coffee, but also the importance of maintaining an ongoing collaboration with farmers that went beyond simply educating them about the benefits of producing higher-quality coffee. “KDP needed to take the financial risk and be brave and really commit to buying the coffee,” Nicolaides recalls.

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THE POWER OF TRANSPARENCY

Nicolaides knew that these types of complex supply chains don’t just spring up overnight. Typically, investments in building quality local coffee crops have come through donor funded aid programs. A sustainable supply chain requires a more personal approach. “At the end, coffee is a people business,” Nicolaides says. “It’s about building relationships.”

Uganda Natural Arabica is analysed and cupped at a GLC Coffee Lab.

KDP’s direct investment in farmers and local partners enabled Great Lakes Coffee Uganda to develop new tools to track the volume and quality of farmers’ harvests, providing transparency all the way down to each farmer’s plot. That’s useful information for KDP, but also for the farmers themselves. For instance, Nicolaides can audit each farm, letting the farmer know their yield and potential for earnings between coffee and other crops. These conversations can lead to better-targeted investments in specific farms. They can also lead to better-informed farmers who more fully understand the potential value of their crop to not only a local buyer, but also the companies that process, export, and distribute it, as well as to the consumers who eventually drink the coffee.

Today, seven years after that discovery of Drugar’s potential unique flavor profile, all three partners use this experience as a model for creating healthier supply chains that offer greater benefits regionally, nationally, and even globally. For its part, KDP continues to build on its responsible sourcing commitment with a three-year pilot program in Uganda designed to significantly improve the income of small coffee growers, testing variables such as volume commitments, preferred pricing, and targeted social-impact investments. By virtue of this continuing work, the ultimate impact of KDP’s surprising discovery may wind up being greater still.

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“Coffee is a collaborative, global community that is trying to fix problems that are actually generic to all smallholder farmers,” Brits says. “This project serves as a blueprint for changing the economic structure of agricultural supply chains—which can, in turn, address some of the world’s global food security issues and even has the potential to change the lives of millions of people.”

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