Do you have established buyers for your coffee, or are you looking to find them? A strong relationship with one or more buyers can increase business stability and let you plan ahead. But sometimes it can be difficult to make connections and to maintain good long-term relationships with buyers.
Read on for some insights from some Guatemalan producers and Martin Mayorga, founder of Mayorga Organics, on what it takes to cultivate strong working relationships with your coffee buyers.
Lee este artículo en español Cómo Forjar y Mantener Relaciones Con tu Comprador de Café
How to Make Connections With Buyers
Many established farms have traditionally relied on word of mouth to meet buyers. But there are other ways to make connections and other methods of promoting your coffees to a wider audience.
Edwin Gudiel Morales Cutzal and Cecilia Rosibel López Armas are Guatemalan coffee producers who both attended the 2019 Producer & Roaster Forum with the help of the Mayorga Scholarship.
Cecilia tells me that she makes connections “through businesses panels created by Anacafé,” and that she has contacts with local buyers. She works in production and management for Finca El Mirador in El Pajal in San Antonio Huista, Huehuetenango.
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A view of Finca El Mirador, founded in 1975 by Cecilia’s grandparents, Santos Armas and Rosa Xutuc. Credit: Cecilia Rosibel López Armas
Edwin is a producer who represents Cooperativa La Asunción in San José Poaquil, Chimaltenango. He says that he uses word of mouth, but makes sure to follow up digitally.
“The market we have built at this point has been through our friends and family network. We send coffee samples and follow up by email with additional information about the coffee and the producers behind it. After a few weeks, we follow up again and discuss potential partnerships. We have also used Instagram and Facebook to upload pictures and update [potential buyers] with any information that we want to show them.”
If you have a local cooperative, or a regional or national coffee association, look into how you can work with them to meet buyers. Social media might also be useful to connect with new buyers without intermediaries.
You may also want to attend events designed to connect roasters and producers, or go to auctions even if you’re not selling in them. Edwin says, “It’s important for a producer to leave the farm and make contacts. This a way to know what other producers are doing and what potential buyers expect from a producer.”
Pickers sort coffee cherries at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind
Practical Tips to Maintain a Relationship
Martin Mayorga is the founder of Mayorga Organics, a US coffee roastery. He tells me, “Just like any relationship, the relationship between a green coffee buyer and a producer takes time to establish and develop. Both sides need to be open about their needs, challenges, and the desired results of the relationship. It takes frequent visits, following up, and asking questions that sometimes make producers uncomfortable but that help buyers understand their true economic scenario.”
Here are some tips to cultivate strong working relationships with your buyers, as well as some common pitfalls to avoid.
Know Your Coffee & Be Honest About It
“A producer has to know the quality, profile, and characteristics of each lot of coffee to know what they are offering,” Edwin says.
If you know your coffee well, you can identify the right market to promote it to. Then, communicate honestly with buyers about what to expect from each lot. Don’t oversell your quality or make commitments to amounts you can’t deliver. This will help establish trust and the buyer will know that you can be relied on to deliver what you promise.
Coffee roasters visit Finca La Labor in Guatemala. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
A strong relationship is often based on good communication. Make sure to keep your buyer informed of developments with your coffee. Consider scheduling a regular email that lets them know where you are in the crop cycle and informs them of any setbacks or unexpected events.
You might also want to set up a social media account and post regular photos with captions. This way, they can see what is happening on the farm as often as they want to check.
A coffee farmer gives a tour of his coffee farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
It can be difficult to have good communication when there are language barriers and cultural differences, as is common when producers are looking to sell their coffees internationally.
“Most small-scale coffee producers in Guatemala only speak Spanish or the Mayan language, so this is the first challenge,” Edwin says. “Most of the coffee buyers are English speakers, or at least English is the main language in which they communicate.”
Cecila also says that language can be a challenge, saying that it can be hard to maintain communication because “the vast majority of buyers come from other countries.”
Whether you’re in Africa, Asia, or South America, you may need to use intermediaries or translators to communicate with buyers. It’s particularly important to understand each other when discussing technical details or legal agreements. If you work with a cooperative or regional association, you may be able to find a reliable translator through them.
Discuss Goals & Clarify Expectations
For a successful long-term relationship, both producers and buyers need to work towards a mutual long-term goal and trust one another. This will require honest communication and a commitment to the relationship. It’s particularly important because you may not see profits for some time.
Edwin says, “In many cases, buyers will pay for your coffee only when they receive the final product. This is a big financial problem for small coffee producers, given that they have to absorb the cost upfront. it could take up to six months or more for the coffee producer to receive payment.”
Discuss payment terms with your buyer at the outset. You can also work together to develop strategies to handle any additional costs needed to produce quality coffee and ways to avoid problems with cash flow. This may include using crop diversification to bring in income between payments or provide food for your family. The coffee buyer may even be interested in purchasing your additional crops.
Follow Through on What You Agreed
If you’ve made an agreement with a buyer, be sure to follow through on your end. Being reliable will help build trust and make the buyer more likely to want a long-term relationship. If you have problems that affect your ability to do what you agreed, such as unexpected weather conditions, keep your buyer informed as soon as possible so they aren’t surprised. They may even be able to help you solve the problem.
Martin acknowledges that both sides need to be reliable. He says, “As a result of working off a commodities market for generations, there is an ingrained win-lose mindset in the trade. Historically, when buyers are doing well, it’s been at the expense of the producers. The very few times the producers have done well, it’s been when the market is high and buyers have to pay high prices. This mindset has led to mistrust and a short-sighted mentality in both the producer and traditional trader.
“Some producers are still operating in the mindset that every buyer is out to take advantage of them. I don’t blame them for being skeptical, so I do everything possible to make our goals very clear and to execute on every detail of everything I said we would be doing. It’s a process, but execution is everything.”
It can be beneficial for both buyers and producers to cultivate a good working relationship. Martin tells me that when there was an outbreak of coffee leaf rust in 2013, there was tremendous uncertainty.
“Producers were concerned about economic survival and we didn’t know if we’d have coffee,” he says. But because he had established good relationships with producers, he was kept fully informed and able to help producers mitigate some of the impact.
“During that time we were in communication with our producers, agronomists, and financing groups almost daily. We were able to determine what would be harvested and eventually shipped to us, and we were also able to help them manage the crisis the best way possible. As a matter of fact, our engagement with chia started because of the roya crisis, and it changed the way we operate as a company,” he says.
A coffee picker at a farm in Honduras. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind
It may seem intimidating to develop a relationship with your buyers, but remember that they are human, and that ultimately, they also want to provide great coffee. By making an effort to communicate and build trust, you can both benefit. In the context of low coffee prices and climate change, it can only be a good thing to have one more person invested in the success of your coffee.
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Written by Sierra Burgess-Yeo. Interview with Cecilia Rosibel López Armas translated from the Spanish by Gisselle Guerra.
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