Coffee Conquers Conflict for Business-savvy Farmers in the Philippines

Five years ago, Filipina farmer Marivic Dubria would buy Nescafe sachets to serve visitors because she was embarrassed by the quality of the coffee she grew next to her main vegetable crops.

Life was tough for her family in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, as they struggled to earn $1,000 a year from their produce, with their coffee beans fetching only 20 cents per kilo from local traders.

But Dubria is now one of hundreds of farmers nationwide who are brewing up a storm with training from Coffee For Peace (CfP) – a social enterprise striving to boost growers’ profits, protect the environment and foster peace between communities.

Having learned how to grow, harvest and process high-quality Arabica beans at a time when global demand for coffee is soaring – it is set to hit a record high this year – Dubria exports her crop to buyers as far away as Seattle for at least $5 per kilo.

“But it’s not all about the money – it’s about taking responsibility for the environment and other communities,” Dubria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her home on Mount Apo while brewing a pot of thick, aromatic, treacle-like coffee.

Beyond helping coffee growers get a better deal, CfP aims to encourage dialogue between communities, with tensions ranging from colonial-era conflict between native Muslims and Christian settlers to land and resource disputes between ethnic groups.

The Philippines is battling to restore order to troubled Mindanao, where militant groups have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and five decades of communist insurgency and separatist bombings have displaced at least 2 million people.

By bringing people together through trade, businesses with a social mission can help build peace, industry experts say.

“Social enterprise presents an emerging pathway or approach to conflict resolution,” said Angel Flores, East Asia business head at the British Council, which backs companies seeking to help people, invest in the environment and tackle social ills. “Being inclusive, participatory and prioritizing community benefit over personal agendas enhances the social fabric from a place of distrust to … confidence and mutual understanding.”


CfP was set up in 2008 on the conflict-hit southern island of Mindanao, after its founders stopped Christian and Muslim neighbors going to war over the ownership of a rice field.

The men were invited to put down their guns and talk over coffee, a tradition which quickly spread across the region.

CfP offers a three-year scheme to train farmers to produce coffee while encouraging native and settler communities and various tribes to harvest and process the beans together.

While the social enterprise buys the farmers’ beans above market value — selling them on to local coffee shops and exporting as far as Canada — communities can sell to any buyer, but are encouraged to demand higher prices.

“We don’t treat them as suppliers or just part of the chain — they are farmerpreneurs,” said CfP senior vice president Twinkle Bautista.

“The aim is to unite the settlers and indigenous people to teach each other, share techniques and tools … and harmony,” she added. “Our product is peace — coffee is just the tool.”

For Kagawad Abe and his indigenous community, setting up a processing center through CfP has brought them closer to the Christian settlers — who work with them to process their beans.

“It has also brought women together, and given them a chance to work independently … to contribute to the tribe,” he said.

About 80 percent of CfP’s coffee-growing partners are women.

“Just five or so years ago, we didn’t really know each other – but now we are talking and working together,” Abe added.

CfP says business is booming, having tripled sales to at least $46,000 last year from $15,000 in 2012 and won United Nations and regional awards for promoting peace and development.

Although social enterprises in the Philippines have more than tripled in the last decade to 165,000, many are struggling due to limited state support and a lack of funding, said the British Council and the Philippines Social Enterprise Network.

CfP’s success is likely largely due to its unusual mission, said Gerry Higgins, chief executive of Community Enterprise in Scotland (CEIS), Britain’s largest agency to support the sector.

“Coffee for Peace is unusual … there aren’t many social enterprises that recognize that if a community is resilient and sustainable, (then) fewer conflicts will emerge,” Higgins said.

Conquerors of Coffee

By walking farmers through every step of the supply chain, CfP says they no longer see the coffee industry as “a mystery.”

Once dependent on traders and big brands such as Nestle, the world’s biggest coffee maker and producer of Nescafe, farmers can now demand higher prices for better quality beans, CfP said.

Yet winning communities over remains a major challenge.

Some are proud of their traditional methods and reluctant to embrace change, while others are wary of civil society groups and used to instant cash or aid, rather than long-term support.

“We had to convince and convince our people, many times, to move from the traditional to the technical way of doing things,” said Baby Jerlina Owok, chieftain of a native tribe which has seen their coffee beans almost double in value in recent years.

Yet for women such as Owok and Dubria and their coffee cooperatives, the ambitions are much bigger than making money.

Pointing at huge swathes of coffee trees covering the hills, painting once barren land vibrant shades of green, Dubria spoke about planting more to combat deforestation and soil erosion.

Lastly, she said they need to share their prosperity.

“We need to encourage and help other communities to produce quality coffee,” she said. “We want to pull them up — to improve their standard of living — so they can experience what we have.”

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