Peter Roberts spends a lot of his days thinking about, researching, and talking about coffee, particularly the specialty coffee industry.  

Roberts is professor of organization and management and academic director of the Business & Society Institute’s Specialty Coffee Programs. He has spent the last several years focusing on how to make markets work for more people in more places.

Emory University’s Office of the Provost offers grants to faculty members through an initiative focused on social justice and the socially engaged arts. Roberts applied for one of these grants, which has allowed him to continue connecting Goizueta Business School students with coffee growers in Honduras and Guatemala. Through a semester-long directed study and optional spring break trip to Central America, students work directly with coffee growers to create farm stories.

Digging Deeper: The Power of a Farm Story

The catalyst for this experiential learning project was the research that Roberts conducts for the Specialty Coffee Retail Price Index. The data from this index suggests that consumers pay more for specialty coffee brands that include farm stories in their marketing, explains Roberts.

“This observation aligns with industry thought leaders who recognize the importance of effective storytelling for meaningful participation and economic success in the specialty coffee sector,” says Roberts.

When consumers know the story behind a product—in this case, a bag of coffee—they’re more likely to pay a higher price for it when compared to a more generically marketed coffee. Farm stories provide insight into the origin and impact of their purchase. These stories often include details about the people and farms growing the beans.

“Adding a story to the coffee allows consumers to connect to what they’re buying, and they’re willing to pay more for it. This should allow coffee producers to command higher prices,” explains Natalie Rivas, program associate for the Specialty Coffee Programs.

Students touring a coffee farm

Specialty coffee growers are just the start of a long supply chain. Generally speaking, the more parts and people involved in that chain, the less money each party makes. Coffee producers often rely on other parties to get their products to consumers, so they end up generating less revenue per sale.

Roberts’ project aims to address this problem by empowering specialty coffee growers to craft their farm stories. They can promote these stories either on their websites or the product itself. The end product of the semester is a draft—in English and Spanish—of a roughly 150-word written narrative.

“To promote equity in an industry that touches the lives of millions of families around the world, it is critical that small coffee growers have the ability to develop and capitalize on their own farm stories,” says Roberts.

The Partners

The Specialty Coffee Program is part of Goizueta’s Business & Society Institute.

“Our institute is committed to creating inclusive economies. Professor Robert’s efforts demonstrate how public scholarship combined with industry partnerships, community-based programs, and experiential learning can deliver equity and economic sustainability for coffee farmers and their families,” shares Brian Goebel, managing director of the Business & Society Institute.

The project also leans on partnerships with two other organizations: Algrano and De La Gente.

De La Gente helps organize the spring break trip to Guatemala. It plans out every detail, including their signature coffee farm tour. Students took part in a behind-the-scenes tour that showed them each step in the coffee-making process from bean to brew.

Algrano is a software company with a goal of empowering coffee growers and small roasters—a perfect partner for this project. Luiza Furquim, head of content at Algrano, met Roberts several years ago, when he began gathering data for the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide.

“We always believed stories add value to coffee but never had the data to back it up,” says Furquim.

Furquim describes her and Algrano’s role in this new project as a “unique opportunity.” Farm stories are often afterthoughts, but they play a critical part in various stages of the buying cycle, says Furquim.

“Producer stories are not always well-represented when the people who actually grow the coffee are not involved in crafting those narratives,” explains Furquim. “We’re giving producers the tools to showcase themselves and their products better. This can make for better representation, more engagement in the sales cycle, and better outcomes.”

The Direct Study and Student Involvement

The first few classes of the semester focused on explaining and untangling the specialty coffee industry for students. Then, Algrano and coffee producers got involved.

Students touring a coffee farm

Eighteen growers—six from Guatemala and 12 from Honduras—took part this semester.

Luiza and Karl Weinhold, author of Cheap Coffee, facilitated the workshops. They let producers and students know what information to include in the farm stories and guided them through the process of creating each story.

During spring break, students had the option of joining a trip to Antigua, Guatemala, a hub of coffee farms. Of the 13 students in the class, eight participated in this alternative spring break experience.

Over the course of a week, students went on the De La Gente farm tour. They also listened to a presentation by the national coffee industry association as well as panel discussions with local coffee professionals. They also met several of the coffee producers face-to-face.

The Power of Firsthand Experience

This opportunity was particularly impactful for student Alina Mencias 24EvMBA, who’s also the program manager for Goizueta’s Start:ME. It allowed students to meet the farmers they were supporting and see their lived experiences.

Students meet coffee producers face-to-face

“I felt like they were friends because I’d spent so much time talking to them this semester,” says Mencias. “To give them a hug and meet their children…it felt like you were becoming part of the community.”

Mencias says the farm tour and in-person meetings really put into perspective the hard work that goes into coffee production. It’s one thing to learn about the coffee-production process. However, it’s another thing entirely to walk through that process alongside the farmers, she explained.

“You always want to do a good job, but meeting the farmers makes you feel like you’re fighting for them in a different way,” says Mencias.

The experience also led to more productive post-trip discussions and workshops, given the students’ new insights into the lives of their farmers.

Mencias also enjoyed a coffee shop scavenger hunt that De La Gente organized. It let students explore the city and see the importance of the specialty coffee market to the community.

“Conducting research in this way allows us to curate a range of farm stories from a large number of coffee growers,” explains Roberts. “At the same time, it provides a collaborative global learning experience for students.”

Looking Ahead

The directed study will continue into the next academic year (Fall 2024 and Spring 2025). Another trip to Guatemala will take place in March 2025.

Roberts is happy that this project can “provide a robust foundation for global learning engagements” for students across Emory, particularly those with cultural familiarity and proficiency of the Spanish language. Students in the anthropology, business, film and media, Latin America and Caribbean studies, Portuguese, and Spanish programs should enroll.

Students interested in enrolling in the three-credit directed study in Fall 2024 should complete this interest form

Learn more about this project and all of the work being done through the Business & Society Institute.