The Formula for Quality

The Formula for Quality

What’s the secret to the perfect cup of coffee? For the past two years I have tried to formulate quality, specifically trying to draw linkages between high quality coffee production and quality of life of coffee farmers in Veracruz, Mexico. It was a seemingly perfect study design: In 2010 the Agroecological Center for Coffee (CAFECOL) introduced a new certification to assess the quality of coffee on a 100-point Q-score.[1] Any coffee that scored at least 84 points could be sold through an online auction directly to specialty coffee roasters. CAFECOL wanted to evaluate their program by comparing three broad groups of farmers: those who produced high quality coffee and successfully sold through the online auction, those who produced high quality coffee but were not successful in selling through the auction, and those who were unable to reach the 84 minimum point score. They posed the following question: What make the ‘successful’ coffee farmers different than the rest?

The hypothesis: Farmers who make high quality coffee have a high(er) quality of life.

For the first three months I developed an interview protocol with the partnering organizations CAFECOL and the Institute of Ecology (INECOL). For the next nine months I interviewed 40 coffee farmers and their families (including 20 living stays) in the high altitude micro-regions of Coatepec, Huatuasco, and Zongolica. Then I spent the next 12 months cleaning up the data, revisiting the literature, and writing up the methodology as part of my MPhil degree at Cambridge.

Now, degree in hand, I have a sinking feeling that I have failed miserably to address the initial question. The thing is, there is no one typology for a ‘successful’ coffee farmer, and no simple measure for quality of life.

I tried everything. I ran statistical tests, controlling for regions, gender, age, income, and education level. To deal with the issue of too many possible explanatory factors (>300), I ran a statistical analysis called Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to compress these into new variables and search for patterns in the data. From the qualitative side, I coded and re-coded pages of interview transcripts and ran text queries in search of salient themes. While these revealed some important insights (and importantly, methodological limitations), questions remain of how to combine multiple analytical methods.

We had assumed that quality for coffee could be simply measured through the Q-Score. The initial sampling design controlled for farmers with different Q-scores to understand differences between groups. However, we had not accounted for the possibility of variation within the Q-scores themselves. It is hard enough to achieve high quality in one instance, harder still to achieve consistently high quality. Nor was this outcome always an active decision. A farmer may have done exactly the same from one year to the next--harvested from the same plants, using the same inputs, and with the same processing techniques, yet due to uncontrollable factors like climate and disease, not achieved the same level of quality. Just as persistent happiness is not a realistic goal, quality coffee seemed to come in cycles.[2] Thus scoring high on quality one year did not guarantee success the following.

Importantly, how do you relate quality of coffee back to quality of life? That relationship is far more complex than any statistical analysis, for embedded within the notion of ‘quality living’ are the intangible aspects that make life worth living but really cannot be measured: e.g., love, compassion, spirituality, place attachment, and health. Proxies such as income and weekly expenditures can be helpful approximations, but should not be used to assess the holistic notion of human wellbeing.

What is my final assessment? I have no concrete findings, only intuitive “hunches.” Indeed, there was something different about the farmers scored higher on the quality coffee assessment, such as an entrepreneurial spirit, a spiritual connection to their land, and a deep concern for the future generations. On a personal note, living with those farmers taught me to live differently. I learned to relish the simple gifts of life like running water, toilet paper, and a pillow for one’s head. I saw through their eyes the joys of waking up to breathtaking landscapes and feeling the soul-warming comfort of corn tortillas. I listened, feeling helpless, to their hardships, yet inspired by their tenacity to live. Those farmers taught me something very important: quality of living is about being present.

So what is the formula for quality? There is no recipe of success. I may have failed at the initial task, but succeed at a different goal: learning to live and to experience wellbeing. It has not been an easy journey, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. As Confucius once said, “by three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; And third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

 Coffee is a bitter story. The journey has been rocky. In the end, I have learned to savor life sweetness and see through different eyes. Perhaps, that was the goal of this degree—and why it’s called a Masters of Philosophy.

[1] The Q-score is an internationally recognized quantitative assessment of 100 points derived from a composite of factors like the cup profile, body, and aroma

[2] Coffee plants tend to have three-year cycles of good and bad years. Plants may be working day and night, but that’s not to mean that they are always productive (like us humans).

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful comments about your work for the past two years. Keep your final assessment in mind as you continue to grapple with how to answer the question if there is a relationship between the quality in our output to our wellbeing and happiness.


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