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NCCR North-South - Research Partnerships for Sustainable Development

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Coffee Value Chains


Global Markets, Local Production: Options for Sustainable Development

The Political Economy of Coffee

The production and trade of agro-commodities is one of the major issues of globalisation. The dependency of local producers on global markets and their ability to adapt to its demands are factors crucial not only to individual livelihoods but also to economic development at the local and national levels.

The NCCR North-South research project “The Political Economy of Coffee” studies the role of local and national actors and institutional structures in the production of agro-commodities for sale on the global market.

It considers an important agro-commodity – coffee – grown in the rural highlands of countries in the South and East, with demand, trade and value addition usually driven by consumption in urban centres and policies largely determined in the North. Thus, not only highland-lowland interdependencies, but also North-South and centre-periphery relations are considered. It further deals with global economic systems linking different spatial contexts where production, trade, processing and consumption of agro-commodities are occurring, and their impacts at multiple scales so far only marginally addressed by NCCR North-South research.


    A first objective is to understand the impact of the dramatic price slump and price volatility for coffee on statehood, national political economies, institutional arrangements and environments, and production systems within the commodity chain for coffee. A second objective is to analyse adaptations of land management practices and livelihood strategies in relation to changing commodity prices and new production and trade arrangements and their outcomes with regard to livelihoods, inter-group relations and resource use systems. Main research questions consider the ways in which the social and environmental effects of livelihood adaptations are linked to changes in the global agro-commodities market and how they can conditioned by the impact of global supply and on world market prices. Another issue addressed is that of new methods being promoted for sustainable coffee production: their efficacity in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability criteria and their long-term consequences for livelihoods and natural resource availablilty.


    The main approach is a political economy approach, analysing the nature of power within and between societies related to the production, trade, processing and consumption of agro-commodities. Methodologically, a transdisciplinary and comparative case study approach will be applied. Three
    holistic case studies  will be conducted, each in a different region: the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia), East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania) and South-East Asia (Vietnam).  Relevant data will be gathered by various quantitative and qualitative methods from a wide variety of sources. Household strategy adaptations, national policy adaptations, changing actor relations etc. and their social, economic and environmental outcomes resulting from changes in the world market for coffee, will be studied as phenomena embedded in a specific political, cultural, socio-economic and environmental context.


    Scientific outputs are related to new insights on the ongoing discussions of the role of commodities on poverty and natural resource management. Methodologically it contributes analytical frameworks allowing to link actors at various levels from local to global, and comparing the structure and development of a commodity chain considering its political (power) and ecological contexts. The overall aim of the project is contribute, through evidence and analysis, to the formulation of policy recommendations for pursuing mitigation strategies at the appropriate scale (local, national, global) and addressing the most relevant contexts (production, trade, processing, consumption of specific agro-commodities). It further intends to contribute to produce generalisable knowledge, which lends itself to the elaboration of appropriate mitigation strategies in the political, institutional and economic spheres at various levels.


Research 2001-2009

Study Areas

in the world:

The NCCR North-South is hosted by the University of Bern
and funded jointly by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation