Development and international aid workers have long played a vital role in the exploitation of cash crops such as coffee in emerging economies. Equipping locals with the tools and technology they need to build sustainable businesses is a key contributor to long-term economic growth and stays true to the old maxim: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

However, many charitable organizations, NGOs, and governments are struggling with budgetary constraints and skills shortages. Only a handful of developed countries meet the UN’s stated target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid projects. Skilled foreign aid workers not only improve information exchange and help modernize technology and operational methods, but they serve as advisers in matters relating to fair trade and worker advocacy.

Without advice from impartial experts, coffee cooperatives and coffee plantations struggle to secure the best price for their crops on the global market. Indeed, coffee industry workers can end up short-changed when no one is advocating for their right to fair working conditions and reasonable pay.

Charting The Emergence Of A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Coffee cultivation has changed dramatically over the years. The first widespread preparation and consumption of coffee are known to date back at least 600 years, with credible evidence that Yemeni societies enjoyed the drink during the 15th century. Although the beans were picked and roasted at this time in an approximately similar way to today, roaring international trade in the crop didn’t gather steam until later.

Today coffee is a global industry with retail sales in the USA alone totaling over $5bn. Indeed, while accurate estimates are hard to come by due to the informal nature of laboring jobs in the developing world, it is believed that hundreds of millions of jobs globally are supported either directly or indirectly by the trade in coffee.

Despite all this change, the art of picking ripe coffee cherries and roasting the beans stays largely true to the ancient art practiced centuries ago. Most plantations and cooperatives today employ teams of coffee pickers who spend as much as 12 hours each day carrying out the laborious task of gathering the crop.

While coffee picking has stayed largely untouched in many parts of the world, consumer tastes have evolved rapidly in line with industry efforts to brand their product as sustainable, premium tasting, and ethically sourced. Nevertheless, an enormous number of coffee workers live in poverty. Child labor and unfair remuneration are rife. Incidentally, the inadequate representation of plantation workers was in large part behind the schism between the two key North American fair trade bodies: Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA.

While Fairtrade International has long stayed true to the principle that worker cooperatives offer the best deal for ordinary laborers, Fair Trade USA pioneered a more all-encompassing approach that aimed to secure a fair deal for workers on large plantations as well.

Considering A Career In International Development

International development workers in South America, Asia, and Africa typically work alongside coffee-growing cooperatives rather than large plantations. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, plantations are operated as profit-generating businesses and as a result, tend to have greater access to technology and global markets than smaller worker-owned firms. Secondly, worker-owned cooperatives offer greater opportunity for poverty alleviation because profits are shared among community members rather than landowners. Although some argue that the monetary rewards enjoyed by large plantations ‘trickle-down’ to the workforce and community at large, many analysts feel that exploitative labor practices and a lack of organized unions trap plantation workers in ongoing poverty. In effect, the workers are locked out of enjoying the rewards of the wider growth in the global coffee boom.

If you’re interested in a career in international development there are several key points to keep in mind:

  • Although specialist degrees in international development and related areas (such as this one from King’s) can be useful; technology, engineering (and indeed any STEM field) is in high-demand as expertise in this area helps fuel capital accumulation in target countries. These gains can be realized in the form of both new technology and the development of human capital.
  • NGOs, governments, and charitable organizations vary from one to another in their hiring practices but many will employ various forms of aptitude testing and assessment centers in order to identify top candidates. Competition can be fierce and prior experience may be required.
  • While work in international development involves a great deal of foreign travel and can be emotionally fulfilling and intellectually stimulating, it can also be taxing and physically exhausting. Proper mental preparation is a key part of readying yourself for your role.

Opportunities For Agricultural And Coffee Industry International Development Work

  • is a UK based network for organizations involved in international development. Their website offers an excellent tool to carry out highly customized searches for vacancies in this area.
  • Skilled engineers are in particularly high demand in the coffee sector and opportunities for aid work overseas are offered by charities including Engineers Without Borders (this informative article contains many other links to organizations that match engineers with international development positions). EWB organizes a highly-regarded program known as Engineering Service Corps and interested individuals are able to apply online.
  • Skillshare is a UK based careers advice website that also offers opportunities for aid and development workers in African and South American coffee enterprises. They also offer some insight into the mechanical aptitude test that is a common and recurring feature of the interview process for engineering-related roles in any industry. Modern coffee processing plants make use of a great deal of cutting-edge equipment and engineers are particularly suited to work assisting in production line deployment and improvement. You will, therefore, be required to have a baseline understanding of engineering techniques as measured by a standardized test to do industry placements involving this kind of technology.
  • Although much of the development work in coffee is hands-on, there is also a great need for staff with deep knowledge of the various fairtrade certification programs and the ability to clearly communicate this knowledge to local workers and cooperatives. Helping small farmers access these programs and understand their requirements can boost the pay of local people and create meaningful change in the quality of life of communities. Roles of this nature can be sought, among other places, with the Foreign Agricultural Service, and on the UN Jobs website.

Other job sources exist besides those mentioned above. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to discuss this area in greater depth.