A Sustainable Herbs Program Case Study on Ethical Trade Partnerships
by Ann Armbrecht, PhD
Through the Sustainable Herbs Program, I have been working with a select group of companies dedicated to building more ethical and sustainable partnerships with their botanical ingredient suppliers. We are exploring how companies can move beyond transactional business partnerships and support community development from a multi-faceted approach. Alison Czeczuga, Director of Social Impact and Sustainability at Gaia Herbs, and Jefferson Shriver, Co-founder of Doselva, a producer of organic herbs, are both part of this working group and their partnership is one of a series of case studies we are producing on ethical sourcing.
Doselva, a Central American organic spice company founded in 2017, sources turmeric, ginger, vanilla, and cardamom from around 450 Nicaraguan smallholder farmers and processes this raw material for export at a processing facility in Granada, Nicaragua. Gaia has been purchasing certified organic turmeric from Doselva since 2020. That same year, Gaia provided them a grant to develop training materials on regenerative agriculture and agroforestry for Doselva’s new and growing network of farms that were starting to incorporate turmeric into their cultivations.
As Alison said, “The grant was a great foundation for building trust at the beginning of our relationship. While we were qualifying them as a vendor, we were also having conversations about our values. Our conversations were easier and more transparent and from the outset we focused on the vision rather than just the transaction.”
This past March, I was able to join Gaia Herbs employees Stephanie Kane, Global Sourcing Specialist at Gaia Herbs, and Chase Millhollen, Global Sourcing Manager at Gaia Herbs, on a sourcing visit to Doselva.
Diversifying Coffee Farming
Jefferson picked us up in his red Toyota truck in front of the central square in Granada. As he wound his way through the narrow back streets, dodging pedestrians, horse carts, cars, and motorcycles, he described how he first came to Nicaragua as a Mennonite volunteer just after college. His job then was to interview smallholder farmers. Thirty years later, Jefferson is still working with smallholder Nicaraguan farmers. Though he now works in the private sector, for most of his career he worked for international NGOs, especially Catholic Relief Services, and has lived in Nicaragua for the past 23 years.
Jefferson’s work rests on his belief that market-based solutions offer the best long-term option for helping to lift small farmers out of poverty. In addition, like many, he believes that diversifying farming practices in an agroforestry setting is the best way for farmers to become more resilient in the face of growing climate change.
Leaf Rust in Nicaragua
That first morning, we visited Jefferson’s certified organic and bird-friendly farm about an hour southwest of Granada. He began growing certified bird-friendly coffee here in 2010, explaining jokingly that he hoped it could allow him to quit his day job. In 2012, he lost 15% of his harvest from leaf rust (caused by a fungus, Hemileia vastatrix). He was exporting to Birds and Beans in the United States and he was unable to fulfill the order.
Leaf rust wasn’t hitting only his farm. That year coffee leaf rust hit hard in Central America. Over the next two years, it caused an estimated over $1 billion in damage. Climate change is bringing drier, hotter weather to Nicaragua, weakening the coffee trees, making them more vulnerable to pests and leaf rust. Recognizing that coffee was not a viable long-term livelihood solution in a changing environment, Jefferson began to diversify on his own farm by growing vanilla and other spices. This eventually led him to co-found Doselva, as he explains, “to transform the spice trade into a force for social and environmental awareness and change, while… delivering products of the most outstanding quality.”
Agroforestry and Spices for Impact
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and has the highest rate of deforestation in the region. Jefferson explained that agroforestry offers a path for creating harmony between people and the forest.
“In Nicaragua and most of Central America, on the rare occasions when you find communities of people next to standing forests, it is because they are growing shade-grown coffee,” Jefferson writes. “Farmers frequently walked me through their coffee forests, these incredible food forests with a four-layered canopy. These places were a haven for birds and other wildlife, and a consistent and sustainable source of food, fuel, fodder, and cash for families. And as I later learned, these systems are also great carbon sinks and a solution to climate change.”
Growing turmeric and other spices in the understory alongside these stands of shade-grown coffee offers additional income to smallholders, provides field jobs during the slow season for coffee, and diversified income to coffee farmers to become more resilient in the changing environment.
Raw Material Prices
The success of this enterprise depends on Doselva’s ability to export the raw material at a price that supports these communities. This in turn depends on ensuring that the raw material meets the high quality standards required by North American and European companies willing to pay a premium price. Doselva’s turmeric and ginger prices must compete with low prices coming out of India. Part of the challenge is convincing companies that the added costs are worth the value of purchasing raw material from a company that is also committed to addressing the social and environmental challenges faced by smallholder farmers in Central America.“
One of the reasons we developed this relationship with Doselva,” Stephanie explains, “is because they were in Central America. Whenever possible, we look to reduce our climate miles by bringing ingredients closer to our extraction facility in North Carolina. In addition to the environmental reasons, reducing freight from shipping long distances is a benefit that outweighs the higher price.”
Jefferson began working with coffee farmers growing certified Fairtrade and organic coffee, many of whom were in coops formed in the late 1990s (See Nicaragua Tierra Nueva – OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]). These coops are well established with several hundred members and highly developed trade networks exporting coffee and honey to Fairtrade markets in Europe and North America. These coops have offered extensive training programs in everything from agroforestry practices to navigating international quality standards and trading networks. Some of these farmers had already begun growing turmeric for other US based companies and so were ready to begin selling raw material to Doselva.
The first phase of Doselva’s business plan has been to establish a processing center to wash, cut, dry, and store this raw material and to develop partnerships with companies interested in sourcing certified organic turmeric, ginger, and other spices from a company with a social mission.
These plans include expanding into Honduras to diversify their supply networks and manage the company’s risk. He and his business partners considered expanding into Costa Rica. “That would be safer [because of the political, economic, and social infrastructure for international trade],” he said, “but the impact would be less. And I’m not doing this work to be safe. I’m doing it to change the world.”
The second stage of the business is to use these markets for spices to improve the social, economic, and environmental conditions in the farming communities. He was open with Stephanie and Chase that this second phase was a work in progress. Both Jefferson’s commitment to that broader vision and his acknowledgement that that vision would take a lot of work to manifest impressed me. Stephanie explained, “Most, if not all, of the turmeric is grown on Fair Trade-certified coffee farms. Turmeric is one of our largest volume ingredients, so the potential for impact is great. As turmeric becomes more established in Nicaragua and part of the fair trade scheme, we’ll see the same impacts from the fair trade premium for turmeric – farmers making decisions for their communities.”
On the second day, we visited the processing center. Men and women busily prepared a container shipment of fresh ginger to ship to US markets (they process turmeric in the same way). Inside the large warehouse, employees put the ginger through a series of steps for washing and cleaning the roots (rhizomes). Others were spreading sliced ginger on screens to dry in the sun for another shipment. The processing center employees thirty-eight people. An additional twenty-nine look over quality control, traceability, certifications, and sales, plus there are agricultural specialists who work in the field directly with farmers.
Conversations about sourcing botanicals often focus on wild collectors and farmers. But the processing of raw material — cleaning, drying, cutting and sifting, and storing — can make or break quality. Processing facilities also have significant impacts, positive and negative, on the communities where they are based. These facilities offer skilled jobs that, unlike farming or wild collection, offer steady income year-round. Depending on the environmental standards of the company, they also can have significant impacts on water use and quality, on energy use, on climate, on air quality and more.
For example, washing fresh ginger and turmeric roots requires large amounts of water and Doselva hopes to implement a water recycling system. “By visiting the processing center, Stephanie said, “We can see where Doselva is working to minimize their environmental impact. They recognize where improvements are needed to develop systems for better managing and conserving their water use.”
Growing Turmeric as an Adaptation to Climate Change
We spent three days visiting farmers in the mountains northeast of Granada, where coffee farmers had been growing turmeric for 2–3 years. We reached the first of these farms after driving over rough dirt roads and walking along a path through neighboring shade-grown coffee fields. Neighbors and family members of Remigio, the owner of the land, were hours into harvesting turmeric roots. Red sacks filled with freshly harvested turmeric roots stood along one end of the field. Dusty backpacks hung from branches in the center of a tree on the edge of the field, which offered welcome shade in the hot Nicaraguan sun.
“The most encouraging thing I saw was how the addition of turmeric meets so many needs for the farmers,” Stephanie said later. “Though part of the fabric of life in Nicaragua, coffee is becoming susceptible to the impacts of climate change and has more volatile pricing. By incorporating turmeric into the agroforestry model, the farmers become more resilient by having options.”
Remigio described the work he does to care for his coffee and now his turmeric. He used cover cropping to fix nitrogen and other practices he learned from the coffee coop and from experimenting on his own. On one manzana (the equivalent of 1.75 acres) cleared for cattle he planted coffee instead. He did a soil study, found the topsoil was depleted, and so applied guava as a nitrogen fixer and added leaf litter. In another plot he grew turmeric in fields where he also grew sugar cane for erosion control, bananas, citrus, and more. His soil is improving over time.
Developing a Microeconomy
We asked Remigio why he was growing turmeric. “With coffee I make money,” he answered, “and with turmeric I can make money.” Turmeric brings in money during the lean months, he said. In turn, he is able to hire others in the community to help with weeding and harvesting the turmeric fields during the seasons when coffee doesn’t require any labor.
All of the farmers we visited grew Fairtrade-certified coffee. Fairtrade provides a minimum price which helps when the price of coffee drops. Yet, that income isn’t enough to support the farmers the entire year. Farmers wanted to grow alternative crops that don’t compete in space or time with coffee. So far, it is working. More farmers are interested in growing turmeric each year, and current farmers keep adding more turmeric to their landscape. This means it is bringing in additional income. “Farmers will be the first ones to let us know if they are not making a profit,” Dennis, the agricultural extension agent for the coop in the region, said.
“I love how turmeric provides security both to the farmers and the laborers in the lean season,” Doselva technical advisor Hugo Paz explained. Neighbors and family and friends maybe have less land, but when money comes in, it is distributed in the region, spent in corner stores, spread among smaller households. The turmeric is developing a microeconomy that is much more diverse than it was before.”
Seeing Where the Turmeric Goes
Gaia Herbs brought along bottles of their Turmeric Supreme® formula, bringing the product full circle to one of the farms where its primary ingredient is harvested. Stephanie opened a capsule so they could see the bright orange extract inside, and taste and smell the turmeric. I asked Remigio what he thought. “The roots leave our farm, and we don’t really know how they are used. It’s great to see the finished product and to hear that it is helping so many people. It makes me more enthused to grow more because it is medicinal, and I see it is important.”
“Seeing the farmers react to the product was a surprising highlight,” Stephanie said. “Turmeric is new to Nicaragua, which is a fascinating, dynamic. They are seeing friends use it to help with ailments and working it into traditional dishes. There was a lot of pride seeing what they were doing having a positive impact on people around the world.”
I asked another farmer, Hertio Moren what he hoped his two children, 11 and 9 years old, might do in the future. “I want them to be students,” he said. “In the same way improving and diversifying my crops gives me more options, I want them to have more options. Studying and getting an education will give them those options.”
Listening to Farmers
The farms we visited were a mix of shade-grown coffee, banana trees, mango, avocado, sugar cane for erosion, some cardamom, a mix of hardwoods (many planted as part of tree-planting initiatives by NGOs like Taking Root), and turmeric. The diversity of the farms amazed me. Jefferson said that the farmers around San Juan del Rio Coco have the best polyculture that he has seen in Nicaragua and maybe even in all of Central America. They are also well organized from participating in the very active coffee cooperatives in this region. We ate several meals in a restaurant recently opened with funds from the Fairtrade premium, creating jobs for younger people in the community and broadening the impact beyond the farms.
I asked Jefferson what he thought they did well with farmers and what they didn’t do so well. He thought for a moment. They are trying to be a one-stop shop, he said, to attract farmers to sell to them and be loyal to their supply chain. “We do that by making sure we take care of the farmers’ needs. Things go well when we listen to them and are able to do that.”
Why Partnership & Supplier Visits Matter
I was impressed with the scope and depth of Jefferson’s vision, with the creativity and ingenuity of the farmers we visited, and with how daunting the challenge and necessity for change is. The visit was invaluable for deepening the relationship between Gaia, a brand company sourcing raw materials, and Doselva, the producer company providing those raw materials. As we walked on dirt paths to the farmers’ plots of lands, Stephanie, Chase, and Jefferson spoke about other possible herb and spice materials that Doselva could supply. While we drove for hours in the truck, hiked through a cloud forest on one of our few free afternoons, or shared meals, we all shared stories from our past, challenges in our work, and perspectives and opinions on almost every topic we could think of.
These conversations would never have happened in the same open-ended way during meetings at trade shows and even less likely on a Zoom call. This created deeper connections so that when thornier topics like quality, terms of payment, or shipping challenges came up, they discussed them in a context of empathy and friendship. At one point, when asking some more specific questions about the processing center, Chase, reassured Jefferson that this wasn’t an audit. “I’m just mentioning these things so you can be aware of them and so you know what you need to address down the road.”
Jefferson later mentioned that Gaia’s recognition that nothing is perfect in turn allows him to be more open about the challenges Doselva is facing. By being open and transparent, Gaia is creating a space for Doselva to be open and transparent. “We know we don’t always get it right or have it all worked out.” Stephanie adds, “the Sourcing and Social Impact teams at Gaia set out to develop a deeper relationship because we saw from the beginning that Doselva was the real deal. No two relationships will be the same but replicating this throughout our Supply Network is where we’ll start to see the extent of our impact”.
Making a Difference
Many companies don’t have the resources – or don’t invest the resources – in site visits to suppliers. Yet so much can be accomplished in face-to-face visits that those trips likely save time, resources, and money in the long run. They provide an opportunity to understand the issues and challenges from other perspectives, which is essential, as Jefferson said, “to accomplish the changes they hope to make and, ultimately, to change the world.”
The last day as we drove six hours back to Granada, I asked Jefferson how he managed it all. “I didn’t know what I was getting into at the beginning.” He added that it was challenging, of course. “But it’s also really exciting,” he said. “I am constantly asking how can I most uniquely make a difference?”