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In the last 10 years, the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Programme has risen to the challenge of combining excellent coffee, productivity, social progress and environmental protection. The programme's success is all thanks to the talents of its 53,000 coffee growers.

“With the help of the programme, we see our farm as a model to be followed: more quality, cleanliness and organisation.” So speaks Colombian cafetero Diego Lopez. These words could be spoken by any one of tens of thousands of men and women. Farmers with a strong connection to their land, who are happy to know that their coffee will be enjoyed the world over. They are at the centre of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable QualityTM Programme.

Ten years after its launch in 2003, the AAA Programme was given the perfect birthday present: proof of its positive impact on the lives of coffee growers, the areas they live in and the quality of the coffee that Nespresso buys from them. This proof came from an independent colombian organisation, the centre for regional, coffee and business studies (crece), based on a study of 1200 Colombian farms, both affiliated with the AAA Programme and independent. On each of the three criteria studied, the margin in favour of AAA farms was undeniable.

“Outside Colombia, the Programme is carrying out identical work in seven other countries,” says Guillaume Le Cunff, Nespresso’s International and Marketing Strategy Director. “It’s a difficult road to travel, but the past ten years have already given us opportunities to work together to improve the quality of our products, the well-being of workers and respect for the environment. It’s what we call a virtuous circle.”


This unique programme owes its existence to incredible rates of growth. At the beginning of the 2000s, Nespresso was experiencing fast development, year after year. This success could have complicated sourcing of high quality coffee, which was central to the company’s ethos. In order to maintain levels of excellence while increasing quantity, Nespresso and its farmers had to become genuine partners.

This could only happen by inventing a new measure of quality. Since the best quality coffee in some countries is AA standard, a third A was added for economic, environmental and social sustainability. Farmers who subscribed to this approach would be given a higher price for their produce. This was nothing less than a new coffee production model.

This huge project would have to be built on confidence, sharing and passion. Cafeteros in the AAA programme are pioneers. They are given much advice and supported along the way. This support comes from itinerant agronomists from professional organisations commissioned by Nespresso, such as the extensionistas of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC). They provide expert advice at a day-to-day level.

It is also important to track the progress of individual farmers. That is why Nespresso is developing the first tool for evaluating sustainable quality, the TASQTM. This tool defines the ideal colour at which the cherry should be harvested, and asks questions such as whether the farm’s water resources are well managed, and whether harvesters are lodged in adequate housing. The 296 criteria help cafeteros perfect their farming techniques, supported by the agronomists.

The AAA Programme was first implemented in Costa Rica. A well-known NGO, The Rainforest Alliance, was one of its key partners. This organisation protects the tropical rainforest and supports sustainable farming with an effective strategy. “We quickly realised that collaborating with businesses produced results,” remembers Chris Willie, one of the organisation’s founders. “The private sector has more impact on the environment than all governments put together.” Tasks are shared between the expertise of the two partners: Nespresso oversees quality, while The Rainforest Alliance covers sustainable development. Agronomists, local partners, cooperatives and transporters make up the rest of the system, with farmers at the centre.


Ten years after it was launched, the AAA Programme is now working alongside farmers in eight countries: Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia and India.


It takes four years for a coffee tree to produce its first good fruits. Matching one’s pace to the rhythm of a complex programme is no faster. It took Colombian farmer Diego Lopez four years to improve the sustainability of his farm and increase production, all the while maintaining quality. “We made a huge effort, and it was certainly worth it! Now we only harvest perfect cherries.” The coffee of which Diego is so proud, the Rosabaya de Colombia Grand Cru, has travelled to every continent with its fantastic aromas. It embodies the very regions in which it grows, Cauca and Nariño: “You can taste the region and the work of its people in this coffee,” enthuses one agronomist.

The most astonishing aspect of the AAA Programme is that it allows every single person involved to discover riches they never knew they possessed. Farmers from Santander in Colombia appreciate being able to share expertise. Thanks to the Programme, they have entered into conversation with coffee producers in Tolima, a region twelve hours to the south. Others talk about protecting a watercourse, crop rotation, building covered drying areas… All steps in the right direction. And the environment is one of the main beneficiaries.

The thick vegetation overhanging the coffee trees protects biodiversity in the same way as the tropical rainforest, helping out hummingbirds and orchids alike. Furthermore, the AAA Programme proves that sustainability and quality can go hand in hand. A coffee cherry depulping and treatment unit constructed in Jardín, Colombia with the support of Nespresso has helped reduce the amount of water used 2.5 times over, while improving quality and increasing farmers’ revenue. Speaking about the benefits of the programme, a cafetero jokes, “Better clothes, better meals… it’s like one of our old fairy tales!”


Will we ever achieve complete sustainability? No – in the same way that you can never reach the horizon. But that does not mean we should not continue pursuing our aim. After ten years, the lesson we have learnt is that satisfied farmers means quality coffee. This is a valuable lesson for all our partners, because they all share a common gift. They can all grow together.

Text Francis Dolric - Photography Olivier Gachen




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