It is a bit cliché to say that we learn the most from our failures. But, of course, like most clichés, we repeat it because bears some truth. Presuming we do learn most from our failures, and understanding how critical it is that we learn from one another, then by all means we should be sharing the stories of our failures, even if they are a little embarrassing.

In my recent column, The Seven Cardinal Sins of Coffee Sustainability, I call on everyone in coffee sustainability to stop covering our tracks, to fess up when something has failed. Following my own advice, I want to share a story of my own professional failure, in the hopes that you can avoid the mistakes I made.

From Vietnam to Guatemala, and all the way to Papua New Guinea

The story starts in 2006 in eastern Guatemala. I had just finished five years in the highlands of Vietnam, working on behalf of GIZ, Kraft Foods Germany and Douwe Egberts, in partnership with a state-owned enterprise. The improvement of processing systems and the farmer field-school-based extension system were solid successes (credit to my colleague Michiel Kuit!), and I felt optimistic that this model could achieve similar results in Guatemala.

I was blinded by the success we had just experienced, and I forgot what makes this work important. As we developed the project in Guatemala, we saw good success in our pilots and then rushed to build on them. We scaled too quickly, well before we truly understood the lessons from the pilots. The result was that farmers, the very people this work should serve, got left behind.

If you take nothing else from this story, at least take this:

Only scale if you see strong local leadership and if you fully understand the mechanics of impact. Most importantly, put farmers first!

Our new partner at the time, a large iconic Canadian roaster, had their eye on Guatemala, and as the new regional manager for the Hanns R Neumann Stiftung, I was responsible for design and oversight. As always, speed was a priority, so I sat down with the technical team to design a high-impact program with ambitious timelines.

We came up with some ambitious targets:

  • Build a brand new farmer association with 800-1,000 or more farmers, with the capacity to bring at least 25,000 bags of coffee to the market
  • Establish a training curriculum to increase productivity and implement sustainable practices
  • Support the government to implement 10 regional washing stations to bring more value to farmgate
  • Connect the association to pre-financing from an exporter

You’ll notice one thing missing, though. Our targets didn’t have an explicit goal in terms of how the work affected farmers. Remember that for later.

Scale! Scale?

The results we achieved were not what we had hoped.

  • We established 40 regional farmer groups of 20 to 30 farmers each, at which point transparent structures were defined and a leadership structure was set. We got this done in a year, but the reality is we needed at least two years. As a result, the groups were never as robust as they should have been.
  • Before the farmer groups were ever mature, we pushed to unify the regional farmer groups under a larger structure with a management board. We should have allowed ourselves at least three years to let leadership skills mature, but we did it in 18 months. Mistakes compounded — the weak regional groups joined under an even weaker secondary structure. These groups existed on paper, but the social and economic bonds weren’t there yet.
  • This is the outcome that was most problematic: We linked farmers to an exporter who gave them pre-financing. In effect, we let him pump money into the structure much before the technical agronomy training elements had improved productivity. The businesses weren’t ripe yet and the farmers ended up indebted to the exporter. They would have been better off had we never showed up.

I am able to share this story because we fixed our mistake. We ultimately developed a solution, but it took two years, longer than if we’d been patient and gotten it right the first time. All of this could have been avoided if we had been realistic on the front end about how long things would take.

Even beyond the project itself, cleaning up the damage and redeveloping trust has taken time. Today, I work closely with our roasting partner in Canada, and we are far more flexible and thoughtful in our work because of having gone through this together.

I believe this mistake was a net positive. We are far more realistic about the time it takes to build farmer organizations, and we ensure that everyone, from partners to farmers to implementing staff, understands that linear progress is not the norm, especially in agriculture. But getting to this net positive was painful.

Most importantly, today we are more disciplined about putting people, and specifically farmer-driven leadership, at the center of the work. Never again will we treat farmers as a means to an end. We now factor farmers’ culture, families, other obligations, and relationships to risk into the design of every project, and ask them what they want and need.

Why didn’t I remember my early learnings from Papua New Guinea? I don’t know!

I’ll share one more story that illustrates this final point. I was writing my MSc thesis in Papua New Guinea on smallholder coffee systems, working with PNG’s Coffee Industry Corporation. Coffee farmers there are almost exclusively indigenous people, integrating coffee into incredibly diverse and elaborate food crop systems (in their objectives, very similar to the farming systems of the Q’eqchi’ in Guatemala by the way). When I visited a farmer, I saw the coffee plot, and watched as beans were falling to the ground and rotting.

Immediately, my years of Western thinking and biases blinded me: “This poor guy, he doesn’t know he’s leaving money on the ground.” I asked him why he didn’t collect the rest of the coffee, and he said something that has changed my whole world view: “I pick and sell as much coffee as I need to pay for school fees and some equipment. That’s all I need. Why would I spend any more time on it, when I already have food and a healthy and happy family?”

Is it any wonder that the Coffee Industry Corporation, long pushing productivity, has struggled to achieve its goals? And what does it say that the coffee industry in Papua New Guinea is worried that, as the government gets rid of school fees, farmers will have even less incentive to produce coffee?

I learned these lessons the hard way but they’ve stuck with me and, I hope, made me better at what I do.

Now it’s your turn. What did you have to learn the hard way?


This article originally appeared on Linked In on February 27, 2018.