The purpose of this paper is to assess the effects that different competitiveness strategies based on commercial quality attributes may have on the livelihoods of small coffee growers in Colombia. Using a combination of global value chain and sustainable livelihood approaches, it appears that the impacts of traditionally applied material quality, symbolic and in-person services characteristics are quite different for the growers.
The possibility of smallholders to benefit from quality attributes is greatly influenced by the global chain governance structure imposed by big multinational roasters in developed countries and the National Federation of Coffee Growers who acts as domestic lead firm and official external regulator in Colombia.
The unequal power distribution in the chain has effects on growers’ income as they grasp direct benefits from the first transformations of coffee, but are far from the end product that consumers buy. Most of the value added during the coffee transformation process accrues to the consuming country where branding, marketing and advertising are high-value generating activities. From the micro-level perspective it appears that endowments of key assets are not enough for growers to reach the poverty line through coffee production exclusively, while the socio-cultural assets of coffee growing are also threatened by disintegrating pressures from the nearby capital Bogotá. Further material and symbolic quality improvements may benefit the growers but are usually not enough to raise household income above the poverty line. A regional denomination of origin strategy may improve the local economic and cultural sustainability of coffee growing.