As fair trade edges increasingly toward the norm, it’s strange to think that just five or 10 years ago, few people were familiar with the concept. Perhaps 10 years from now, we’ll be able to say the same about direct trade. For now, it’s a relatively unknown term—and an even more unfamiliar practice.
Tim Taylor is one of the few on the forefront of direct trade. As the founder of the nonprofit group Coffee Ambassadors, Taylor works directly, intentionally with Guatemalan coffee farmers—to him, it’s more of a relationship rather than simply a business model. “Fair trade is a certification, and it only exists through cooperatives of farmers, whereas single family farms don’t have access to fair trade, because of the way fair trade is structured,” he says. “It is possible to do direct trade and fair trade at the same time, but the difference is that there’s always a relationship with direct trade, and there’s oftentimes not with fair trade.”
Taylor’s inspiration took hold during his college years at Moody Bible Institute, where he discovered that his newfound interest in coffee combined rather naturally with his desire to do missions work. “When I started getting into coffee I realized, ‘Wow, this is a great vehicle for missions,’” he says. “I started doing a ton of research online and reading a lot of books.” In his research, he ran across a blog from a fifth-generation coffee farmer named Edwin Martinez. It turned out that Martinez had dual citizenship and, as such, could act as a grower, importer and exporter of coffee—an extremely rare combination. Taylor got in touch with Martinez and soon afterward began buying directly from him, and on a visit down to the Guatemalan farm, he met the farm’s manager, Carlos. Since then, he has bought Carlos’ whole crop every year.
“The whole hope was getting into direct-trade relationship coffee for that deep relationship, and to have an impact in the communities through that relationship and the farmers themselves,” Taylor says.
When Carlos was robbed and murdered in January, the Taylors flew down for two months to be with the family. Taylor himself could relate to the pain they felt—he had lost his own brother two years ago. “I was able to relate to the oldest son on that level and have a connection through the understanding and grappling with death,” he says. “We wanted to be there to support them and let them know we care about them more than their coffee.”
For Taylor, business and ministry go hand-in-hand. “Without the business side of what I’m doing, I wouldn’t have the ministry the way I have it,” he says. “It’s paying fair wages, it’s paying premium and it’s paying more than anybody else will offer them while instilling in the growers a sense of dignity that they have something to offer the world. This sends the message that ‘You are worth something. You have something to offer.’ That’s crucial to saying, ‘You’re worth enough that Christ wanted to die for you.’ It opens up more doors to present Christ to people when I go through business, because coffee farmers are dying for somebody to pay a fair price for their coffee, and when somebody actually does, they’re willing to listen to anything that anyone has to tell them who’s paying them well. The money speaks volumes, and it’s the start for a relationship, and a relationship is the vehicle to say Christ wants that relationship with you, and way more than I can offer you.”