Coffee is produced mainly in countries of the global South, while it is predominantly consumed in countries in the North. Due to this geographical distance, the coffee value chain is rather long and involves many actors. Typically, coffee is grown by smallholder farmers, traded through local, national and international buyers to roasters and retailers until it finally reaches the consumers. Challenges along the chain include poverty among coffee producers, environmental degradation in coffee producing countries, little flow of information and communication between the coffee farmers, local, national and international buyers, roasters and consumers as well as concentration of power among a little number of gate keepers, usually located in the Global North.

Therefore, some actors co-established value chains that aim to increase mutual and direct communication and learning processes between value chain actors, based on direct contacts, internet platforms and/or social media. Within the discourse of global value chain analysis (Gereffi, 1994) these can be categorized as relational value chains, characterized by “mutual dependence regulated through reputation, social and spatial proximity, family and ethnic ties, and the like […]. Dense interactions and knowledge sharing are supported by the deep understanding value chain partners have of one another” (Frederick, 2016). Thus – following Polanyi’s concept of social embeddedness (Polanyi, 2001 [1944]) – these relational coffee value chains are trying to increase the social proximity of actors involved in producing, processing, trading and consuming coffee. Supposedly, these relational value chains also exchange information, knowledge, and have increased communication and feedback loops (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Exemplary relational value chain

The proposed research aims to scrutinize different strategies to create social proximity in geographically long coffee value chains and to understand their effects on dominant challenges of the international coffee market. The following research questions should be answered:

1. How can social proximity in coffee value chains be measured?
2. How does social proximity affect value chain interactions?
3. How do relational value chains conquer the prevailing challenges in the coffee sector or create new challenges?

In a comparative case study approach different types of relational value chains should be investigated in more detail based on the global value chain analysis. Based on semi-structured interviews with value chain actors in producing and consuming countries, their social proximity will be analysed. This PhD project aims to contribute new, integrative insights into the potential of socially proximate and relational coffee value chains to address challenges in the coffee sector.

Frederick, S. (2016). Concept & Tools. Retrieved from
Gereffi, G. (1994). The Organization of Buyer-Driven Global Commodity Chains: How US Retailers Shape Overseas Production Networks. In G. Gereffi & M. Korzeniewicz, Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism (pp. 95–122). Westport: Greenwood Press.
Polanyi, K. (2001 [1944]). The Great Transformation (3rd ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.