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“The sustainability challenges we face on the planet are multifaceted, complex, and interconnected. To understand them and address them effectively requires a holistic “systems” view that is still largely absent from most mainstream approaches in science, government, business, and education.” – Michael Ben-Eli, founder of The Sustainability Laboratory.

Here at Hilo, we believe this to be true, and that’s why we think systems. With this article, we would like to explain to you a bit of our systemic understanding of the system (thus far) and the challenges we are facing.


In 2020, we completed a course on systems practice at the Acumen Academy in a team formed by Martín Rojas and Hannes Soballa, and this article shares some of the outcomes of that course. If you are interested in learning more about systems, we can strongly recommend this course, which is on top completely free.

Our first step was to figure out if we are in fact facing a complex system or not. Afterwards, we defined the challenges that we are responding to. Similar to our overall goals, these are: The inequality and socio-environmental hazards of coffee production and consumption. You may ask yourself: why did we choose to fight against these problems? Well, because we thought that such a great drink as coffee should not be based on the exploitation of humans and nature, all well as on colonialist practices.

Part of understanding if we are dealing with a complex system, meant to dive into the system itself and ask the following questions: 1. Is it well-understood by its agents?, 2. What level of engagement (diversity of perspectives and opinions) does the system tolerate?, 3. What’s the environment or context of the system like?, and 4. Which goals do we want to reach as an organization? The answers were placed on a scale as you can see in the graphic below.

If the answers had a tendency towards the right side of the graphic, this indicated that we are dealing with a complex system. As you can imagine, and see from the graphic: The coffee system is not well understood, there is a huge diversity of opinions, it changes over time (dynamic) and it is highly interconnected. And, last but not least, our goal is a broad change including the way how producers and consumers act, all to be implemented in a sustainable manner over time. 

Even though we know in our hearts that it is difficult to explain to other people why we speak so much about complexity and the importance of embracing it, we hope this perspective helps. The next step was to take one step back in order to regard our philosophy with adequate distance and in context of the current reality.

Guiding Star and Near Star of The Hilo System

We defined a guiding star and a near star for our Hilo initiative efforts. Our guiding star contains that huge unreachable-in-a-life-time-goal we want to achieve, or in other words, our purpose. For us, the guiding star could be paraphrased as: We want to move towards a coffee culture and system that enables peace with nature and participants to work in a dignified way that is built on trust, agency, and knowledge.

The near star can be seen as the next big milestone on our way to the guiding star. Our near star is: To include 5 families (small scale farmers only) in the Hilo system for means of sustainability, strive for a large-scale coffee flow (at least 10-15 Tons/yr) that continuously increases in quality, to act in a peaceful manner with nature, and to have active conversations with producers and consumers about sustainability.

System Framing Questions

After having the guiding and near star defined, we went on to our framing questions. Those questions are meant to help focus our efforts. The framing questions of the Hilo System are: What accounts for a paradigm shift in the de-humanized coffee industry? And what forces account for the current levels of human and natural exploitation in coffee corporate supply chains and distribution channels?

The questions allowed us to think of 8 forces (factors, or variables) that are relevant to our systemic challenge. These factors are: the foundations of capitalism (and colonialism), taxes inhibiting change, the general coffee demand, the entire coffee logistics, environmental influences in production, consumer conversations about the coffee system in cafes and at events, lack of infrastructure in production, coffee wisdom evolution (knowledge building).

These factors do not stand alone, but cause “downstream” effects and are themselves being influenced by “upstream”-effects. In order to identify these, we used mindmaps.

A factor, a mind map

With these factors in mind, we created 8 mind maps (one for each), highlighting the upstream and downstream causes for each of them. Just as an example, each mind map looked similar to this one (you probably cannot see the small letters, but you get the idea).

With regard to all this information, we realized that these factors could have some correlations with each other. Consequently, the next step was to make these correlations visible.

A loop diagram, a factor

After creating 8 mind maps, we went on to create 8 loop diagrams. In this step, we started to connect the factors with loops based on their correlations, some were virtuous loops, others were vicious loops. Some made the system stagnate, while others generated balance. The loops for this factor looked like this:

These loops enabled us to draw a first draft with the aim of moving towards a more adequate software. The goal is to visualize and to operate at a system-level full of factors that range from society to logistics, further encompassing the environment and more. To summarize: We got a first hint of the complexity behind the coffee system.

Hilo | System Causal Model

The final step was to gather all these ideas and apply them together in a system visualization software. The aim? To draw a big causal diagram. The software is called Kumu and we recommend trying it to get an in-depth understanding of various systems.

This model enabled us to focus our efforts on specific systemic leverage points. By doing so, we could step a little bit closer in the direction of our purpose. For example, one of the main outcomes was one deep structure that we uncovered, as can be seen in the following graphic:

Causal loop diagram for coffee trade and influence of the Hilo system.

This graphic reads as follows: Starting from the factor “belief in [the] idea of nature exploitation is OK”, we concluded that: the more (+) this belief is true, the more (+) coffee producers think their work does not have to be transparent. Following, this initial belief will exploit nature.

Going on, the more (+) “need for less transparency”, the more (+) of the idea that “people are tools inside a de-humanized coffee industry” is true, as can be seen in the optimization of profit. The misuse of people as tools leads to a “huge infrastructural gap between the urban and rural realities”, and in turn, this gap, particularly in rural areas, feeds the search for survival and makes coffee producers have more (+) “ambition to look for easy money”.

Of course, there is a lot more this graphic has to say, zooming out of the deep structure. We thought about topics like the environment, society, and coffee logistics, in order to conclude with these graphics. However, it would be out of the scope of this blog entry to dive any deeper. But if you want to dig deep into the entire topic and get aware of its complexity, just follow the following link to the PDF file. There, you can zoom in and out and study all the factors we included in our conversation. Here comes the link: Hilo system perspective.

Thank you for taking the time to read about our efforts to comprehend the system by reconstructing it.

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