March 3, 2022

Taking coffee back to its cradle – THE WILD!


agricultural expansion and demand for wood fuel have led to the loss of one-third of Ethiopia’s natural forest

Avatar: Dawit Ketema
By Dawit Ketema

Dawit Ketema is a media & communication consultant and an acclaimed professional in the study of Amharic & Geez languages

Taking coffee back to its cradle – THE WILD!
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How a forest coffee project – Partnerships for Forests (P4F) implemented by  Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) proved to offer a much higher economical benefit by responsibly using than abusing Ethiopia’s natural forests

Three years back in January 2019, the Ethiopian media outlets reverberated the news of a more than two decades scientific study by the Royal Botanic Gardens, which forecasted that 60% of wild coffee species across the world are threatened with extinction largely due to the effects of climate change, coupled with deforestation and increasing severity of fungal pathogens and pests. 

The news deservedly received significant publicity in Ethiopia whose economy highly depends on coffee while being one of the largest exporters earning 906 million USD during2020/21 Ethiopian fiscal year alone or 30% of the nation’s export income on average. The coffee sector also engages an astounding 15 million people or about 13% of the population. 

Even the remote likelihood of coffee being demised, with it the livelihood of millions of Ethiopians, and the rich cultural and historical heritage sounded as a dreadful prospect for many Ethiopians, if not the world. The fact that Ethiopia is the birthplace of wild Arabica coffee wouldn’t matter anymore when and if coffee is gone altogether. 

More importantly, the study indicated that Arabica coffee is now categorized as an endangered species, the world’s most popular coffee accounting for roughly 60% of the global production and the only coffee species in Ethiopia. 

The study projected that the number of locations in Ethiopia where Arabica coffee grows could decrease by as much as 85% by 2080 or in just 60 years. The influence of climate change, exacerbated by the increased decimation of Ethiopia’s natural forests, may turn up to 60% of the land used for Ethiopia’s coffee production to become unsuitable for coffee farming.

Coffee didn’t Just come from the forest, it needs the forest to survive

A worrying trend that received far lesser media coverage and happening for far longer and at a quicker pace is the destruction of Ethiopia’s natural forests. 

“The forest is the natural home of coffee. It is hard to imagine coffee without the natural forest,” says Dr.Tadesse Wolde-Mariam, Executive Director of Environmental and Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF), a non-governmental organization in Ethiopia engaged in research and promotion of Ethiopian forest coffee. ECFF was the pioneer institution behind the idea and the successful designation of the Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve situated in Ilu Abba Bora Zone of the Oromia Regional State, southwestern Ethiopia.

Wild Arabica coffee is an important source of seed stock for coffee farming, a source of disease resistance, and also a harvested crop in its own right and sold as ‘Forest Coffee’ and ‘Semi-Forest Coffee’. “Without the natural forest, commercial coffee farming itself is under serious threat”, Dr. Tadesse added. 

Yet, agricultural expansion and demand for wood fuel have led to the loss of one-third of Ethiopia’s natural forest, including the forests in which the coffee grows.

The Intervention – incentivizing local communities to protect standing forests

It was against these backdrops that the P4F project was born three years ago that aimed at incentivizing the conservation of Ethiopia’s natural forests through the enhancement of alternative livelihoods on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), particularly the development of a premium brand and supply chain for Ethiopian forest coffee. 

Implemented from April 2018 to June 2021 by GIZ  and its partners at a total cost of 1.4 million GBP, the project sought to test and prove the viability and sustainability of a business model, which is incentivizing local communities to protect the forest by enabling them benefit from the forests. 

GIZ’s Project Manager, Raffael Fondacci, said that though much has been professed about forest coffee as an organic, environmentally friendly, and increasingly demanded by buyers and consumers globally, a number of bottlenecks along the value chain prevented forest coffee producers, processors, and traders from turning the potential opportunity into reality. 

“When we designed this project, we identified forest coffee as the most promising product to drive our wider goal of conserving some of Ethiopia’s pristine natural forests. But it required us tackling a number of systemic issues in order to help smallholder coffee producers gain meaningful economic benefits from forest coffee,” Raffael noted.

An estimated 45% of the country’s total coffee production comes from the forest and semi-forest coffee. But, much of Ethiopia’s forest coffee is still sold as commercial coffee – mostly to the local market – fetching a lesser price than an average commercial coffee exported. 

This problem was even greater in Harena forest Bale Zone according to Wondwosen Nega, Coffee Team Leader at the Bale Agriculture and Natural Resources Office. “Previously the majority of forest coffee produced in Bale was sold cheaply as it failed to meet quality standards above fourth and fifth grade.”

Despite enjoying a high demand internationally in the realm of specialty coffee, the bulk of Ethiopian forest coffee was not certified and the varieties were not specifically branded, which prevented it from being exported and secure a much higher revenue. 

One of the major structural challenges is related to quality issues. A common practice still applied by many smallholder forest coffee producers is that they store the red cherries they collect at their barns, which is unsuited to coffee storage, thus the coffee would be mixed with impurities and defective materials.  

As most don’t have their own washing and/or drying facilities, they resort to obsolete methods such as sun-drying on the ground. This is partly due to the small volume of coffee collected per hectare from a forest compared to a garden. Thus, farmers would rather opt to blend forest coffee beans with that of a low-grade commercially produced coffee making it untraceable and wiping out its unique trait. 

The other constraint has been the weak capacity of smallholder coffee farmers, farmers’ cooperatives (coops), and coops’ unions, who have a critical role in processing and supplying coffee and fulfilling requirements of buyers – in terms of quality, grading, traceability, the sufficiency of volume, supply sustainability, as well as branding and marketing. 

Besides quality issues, forest coffee is often untraceable as to its origin, and the many varieties (in locality and taste) were not distinctively branded and typified. 

The rollout 

The project selected five geographical areas – Kaffa, Sheka, Illu-Ababor, Bench Maji, and Bale; the first three areas incorporate localities that are designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and internationally recognized. 

The project engaged 58 coops with over 17,000 smallholders where the coops are organized under six unions operating in the aforementioned five intervention areas.

To ensure a bulk output or aggregation of small lots and a uniform quality, the project introduced an innovative idea of building central drying stations. 

Formerly, smallholder producers needed to store the red cherries in poor conditions as they lack proper storage facilities, thus the cherries deteriorate in quality. They then had to sun-dry the bean, mostly on the ground leading to the development of mold, worsening of the quality, and at times the rejection of the product. 

With the new model, farmers directly sell the red forest coffee cherries they collected to the nearby central processing plant and get paid at the spot. They no longer need to worry about storing and drying the cherries, but also earn better.

The forest coffee shall then be sun-dried at the central stations that are owned and operated by grassroots farmers’ coops. A coops union, formed by many member coops, collects the dried coffee and undertakes further processing, packaging, and export.

“This has significantly improved the quality, while hugely increasing the volume due to the aggregation,” according to Abebe Magnecho, General Manager of the Kaffa Forest Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union, one of the six unions co-implementing the project.

The project financed the purchase and installation of over 800 drying beds at drying stations (materials such as chicken wire, black/dark netting, plastic sheets (tarps) and other materials such as jute bags, which are used by 45 coops that have 13,929 smallholders as members. 

In addition to the project’s technical and advisory support such as numerous quality-related trainings, three of six unions have received both fair-trade and organic certificates, while the project had promoted Ethiopian forest coffee via participation in international coffee events and sending 170 samples from 58 coops. 

The endeavor had paid off as interested foreign buyers are now closely working with the unions and coops. 

As a result of the different and concerted interventions, the cooperatives exported a total of 3,672 MT of high quality, processed, traceable, and certified forest coffee with average cupping scores greater than 82 points during the three years (2018-2021), registering a transaction in excess of 20 million USD at the export level. 

The export income has also trickled down to the smallholders in the form of a 36.5% higher income when compared with the average price that forest coffee before the advent of the project. The stated income referred to growth in price that farmers earned when they sold the red forest coffee cherries to the central processing stations 

Compared to GIZ’s own target of export volume, the performance showed a 128% achievement.

“What is more encouraging is that we are selling our coffee at a much higher price than we anticipated due to the support of GIZ’s project. The correlation between certified forest coffee and increased income is direct and tangible now. Likewise, people’s perception as to the value of natural forests has improved significantly,” according to Solomon Tilahun, General Manager of Teppi Coffee Producer Farmers’ Union, another union in Sheka supported by the project. 

Forests matter, so do people

The foundation for GIZ’s P4F project is the Participatory Forest Management (PFM) system, which Ethiopia has been using to protect its natural forests. An important pillar of PFM is enabling the sustainable and responsible use of forest resources by the local communities, particularly NTFPs such as coffee, honey, medicinal plants, and spices. 

The project intervention area directly covered about 150,000 hectares of forest land under PFM out of about450,000 hectares managed through 35 PFMs.

Kabtamu Girma, Director General of Forest Protection and Conservation Directorate at the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MEFCC) underlines the importance of benefiting local communities if forests have to be conserved. 

“We should not simply view forests as treasures that should not be touched by local communities while expecting and demanding the same people living there to conserve it, adore it, and pass it on to the next generation,” Kabtamu said.

“We need to question [the hitherto] protectionist approach. From whom are we planning to protect and conserve the forests? We, therefore, need to build a bridge, not a fence.” 

He added that intervention models like GIZ’s project that is centered on integrating and benefiting the local populace living around the forests are beneficial to protect Ethiopia’s forests and in line with PFM objectives. 

Feker Tadesse, an expert from Partnerships for Forests (P4F), an eight-year donor-funded program that financed the project said that “Forest coffee is a unique product exclusive to Ethiopia and environmentally sustainable. The potential is huge. We have seen very good results from this project.” 

“We believe the concept of the intervention model is a success, so we are now designing a scale-up,” Feker added.