Gen McFalls l Palladium - May 31 2024
How East African Coffee Farmers Became Forest Guardians

The shelves of major UK supermarkets seem a long way from the forests of Ethiopia and Uganda.

But it is the unique local characteristics of these landscapes – along with their sustainability story – that has seen forest coffee gain access to speciality global markets.

East Africa is the birthplace of coffee, and countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda remain among the world’s largest producers. While coffee is a major pillar of these countries’ economies, the commodity has not always had positive effects on the region’s valuable tropical forests – or on equitable incomes for its smallholder farmers, particularly women.

Partnerships for Forests (P4F), a UK Aid-funded program delivered by Palladium and Systemiq, used public-private-community partnerships to create value in the world’s tropical forests. The program, which ran from 2016 to 2024, identified coffee as a priority sector for intervention in East Africa.

P4F’s three modes of engagement – forest partnerships, enabling conditions, and demand-side measures – recognise that creating a high-quality, sustainable product is not always enough for a brand to gain a foothold in a market, particularly global markets. There must also be an enabling environment to facilitate a smooth and consistent supply chain, and critically, a market demand, driven by processing, packaging, or marketing that increases buyers’ interest.

All three of these measures were employed by P4F’s East Africa team, which protected and restored thousands of hectares of forest and mobilised millions in private capital.

And of course, the partnerships that P4F facilitated between coffee companies and communities have improved the livelihoods and created new jobs for thousands of local people.

Coffee Partnerships at Work in Ethiopia

Lessons from three sustainability coffee projects in East Africa are captured in a new P4F report, Transforming the coffee value chain in East Africa. The report covers three P4F interventions, with Ugacof (Uganda), Ethiopian Wild Coffee, and the Global Coffee Platform.

The highlands of Ethiopia are known for its forest coffee – coffee that grows wild in the forest. With limited processing, it was widely consumed but had a reputation for being of poor quality and lacked traceability. Consequently, forest coffee was sold as commercial-grade coffee at discount rates below what it could obtain in the export market, and in lower quantities than would be feasible for export.

However, this supposedly low-grade coffee held the potential for high regard and international demand. Ethiopia has abundant genetic Arabica diversity growing wild in its forests, suitable land, fertile soil, optimum temperature, and other conditions to produce high-quality specialty coffee. The specific taste of forest coffee – slightly citrusy and bittersweet – was highly regarded by coffee tasting (or ‘cupping’) experts.

By helping farmers earn higher premiums than they previously earned from coffee, there is a greater incentive for local communities to protect their forests and keep them standing – rather than cutting into forests for agricultural expansion or firewood.

For the Ethiopian Wild Coffee project, P4F focused on rebranding Ethiopia’s forest coffee and positioning it as a premium coffee brand suited for export.
But before the coffee could be exported, the supply chain needed to be strengthened.

German development agency GIZ managed the supply side of the project, which created a strong supply chain for the forest coffee, improving its collection, processing, supply, and traceability. Partner TechnoServe managed the demand side, by promoting the creation of Ethiopia’s premium forest and semi-forest coffee brands and encouraging global coffee roasters to create new lines and branding for forest coffee.

Phase two of the project was focused on getting the private sector to take a more central role and partnering with UK coffee company Union Coffee and Ethiopian-Dutch company Moyee. Union led the project in the Yayu Biosphere Reserve region and expanded the sale of the Yayu specialty forest coffee in the UK market. Now, Yayu forest coffee is stocked in supermarkets like Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Moyee, an Ethiopian company with Dutch connections, led the project in the Sheka Biosphere Reserve and their role was to establish a direct sourcing model with farmers.

The final phase of the project focused on training smallholder farmers and the development of an app as a dissemination hub for knowledge and linking farmers to traders.

The Ethiopia Wild Coffee project successfully developed forest coffee specialty brands and introduced it into the export market, while bringing nearly 150,000 hectares of land under sustainable management. The price that smallholders received for their coffee beans grew from an average of £2.60 per kilogram to £9 per kilogram, with more than 18,000 farmers receiving training. Across the project’s eight-year life span, 2,861 metric tonnes of forest coffee, worth about £18 million, was exported.

Ethiopia Wild Coffee is just one highlight from the thriving sustainable coffee sector in East Africa, where P4F and many other partners are working to a more socially and environmentally sustainable sector in the birthplace of coffee.

Full details of the projects, their parameters, challenges, and results can be found in Transforming the coffee value chain in East Africa: Lessons in sustainability from Ethiopia and Uganda.