Growing cleaner, better coffee in the ‘land of a thousand hills’

© Rod Mast

Editor’s note: Tall, grande, venti; light roast or dark roast; Costa Rican, Kenyan, blended — you can make a dozen decisions about your morning cup of coffee. Some of those choices, like whether the coffee is shade grown or sun grown, have critical impacts on the environment. In Rwanda, the coffee sector once known for producing a high-quality product has recently suffered declining volume and quality. Amos Thiongo, Conservation International (CI)’s Conservation Stewards Program manager for Africa, discusses the factors behind this shift in Rwanda’s coffee industry and what CI is doing to help coffee farmers rebound sustainably.

Rwanda is famously known as the land of a thousand hills — hills that for many decades have produced some of the world’s highest-quality coffee.

In this tiny but densely populated East African country of 12 million people, coffee is grown by about 400,000 smallholder farmers on an average of less than one hectare (about 2.47 acres) per farmer. But rapid population growth and increased market demand have led to unsustainable production practices such as cultivation on river banks and steep slopes — which leads to soil degradation and erosion — in addition to dumping waste water from coffee processing in waterways. These practices have been cited as major environmental hazards in Rwanda. Many rivers in coffee-growing areas are clogged and colored with soils washed from the farmlands. As a result of these practices, coffee productivity has suffered declining volumes and quality in recent years.

To address this problem, CI began using conservation agreements model designed by the Conservation Stewards Program, which provide direct incentives to communities who want to work together to protect their natural resources. This model sets up contracts between communities and conservation funders; in exchange for committing to specific measures to protect the ecosystems around them, local residents receive concrete benefits such as investments in improving agricultural enterprises, health or education.

In 2014, CI’s Conservation Stewards Program started working with the Gitesi, Shangi and Sholi coffee washing stations in Rwanda’s Karongi, Nyamasheke and Muhanga districts.

Coffee washing stations perform a crucial function in the coffee production chain: Known as “wet processing,” it is where the fruit covering the coveted coffee seed is removed before the seed is dried. This can be done in a couple different ways: by the classic method of fermentation and water, or by machine. Either method requires a significant amount of water, careful monitoring and proper disposal of wastewater. Although coffee can be dry-processed as well, fully washed coffee like that produced at these three stations can garner a high price for farmers due to its quality.

Together, the participating coffee washing stations source coffee from 1,500 farmers. Through the conservation agreements, farmers committed to convert from growing sun-grown coffee to shade-grown coffee; to implement best agricultural practices such as using natural fertilizers and erosion control; and to treat waste water before channeling it back to the rivers. In addition, the farmers rehabilitated river banks and other communal lands by planting trees. In return, CI helped the washing stations achieve Rainforest Alliance certification (with support from the Rwandan government in the case of the Sholi station) and connected them with markets to buy their certified product. Additionally, the washing stations were linked with a local bank to access guaranteed loans that was used for construction of wastewater treatment plants.

In setting up and negotiating these conservation agreements, we were careful not to repeat the mistakes of previous agroforestry interventions by other partners that had failed.

For example, farmers had previously not seen the need to plant trees on their small pieces of land as they had not been fully educated about the benefits of growing coffee under shade. This time, the farmers were presented with multiple-use tree species that could be used as livestock fodder, firewood and to replenish nutrients in the soil. More than 60,000 seedlings were planted on farmlands and communal areas. A recently conducted survey found that the survival rate of seedlings planted over a year ago was at 83 percent testament to the farmers taking good care of the seedlings. The shade trees planted will improve soil conditions, which will lead to higher fertility and less erosion and, ultimately, increased coffee production and quality.

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The interventions the Conservation Stewards Program has undertaken are already bearing results. At the Gitesi washing station, station manager Papi Gahizi reported that their buyer increased his price to US$ 5.50 per kilo of green coffee beans from the US$ 4.00 paid last year. “We are excited by this price increase in a year when the conventional prices are very depressed, said Gaizi. “Our buyer was very happy with our coffee quality this season. We will pay a generous bonus to our farmers this year.”

A recent visit to Rwanda showed coffee bushes under sustainable production in full bloom. “We are expecting a bumper harvest in the next season. We have not seen this level of flowering in the recent past,” said Gaudence Claudien, the Shangi washing station manager. The participating washing stations have already built waste water treatment plants, and in combination with river bank rehabilitation and decreasing soil erosion, the rivers are already cleaner.

In the next phase of this work, CI intends to scale up this intervention by expanding to twelve other coffee washing stations in the region.

Amos Thiongo is CI’s Conservation Stewards Program manager for Africa.

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