We often hear about the negative impacts of growing coffee, such as deforestation, non-recyclable paper cups and even enforced labour, and sometimes about the positive benefits that coffee brings to farmers and their communities. But could we do more?

Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests: importance and problems

The humid, tropical forests of southern Ethiopia and South Sudan are the natural (wild) home of Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica), and thus the origin of all Arabica coffee growing around the world today. These forests are also where Ethiopian coffee farmers grow a great deal of their coffee, a crop of key economic importance. Coffee farming provides Ethiopia with around 25% of its export earnings, and livelihoods for an estimated 15 million people. It is clear that these forests are an important resource, on a national and global level.

Many of Ethiopia’s coffee forests are in a natural or semi-natural state, and have been designated as reserves for the conservation of nature and livelihoods. The main reserves are Kaffa (including Bonga), Yayu in south-eastern Ethiopia, and Harenna Forest in south-east Ethiopia. These forests are not only important in terms of wild coffee genetic resources – they are also home to a large number of animal, plant and fungal species. The forests also play a key role in providing livelihoods for the people that live in and around them, as well as key ecological services (such as rainfall capture and soil preservation).

Coffee is the most important generator of income from Ethiopia’s humid forests. Indeed, it is often said that if it were not for coffee farming, the forests would have been cleared for other uses many years ago. It is the close relationship between forest and coffee that maintains their current status. The forest provides the conditions that coffee requires for optimum growth and development: a micro-environment with suitable temperatures and humidity, a rich moisture-retaining soil, and an ample supply of pollinators (bees). As well as coffee, locals harvest honey, spices, and other plant products from the forest.

Despite the many benefits of Ethiopia’s coffee forest reserves, there are a number of factors that threaten their survival, of which changing land-use is the most immediate. Forest may occupy land that is required for other purposes, such as the planting of non-forest crops, for example maize (corn), or for grazing land. In order to avoid this conversion it is necessary to provide a viable alternative, to offset potential losses in income and opportunity. There are also considerable costs incurred in running and managing wildlife reserves. The simple fact is that preserving biodiversity costs money. The real difficulty lies in securing the long-term financial resources for biodiversity conservation, and this has been a particularly challenging activity for those wishing to preserve the wild coffee forests of Ethiopia.

Increasing the value of coffee

In 2013 I was travelling through the wild coffee forests of south-eastern Ethiopia with Jeremy Torz, co-founder of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. I was explaining to Jeremy the challenges facing Ethiopia’s wild coffee forest reserves, and particularly the question of how to generate the value required to secure their future for the long-term. After a few minutes of careful thought, Jeremy said: “Why can’t we use coffee?” He went on to explain that the coffee produced in these forests was not achieving its full market potential. By making some rather simple and relatively low-cost interventions in the way the coffee was harvested and processed, the quality could be drastically improved, and with that, its price.

The more value there is in the coffee, the better the income for the farmers, and hence an increase in the value of the forest. In order to achieve the best prices, the quality of the coffee would have to be within the highest category: Speciality Coffee. With these basic principles in mind, and given the increased potential for quality, we set about trying to formulate a plan that would bring these ideas to fruition.

Speciality Coffee

What is Speciality Coffee? The Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) defines specialty coffee in its green (unroasted) stage as: ‘…coffee that is free of primary defects, has no quakers [an unripe and often bad tasting coffee bean], is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes’. In practical terms this means that the coffee must be able to pass very specific grading and cupping (aroma and taste) tests. A speciality coffee also should be naturally sweet, and possess interesting flavour characteristics. To evaluate coffee, the SCAA uses a standard International Quality Score. Only coffees with 80 or more points (out of 100) can be classified as Speciality Coffee. Currently, around 10% of the world’s coffee falls within the category, although in the US, specialty coffee has increased its market share from 1% to 20% in the last 25 years. With better quality comes a higher price tag.

The Yayu Coffee Forest Reserve

The Yayu Coffee Forest Reserve is noted for its particularly high levels of natural (wild) coffee genetic diversity. It is also home to around 450 flowering plants, 50 mammal, 200 bird, and 20 amphibian species. In its core zone the forests remain intact and largely undisturbed, with many thousands of wild coffee plants mixed with other natural vegetation. Coffee farming occurs within the forests of the buffer zone and transition areas of the reserve, and generates up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the local population. However, most farmers in the area are struggling to make sufficient income from coffee, causing a conversion away from a forest-based farming system to other types of farming. This invariably leads to forest loss, a reduction in biodiversity and ecosystem services, and a narrowing of income diversity. During our first visit to Yayu we identified that coffee quality and access to the export market were the most important factors restricting the income from coffee.

The project

As time went on, and with much more thought, the project concept, design and aims came together. There would be four main partners, the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF; Ethiopia), Union Hand-Roasted Coffee (UHRC; London), HiU Coffee (El Salvador and Panama) and Kew. ECFF would be the in-country project partners, undertaking management of the project in Ethiopia; UHRC and HiU Coffee would be responsible for providing training in coffee harvesting, post-harvest processing, cup evaluation and export logistics. Kew and ECFF would manage the project and undertake the science activities. To make the project work we would need two key elements: direct access to the market, and additional funding to get the project up and running. The first of these was in place, via UHRC, and then late in 2014 we received major additional funding from the Darwin Initiative (UK).

In April 2015 we started the three year project ‘Mainstreaming biodiversity conservation and climate resilience at Yayu Biosphere Reserve (Ethiopia)’. In this project, poverty alleviation, biodiversity, and climate resilience, are inextricably linked. The aims of the project are to:

  • Increase income by enabling Yayu coffee farmers (over 5,000 household members) to significantly increase the cash value of their coffee harvest, and on completion of the project for income improvement to be self-sustaining.
  • Increase income within the Yayu community by providing seasonal work in harvesting and processing activities.
  • Stabilise or significantly reduce forest/biodiversity loss via the maintenance of traditional forest-based coffee production.
  • Offer climate resilience solutions for coffee farmers in Yayu, by providing a better understanding of farming adaptation methods; and through financial stability, enable investment in climate resilience.

The project has now been running for almost two years, and despite a few surprises, is achieving considerable success. Catch-up on our progress in the second part of this post, available in the coming months.

Dr Aaron Davis - Guest Contributor
Written by Dr Aaron Davis - Guest Contributor
My position at Kew is Senior Research Leader of Plant Resources. The Plant Resources team investigates the value and use of plant diversity for provisioning humankind with key resources, including food, beverages, timber, fuels, fibres and medicines. My research background is in taxonomy and systematics (naming and classifying plants) and conservation, but recently my work has been focused on climate change, resilience and sustainability. I work mainly on coffee (Coffea) with a regional focus on tropical Africa, Madagascar and Asia.