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Coffee is life, for people and forests alike

22 April 2023

Coffee is life, for people and forests alike

By Dan Collison, Chief Executive, Farm Africa

What does coffee mean to you? This was the question I posed when giving an Earth Day talk today at the London Coffee Festival, at which Farm Africa is an official charity partner.

For most of us, coffee is a morning ritual, something that gives us that extra boost of energy we need. The drink which helps get us through a long day at work, or that accompanies a read of the Saturday papers.

For the coffee farmers Farm Africa supports in Ethiopia, coffee is life.

Coffee is income. Coffee is health. Coffee is education. Coffee is food on the table for family. And coffee is the forests in which they grow.

Arguably the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia gave the world Coffea arabica and boasts 99.8 percent of the plant’s genetic diversity, making Ethiopia’s production of Arabica, the most commonly consumed species of coffee globally, absolutely essential.

Coffee that’s now grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. Legend has it that a goatherd called Kaldi first discovered the beans when his goats developed a taste for the red berries and then became so energetic they didn’t want to sleep at night.

It is estimated that 16% of the population in Ethiopia depends on coffee for their livelihood. Almost all of the coffee produced is by smallholder farmers, many of whom live in poverty.

At Farm Africa, we offer training to forest-based communities to help them increase the quality and quantity and market access of the coffee they produce, while at the same time protecting precious habitat.

We’re investing in our planet, aiming to create a ‘win-win’ situation whereby coffee farmers have a sustained economic incentive to protect the forests.

Ethiopia’s Bale Eco-region is an area of unique ecological significance. Today, wild varieties of Coffea arabica continue to grow under the shade of Ethiopia’s Bale Forest canopy.

Not only does this stunning region contain the largest diversity of wild coffees in the world, it is also rich in other biodiversity including rare species of trees, wildlife and birds. The eco-region is home to species of flora and fauna that are not found anywhere else on earth, from Ethiopian wolves to nyalas to the entire global population of the giant mole rat. And it’s the crucial watershed for river systems that run into Somalia and Kenya, on which millions of people rely.

In many areas around the world, valuable forest regions like Bale are being destroyed for timber and to make space for manufacturing, construction and large-scale agriculture. In some cases, to grow coffee, where repeatedly planting the same crop often causes loss of biodiversity. Research undertaken in 2014 saw that for every cup of coffee consumed, it is almost certain that one square inch of rainforest was destroyed.

Farm Africa works in the Bale Eco-region of Ethiopia to enable farmers to earn a living from producing high-quality wild coffee, while acting as custodians of the forest and protecting the surrounding bio-diverse rich environment.

We’ve helped forest cooperatives to market their coffee better by investing in branding and packaging, and by working together to produce large enough quantities they can sell in bulk. By providing samples of the improved coffee to specialty buyers around the world, we’ve helped the cooperatives to secure export contracts, selling coffee to buyers in Europe and the US.

Wild coffee grows under the shade of bigger trees. By unlocking its value for farmers, Farm Africa is giving them incentive to protect the trees above, whose numbers have been diminishing at an alarming rate. In the early 20th century, forests covered about 35 percent of Ethiopia. Today it is only around 4 percent.

In a Farm Africa coffee project in south-west Ethiopia the average gross income of households of cooperative members increased by 110% between 2019 and 2021. This increase in income mainly occurred due to an increase in coffee price coming from improved coffee quality.

This sort of income boost is a win for the forest and a win for farmers like Getachew Ayana from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, who took part in one of our coffee projects. He told us:

Knowledge is power. Because of my training, I have the awareness to change my life. I’ve improved my home, I’ve bought furniture, and I am now able to send my children to school with no problems. The more training I get, and the more qualified I get, the more changes I will make to my life. This is due to Farm Africa’s intervention, and I hope this will continue in the future.

Getachew Ayana, and his wife Tariki by their raised coffee beds

Getachew Ayana (right) pictured with his wife Tariki (left) next to their raised coffee beds.

Deforestation and climate change pose a huge threat to the future of Coffea arabica. Due to it being a highly sensitive plant, it is incredibly vulnerable to climate change and deforestation. It has been forecasted that the areas where wild coffee is able to grow will decrease by between 65-99.7% by 2080, based on varying climate projections.

Real change comes from the people, and the power we hold as a collective voice. If we don’t invest in our planet to decelerate the effects of climate change and global warming, things that we take for granted, like drinking a cup of coffee to wake us up in the morning, might become a rarity before too long.

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