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Report from East Africa – Coffee origins with enormous potential (and enormous challenges)

2015-07-20 Comments Off on Report from East Africa – Coffee origins with enormous potential (and enormous challenges)

My fellow blog authors and I are very self-aware of Coffeelands’ biases. It is told from a (mostly) white male development professional’s perspective from Latin American origins. However, this bias is not reflective of the global reach of CRS’ coffee programming. In addition to our five active coffee projects in Latin America, we currently have one project in Asia and two in Africa. In the Philippines we are focused on improving productivity and market access for some 9,000 farmers. In Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we partner with the Eastern Congo Initiative to strengthen the link between specialty coffee buyers and the producers in this region. We also partner with a range of local organizations in a livelihood diversification project for smallholder coffee farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia.


A farmer in Nyeri, Kenya, with a rehabilitated farm.


I am finishing up an intense week of travel to Nairobi where I had the opportunity to visit farms and talk with farmers before facilitating a closing meeting for our East Africa project, entitled, “Diversifying livelihoods for smallholder coffee farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia”. The goal of the meeting was to help the respective country teams reflect on project successes and challenges, and identify how we can continue to support smallholders in the region and increase our programing around the coffee value chain.

The goal of the project was to help build more resilient coffee farms by creating and strengthening other sources of income for coffee farmers. Basically, small holder coffee farmers have an extreme cash flow problem.  Imagine making 70% (or more!) of your annual salary in one or two months, then managing your expenses and cash for the rest of the year and doing so without access to basic financial services.  This phenomenon is well documented – known as the Thin Months – based on a 2007 study from our friends at CIAT and that led Rick Peyser and Keurig Green Mountain (at the time Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) to fund a number of projects, including this one, that focused on food security and diversification.

Started in 2010, this project focused on improving skills in coffee production, while at the same time facilitating farmers’ access to alternative crops that provide household income and contribute to household food security. For each of the three countries, different livelihood strategies were promoted. In Kenya, bananas were introduced to provide shade for the coffee and farmers were loaned dairy goats (farmers were given a doe, which once it bore a kid, they passed along the doe to a neighbor). In Ethiopia, farmers were trained on how to improve the quality of the feed for oxen and how to fatten their livestock, along with introducing complementary crops, such as ensete, (also known as false banana) and root crops. In Rwanda, the farmers began to keep bees and also grew passion fruit. In addition to the agricultural technical trainings, farmers learned savings and financial management through their involvement in SILC, Savings and Internal Lending Communities, a CRS methodology that creates village level credit groups. In this model, each group (predominantly women) meets regularly and every member commits to saving at each meeting. The group then provides loans to group members that are used to cover household expenses and to invest in fertilizers or to pay for on farm labor. Once a year, the earnings on the interest of the loans are paid back out to the members. The earnings from each members’ savings pays out over 20% annually! These interventions have reduced the incidence of food insecurity and are providing additional income for over 8,000 farmers.


A SILC group meeting in Nyeri, Kenya.


Until this initiative, our East African colleagues had little prior experience working on projects in the coffee value chain. Given the enormous number of small holder farmers that are at the base of the supply chain in these really unique origins, I am really excited about the potential for expanding our work to support the producers here. My next two posts will explore some of the more specific issues facing coffee farmers in East Africa, the center of origin of coffee.

Kraig Kraft