Ask a TechnoServe Expert: Paul Stewart on Coffee

"Ask a TechnoServe Expert" is a series where our staff members, who work on a range of important global development issues, answer your questions. In this edition, Global Coffee Director Paul Stewart answers your questions.

TechnoServe is helping to build a sustainable global coffee industry that can lift millions of farming families out of poverty.

A coffee farmer in Zimbabwe's Honde Valley

This month, in celebration of National Coffee Day, we asked you to submit your questions for Paul Stewart, TechnoServe’s global coffee director. Paul oversees a portfolio of partnerships with the world’s leading coffee companies, foundations, and public sector agencies to increase the coffee income of farmers across Africa and Latin America. Over the course of his career at TechnoServe, Paul has helped build TechnoServe’s coffee practice into a recognized leader in “shared value” solutions that reduce poverty for farmers while developing sustainable supply chains for coffee businesses.

Why is coffee such an impactful crop for lifting people out of poverty? How is it different from other crops?

– Anonymous

Paul Stewart
Paul Stewart, TechnoServe’s global coffee director

Coffee is a high-value crop, meaning that it is a great crop for small-scale farmers to grow for cash income, together with the food crops grown for home consumption. Farmers can earn higher revenues growing coffee than growing low-value food crops for sale. In addition, after basic processing, coffee can be stored for months, unlike high-value horticultural crops that are perishable and need to reach consumers within just a few days.

We estimate that roughly 12 million small-scale farmers grow coffee worldwide, and about 80 percent of them live in poverty. This is the main reason that TechnoServe does so much work to improve the coffee sector in developing countries – if the sector can work better for small-scale farmers, it can increase incomes for millions of families.

What is being done to ensure that coffee growers are earning a living wage despite declining market prices?

– Manel Modelo

A worldwide surplus in coffee, largely due to high productivity in Brazil, has led to a significant decline in global coffee prices over the last decade. Governments, coffee roasting companies, and international donor organizations are all concerned about the impact of low prices on coffee farmers. In response, these stakeholders are making investments to help farmers overcome the challenges they’re facing. One of the key ways of helping farmers increase their incomes while prices are low is to help them improve the quality and productivity of their coffee trees. TechnoServe is partnering with coffee companies like Nespresso and Jacobs Douwe Egberts to provide training for farmers on ways to improve the productivity and quality of their coffee  – thereby improving coffee incomes despite declining market prices.

What is TechnoServe doing to support an environmentally sustainable coffee value chain?

– Himanshu Rai; New Delhi, India

Ensuring sustainability throughout the coffee value chain is a complex task that requires commitments from all stakeholders. At the farm level, TechnoServe is training coffee farmers on environmentally sustainable practices such as integrated disease and pest management, which can help them improve their coffee yields without the use of agrochemicals. For example, to control one of the major insect pests  – the coffee berry borer – we teach farmers how to make simple traps that they can deploy on their farms to catch the insects without using chemicals.

At the processing level, much of our environmental sustainability work focuses on water management. Coffee processing often uses a lot of water and can contribute to water pollution. In Ethiopia, we are working with coffee wet mill owners to stop wastewater pollution through the Water Wise program. The program uses an innovative water management solution, which includes reducing water usage, separating the coffee pulp from the wastewater, to be composted, and planting vetiver grass wetlands – a natural filtration system that reduces water pollution in nearby rivers.

Another very important aspect of our environmental sustainability work in coffee involves improving small farmers’ resilience to climate change through training in good agronomic practices, which can improve their resilience to changing weather patterns and related challenges.

A coffee berry borer insect trap

A coffee berry borer trap in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands.

What are the main challenges coffee farmers face?

– Anonymous

Coffee farmers face different challenges depending on where they live. However, one of the biggest challenges small-scale farmers face is low productivity. For example, in East Africa, most smallholder farmers are producing less than 400 kilograms of green coffee per hectare. In more advanced coffee producing areas like Brazil, farmers are producing three times that. Smallholder farmers are often unaware of the good agricultural practices that will improve their farm’s productivity, but do not require substantial increases in investment. Basic practices like pruning and weeding can improve yields without having to invest in costly materials such as fertilizer, sometimes by as much as 300 percent.

Why can some countries sell coffee at a high price, while others get low prices for their coffee?

– Jaffar Rushigaje; Burundi

First, it can be difficult to compare the quality of coffee across countries. For example, high-quality coffee from Kenya is very different from high-quality coffee grown in other parts of East Africa. Kenyan coffee is very expensive and highly sought-after because of its unique properties. It has high acidity, which is an important quality for blending. Many coffee companies around the world want to purchase Kenyan coffee specifically, despite the high prices, because it has certain characteristics that make it unique.

The second factor is the availability of the coffee. Again in Kenya, the supply of high-quality coffee has fallen over the past few decades as farmers have moved away from coffee to grow other crops or take new jobs in cities. This change has led to a reduced supply of coffee, and coffee companies are forced to pay more for the products. Unique, high-quality coffees from certain regions are in short supply and are very popular, which results in competition and higher prices.

Learn more about TechnoServe’s coffee work.