How Do Coffee Farmers in East Africa Bring Your Favorite Coffee From Crop to Cup? Part 1: Farming

In part one of this new three-part series, Crop to Cup, learn how farmers in East Africa play a role in the coffee that ends up in consumers’ cups around the world, no matter how you take your coffee. Look out for parts two and three, which cover processing and quality control.

For millions of people, mornings start when hot water trickles down through dark grounds into a pot below, becoming a flavorful and highly caffeinated drink.

Coffee Farming in East Africa: A Brief History 

As the birthplace of coffee, East Africa is home to some of the world’s leading coffee exporters, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya. And around the region, more than five million people either work as coffee growers or in the coffee sector. 

But small farm sizes, infrastructure gaps, climate crises, and political instabilities mean coffee production in East Africa faces significant challenges. 

In this new series, we look at how three elements of coffee farming in East Africa bring coffee from crop to your cup: 

  1. Coffee Farming: Across the region, decisions that coffee farmers make play an integral role in the quality of the coffee we consume 
  2. Processing: Different processing methods lead to different coffee flavors and profiles  
  3. Cupping: What happens in the quality control process determines which coffees make it onto the shelves of your store

Farmers in East Africa Play Critical Role in Global Production 

Roughly 80% of all coffee is produced by smallholder farmers

In East Africa, smallholder farmers dominate the coffee industry and help the region lead in coffee production versus the rest of Africa. As of 2020, coffee production in East Africa accounted for 82% of Africa’s coffee production – and nearly 10% of all global production. 

Ethiopia and Uganda, both in East Africa, are in the top 10 of all coffee producing countries as of 2020 and together make up 8% of global coffee production, according to International Coffee Organization (ICO) data. 

Income from coffee is critical for enabling farmers to pay school fees for children and to purchase food and other household necessities, with coffee ranking high as an important cash crop across the region.

Countries in East Africa, including Ethiopia, are well-known for their Arabica coffee thanks to ideal conditions for growing this type of coffee plant. (Look for the Arabica label on your coffee bag, too!) 

But of the 12.5 million smallholder coffee farmers around the world, more than 80% still live below the poverty line. 

Improving the value of coffee is crucial to helping smallholder farmers – both in East Africa and around the world – and bettering the industry for all involved. 

Increasing the value of coffee through sustainably improved yields and greater productivity are keys to helping smallholder farmers lift themselves out of poverty. 

Good Coffee Starts With the Tree – and the Tree’s Location

Coffee, no matter where it’s from, grows on trees. In the wild, the woody evergreen plants can grow up to 10 meters tall with dark green branches and waxy leaves growing in pairs. 

Most often, coffee is grown in countries around the equator, which provides temperate or tropical climates. This ensures the coffee trees get plenty of sunshine, and enough water – although too much of either present their own challenges. 

Coffee trees need good soil, too, with a good drainage system. This is often in shaded areas, which helps limit the detrimental effects of too much sun. The trees are often found at higher altitudes, which provides many of these climate conditions. 

East Africa has many of these conditions, making countries like Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia well-known for their coffees. 

Read more about TechnoServe’s coffee farming training programs.

What Is a Coffee Cherry – and Is It a Fruit? 

in the journey from crop to cup, coffee cherries are the first step

Not long before that morning cup of coffee, the coffee grounds were a fruit called a cherry. And those cherries take almost a year to develop on the branches of a coffee tree. The fruit’s entrance to the world is foreshadowed by the emergence of a bright white flower, which smells like honeysuckle and creates an incredible aroma throughout the coffee farms for a few days each year before dying just a few days after emerging. 

The quality of the cherry often depends on how the tree was treated throughout the growing season. High-quality coffee requires farmers to apply certain agronomic practices (taught as part of TechnoServe’s farmer training programs), which include: 

  • Pruning and rejuvenation, which develops new branches that produce fruit
  • Mulching and composting, which help improve the quality of the soil
  • Pest management, which prevents damage to trees 

Finally, the cherry will turn a deep red color, and grow to full size. 

So, coffee cherries are fruits, and inside the fruit are the seeds that, when dried and roasted, will become coffee beans for brewing. 

Picking Coffee and Finding a Path Forward 

From the time a coffee tree is planted, it takes about three or four years for the tree to produce cherries for harvesting. There’s usually one main harvest a year, but sometimes two.

Crop to cup East African coffee farmer shows her coffee cherries

Whether by hand or machine, there are two ways to harvest: 

  1. Strip picked: All the coffee is stripped off the branch at one time 
  2. Selectively picked: Only the ripe, red cherries are taken and the harvest takes several months as cherries ripen at different times 

In East Africa, especially where Arabica is grown, much of the coffee is selectively picked by hand, which significantly decreases waste despite being more labor- and time-intensive. 

Selective picking is what Noella Rwizibuka does on her coffee farm in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Working with TechnoServe and Nespresso, Noella is improving the productivity and quality of her coffee through training on sustainability and best agronomic practices. 

All this training will pay off for Noella when she carries her sack of ripe coffee cherries to the local processing mill, where they will pay her by weight and quality – two key factors that significantly improve the payment a farmer can receive for her coffee.

Learn more about where Noella’s picked coffee cherries go next on their journey from crop to cup in the next installment of this series.