Water-Wise Coffee: Making Sustainable Business Profitable in Ethiopia

April 26, 2019

As greater traceability and ever-growing consumer interest in coffee origins increase the incentives for sustainable production, more opportunities to align profits and sustainability will emerge. If we are innovative and approach problems from a business perspective, we can help the supply chain grow even greener.​

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Business Fights Poverty

Community members in the Aleta Wondo district of southern Ethiopia had a problem on their doorstep: their river was polluted. The students of Habaja Primary School, built on its banks, complained about the river’s smell and that they couldn’t use it for gathering water or washing. Their parents in the surrounding communities also struggled, as they couldn’t use the river’s water to irrigate their crops or to give to their animals.

It sounds like a familiar story, but the source of this pollution wasn’t a sewage line or power plant: it was caused by the local coffee industry’s wet mills – vital facilities that strip the pulp from the valuable coffee bean beneath. These washing stations pollute local waterways with wastewater contaminated by rotting coffee pulp, rendering the streams and rivers unusable for communities during the months-long coffee harvest.

But that’s changing. In Ethiopia, the Water Wise program – an initiative launched in 2012 by Mother Parker’s Coffee & Tea and TechnoServe – is helping wet mills to stop emitting polluted wastewater into local rivers and streams. In year one, the project worked with just seven wet mills, but has since grown to help 87 such mills.

“Thanks to the Water Wise Program, we can play football in the school field and we can breathe clean air.”

Focus on the business problem

Wet mill owners face real business challenges that result from the pollution. When the contamination gets especially bad, community residents complain to local officials, who then order the wet mills to shut down for periods of the harvest season, costing up to $1,000 per day.

Like their neighbours, wet mills also grapple with the effects of using polluted river water. If wet mills upstream are allowing polluted wastewater to contaminate the river, this effects the quality of the water that wet mills located further downstream use to wash their coffee. This can impact the flavor, and price, of the final product.

Help clients implement financially sustainable solutions

From a technical standpoint, there were many ways to clean up pollution, but they weren’t financially sustainable for many of the wet mills in the region. The situation called for an innovative thinking, and TechnoServe worked with scientists from the Jimma Agricultural Research Center (JARC) to adapt a low-tech, low-cost solution: vetiver grass wetlands.

Vetiver grass  had been used to treat sewage in Australia and fight land erosion in Asia and Africa, but TechnoServe and the scientists from JARC realized it could be used to filter the polluted wastewater that wet mills emitted.

By 1) reducing water usage, 2) separating out pulp to use as compost, 3) running water through a vetiver grass wetland, and 4) building a simple, but well-designed evaporation pool away from the rivers, wet mills can essentially eliminate the pollution associated with the coffee harvest. These are fairly inexpensive solutions that are well-suited to the needs of wet mills.

To implement the changes Water Wise staff work with wet mills, helping them to plan and carry out the changes to the wet mill facilities. Water Wise business advisors then provide training to help ensure that the changes have their desired effect.

“Even though I incurred expenses to build the pulp hopper and the vetiver grass wetland, the benefits I got from doing this are even greater."

Sustainability in practice

Putting these elements together can have dramatic effects. Just ask Lensamo Lamiso, the owner of a wet mill in Aleto Wondo that used to emit polluted wastewater. “We built a large lagoon to hold the wastewater, but it would flood or leak during peak processing times,” Lensamo says. “We couldn’t protect our river.”

Water Wise worked with Lensamo to reduce water usage, separate out the pulp, and establish a vetiver grass wetland at his wet mill. After making that change, his business has been able to operate throughout the harvest, without shutting down. A cleaner local river system has also meant that Lensamo’s coffee is scoring higher on quality ratings, earning him better prices. “Even though I incurred expenses to build the pulp hopper and the vetiver grass wetland, the benefits I got from doing this are even greater. I can now process coffee continually without worrying about pollution, and run my business smoothly and efficiently,” he says.

The students at Habaja have noticed the difference, too. One says, “Thanks to the Water Wise Program, we can play football in the school field and we can breathe clean air.”

Identifying new green-business solutions

Green, financially sustainable approaches don’t only work to solve the problem of wastewater. Using a similar approach TechnoServe and JDE have also helped coffee hulling stations recycle their coffee husks, a byproduct of natural processed coffee that used to pile up and create a dangerous and costly fire hazard for the stations. Now, the hulling stations provide these husks as yield-enhancing mulching and composting material to coffee farmers in their supply chains.

As greater traceability and ever-growing consumer interest in coffee origins increase the incentives for sustainable production, more opportunities to align profits and sustainability will emerge. If we are innovative and approach problems from a business perspective, we can help the supply chain grow even greener.