Farmers look to organic certified coffee for higher earnings in Africa

A coffee farmer at her organic coffee farm in Kericho county, Kenya Image credit: Solidaridad

Increasing consumers’ appreciation for the health benefits from drinking sustainably produced and certified coffee is encouraging production of organic coffee by some African coffee-producing countries. Farmers yearn for the premium prices their crop attracts in international markets especially Europe and
the USA.

Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are some of Africa’s coffee-producing countries where organic coffee farming is gaining traction with support from private companies, sustainability, and certification organisations.

Despite organic coffee farming in Africa being at its infancy due to perceived high costs involved such as paying for integrated pest management, hand weeding, pruning of shade trees, acquisition of organic fertilisers and certification fees, more organic coffee projects are emerging, especially in East Africa as farmers realise the high premium prices fetched from coffee grown by use of compost, manure and coffee pulp instead of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers.

For instance, German company, Kaffee Pura, is partnering with Enku, an Ethiopian firm dedicated to facilitating farmers’ access to the international market, to support a sustainable training hub to empower at least 100 local coffee farmers to expand their organic coffee cultivation.

The training is meant to qualify at least a third of them with the prestigious ECOCERT certification over the project’s 30-month period. ECOCERT, a France-based organic certification organisation, conducts inspections in over 80 countries, making it one of the largest operations of its kind in the world.

The project, suPPPort, has already secured a grant of almost €164,000 to boost Ethiopian organic coffee farming. The triple ‘P’ in suPPPort stands for the three pillars of sustainability: ‘People, Planet, Profit’, in what Kaffee Pura says ‘represents what drives our business core values.’

Ethiopia’s coffee is largely produced by small-scale farmers using traditional farming systems that are considered organic.

Organic, but not always certified

“Coffee farmers and traders claim that their coffee is organic by default, however, most coffee produced and traded in Ethiopia is not certified by an international organic commodity certifying agency due to the prohibitive cost of certification,” said a recent report by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Although the USDA says Ethiopia’s coffee enjoys a high demand in the international market due to its special aroma and distinct flavour, “the cost of certification is not affordable for [smallholder] farmers.”

Africa, which hosts 29 coffee-producing countries with an estimated output of 1.2 million tonnes of coffee as of 2018, has more than 361,600 hectares that have either been converted or are under conversion to organic coffee land.

FiBL Group, Eastern Africa region has taken the lead in organic coffee production with Ethiopia committing at least 161,113 hectares to organic Arabica coffee production with an estimated output of 51,400 tonnes of Africa’s total organic production of 59,000 tonnes in 2018.

Actual production volume of organic coffee is expected to be higher, partly because of the missing data from Uganda,” reported FiBL, which includes the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, comprising state-independent civil society institutions or non-profit enterprises operating as foundations or associations in various European countries.

Although nearly 50 percent of Ethiopia’s total coffee production goes to meet domestic consumption demand, the organic certified coffee goes to export markets where they fetch higher prices compared to conventional Arabica grown variety.

In fact, it is estimated up to 90 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee is organically grown, with the majority of coffee farmers using organic fertiliser, but only a few coffee producers have any certification due to challenges in traceability and limited support systems in entrenching the certification process.

This lack of certification means organic coffee growers have no access to premium paying international markets, hence their product is priced as the one conventionally produced.

Incentives to grow organic coffee

In April 2023, Fairtrade International and Fairtrade America announced a raise in the minimum price for Fairtrade-certified coffees, the first such an increase since 2011.

A brief by Sucafina, a sustainable farm to roaster coffee company, said the current minimum price is USD $1.40 that increases to $1.60 after adding the Fairtrade premium of $0.20. But if the coffee is organic, the seller gets the same price plus the organic premium of $0.30 resulting in a total of $1.90.

The prices have, however, been increased by 28.5 percent, effective 1 August 2023 (for contracts signed by that date) to $1.80, which iswhen the Fairtrade premium of $0.20 is added, rising to $2.00. But, if the coffee is organic, $0.40 will be added resulting in a total of $2.40.

“The momentum behind raising their minimum price is rising costs of production and runaway inflationary pressures,” Sucafina said.

Previous reports indicate the European Union bought an estimated $130,000 tonnes of organic coffee from Africa while the US, another major organic coffee consumer, bought an estimated 91,000 tonnes of the commodity.

The high demand for organic coffee in EU markets is “particularly driven by sustainability concerns of consumers and European industry players, as well as a growing interest in healthy living by consumers,” according to a report by the Centre for the Promotion of Imports (CBI).

“Although the European market for organic coffee is still considered a niche market, demand is expected to grow strongly in the near future,” the CBI report stated.

Private companies want eco-friendly farm practices

For Kenya, the increasing international demand for certified organic coffee has attracted the participation of private companies and nongovernmental organisations keen on promoting environmentally friendly farm practices such as shade-grown cultivation that prioritises preservation of biodiversity and conservation of water resources.

For instance, the Denmark’s Danida Green Business Partnership (DGBP), a challenge fund designed to promote market-driven green transition and inclusive economic growth in developing countries, is working with Solidaridad and local coffee companies in promoting traceable organic coffee in Kenya
through training of farmers on various areas such as how to make their own organic fertiliser using readily available materials, effective weed control, canopy management, pest and disease control and coffee nutrition.

The TRACE Kenya project, which supports the country’s economic growth as well environmental conservation, brings together at least 15,000 smallholder organic coffee farmers from the three counties of Kericho, Nandi and Bungoma.

At least 45,000 of the farmers are women and 1,500 are youth that are growing certified organic coffee destined for the export market, particularly Europe and USA.

“Our approach includes capacity building initiatives and interactive training on innovative organic coffee practices, facilitating access to high-yielding and disease-resistant coffee varieties and eco-friendly inputs, and promoting eco-friendly technologies,” stated a project brief by the DGBP.

“The project strives to create an inclusive, market-driven and sustainable coffee sub-sector that generates increased income opportunities and creates decent jobs for many along the value chain,” DGBP’s brief added.

Africa Coffee Roasters, a Kenyan partner in the project, said the TRACE project is “about improving livelihoods of coffee farmers.”

“We do not have organic certified coffee from Kenya, but we have a number of farmers who claim their coffee is farmed organically but we do not have third-party certification for coffee from Kenya,” said Joan Kithika, the sustainability and compliance manager at Africa Coffee Roasters.

TRACE Kenya project, Kithika said, aims at increasing third-party certification for organically farmed Kenyan coffee. She said there is demand for certified organic coffee globally as is the drive to address climate change dynamics in the coffee industry

“TRACE Kenya focuses on producing the first organic certified coffee in Kenya. It is about making sustainable coffee trade between farmers and the market in Europe,” she added.

The TRACE Kenya project is an example of an emerging trend within Africa’s specialty coffee market characterised by “direct trade, close contact between farmers and buyers, traceability systems and price premiums based on coffee bean quality,” according to CBI.

In landlocked Uganda, Africa’s largest coffee exporter, a leading coffee producer, Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPCU), has shifted to 100 percent organic, Fairtrade, and high-quality coffees.

“The combination of Fairtrade, organic and high-quality coffee sets this cooperative apart from their competitors,” stated the CBI report.

Additionally, the cooperative owns its own sorting unit, cupping lab and warehouse, which allows them to have control over their coffees and to be a reliable exporting partner to their clients, the report added. UK-based alternative trading organisation, Café Direct, is one of the leading buyers of ACPCU’s organic coffee.

ACPCU focuses on organic Robusta coffee, a hardier species of coffee, which, according to the general manager, John Nuwagaba, was a niche export market that is under-explored. Securing of Fairtrade certification for all ACPCU members “increased their access to certain markets and transformed the lives of the farmers,” he said.

  • Shem Oirere is a freelance business journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has spent more than 25 years covering various sectors of Africa’s economy including the region’s
    agribusiness. He holds BA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the University of South Africa and earned a higher degree in journalism from the London School of Journalism and is also a member of the Association of Business Executives (ABE).

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