East Africa produces some of the world’s best coffees. It’s the birthplace of coffee. It’s the origin of Geisha, Yirgacheffe, and more. In short, it’s an iconic coffee region. But what makes it different from the Americas, Asia, and even the rest of Africa? What challenges do producers here face? And what does the future hold for this unique region?
To find out the answers to all these questions and more, we spoke to two experts: Phil Schluter, CEO of Schluter Coffee and founding member of the SCAE, and Alan Nietlisbach, Senior Vice President of Specialty Coffee at Olam Specialty Coffee. Schluter Coffee specializes in East African coffees, and Olam acquired them last Autumn, making Phil and Alan two key stakeholders in this region’s coffee industry.
Here’s what they had to say.
Spanish Version: Regiones de Café 101: ¿Qué Distingue al Este de África?
A coffee farmer with one of their coffee plant in Tanzania. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
What Sets East African Coffees Apart?
When we talk about East African coffees, we’re looking at Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania… It’s a vast region with many differences. Production in Burundi is marked by the country’s intense poverty and conflict, while Kenya is one of Africa’s richest nations.
Yet while there are differences between these countries, there are even bigger differences between them and other coffee-producing regions.
One of most notable of these is that farmers here typically own and operate much smaller plots. As I learn from talking to Phil and Alan, the average farmer has 0.2 hectares and, during harvest season, may pick a grocery bag’s worth of cherries in a day. As a result, East Africa is known for its co-ops, often formed at washing stations and wet mills.
What’s more, many African farmers are subsistence farmers, meaning they survive off their own land and grow food for their own consumption. Coffee tends to be the only actual cash income a farmer may receive, and many rely on it to buy school books and uniforms for their families.
Ripe coffee cherries in Tanzania. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
Challenges & Solutions for East African Producers
Phil and Alan explained that the future of specialty coffee in this region is rich – but there are also many challenges to counter before the industry will truly flourish. These range from generational challenges to market knowledge and access.
The Next Generation & Inheritance Laws
Like many producing regions across the world, East African coffee farming is susceptible to generational changes. Many youths across the globe are less interested in following in their families’ footsteps of farming. They would rather find work in the big cities, or even abroad.
Yet one thing exacerbates this in East Africa, and you don’t see this in other regions.
“What sets East African coffee farming apart is their inheritance laws that split their already small estates among the children during inheritance, making some lots not viable to continue farming on. They’re simply too small,” Phil told me.
It’s imperative that these farmers work together. Phil ran me through the math of Tanzanian coffee, where Schluter Coffee works with 2,000 to 3,000 farmers annually. In any given year, the average hectare yields three 60 kilo bags of green coffee. A container of coffee can hold 19.2 imperial tonnes of coffee. Therefore, it takes over 500 farmers to fill one container.
Despite this, small-holder farming is a resilient practice. It has a strong future in East African coffee, Phil assured me, pointing to Uganda and Angola to illustrate this. In Angola, where coffee production consists mainly of plantations, political unrest hit exports hard in the ‘70s. In Uganda, however, small-holder farming stood strong despite the country’s tribulations.
A coffee farmer cultivates her land in Tanzania. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
Another issue can be that not all coffee producers understand the value of their product. Even when conscientious roasters wish to pay high prices, this can cause issues. Phil told me that he’s seen coffee roasters set out to do the right thing and pay the farmer significantly over the market value for a very small quantity of coffee. However, this can make it more difficult for the farmer in the future, since they’re not aware of the going rate for their coffee.
“Unfortunately, the farmer then believes their coffee is worth much more than it might be, and they will pass up future offers for the coffee while they hold out for the same price. This might go on for six or nine months and even eventually lead to a lost harvest,” he explained.
Does this mean roasters shouldn’t pay good wages? No. But it does mean that farmers need market knowledge and the know-how to evaluate their coffee’s quality. Phil told me he admires those coffee manufacturers who provide small-batch roasting equipment to farmers. This helps them to better understand their product, he explains.
Women sort coffee in Ethiopia. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
In the same way, a lack of agricultural knowledge can pose a challenge. As many coffee producers in East Africa are subsistence farmers, their knowledge of how to expand their specialty coffee production can be limited.
Alan tells me about something called the Olam Livelihood Charter, which focuses on goals such as market access and social investment. He tells me that, now they have merged with Schluter, they will work on Technical Vocational Education and Training to empower the growing youth of Africa.
“With a little more effort, knowledge, and training, we can better provide premium services to our farmers,” Alan said.
A little more knowledge can improve quality. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
Alan’s of the opinion that African Coffee is “the highlight of the cupping table and a treasure trove of opportunity.” But while East African coffee is popular, does it have the brand reach of, say, Colombian coffee? He tells me that Olam’s first priority is to increase knowledge and awareness of African coffee.
Could Europe be where it really takes off? Phil believes Europe is on the cusp of a major specialty coffee boom – and he is eagerly anticipating the explosion.
Cupping will increase understanding of coffee. Credit: Olam Specialty Coffee
A Future Without Exports?
Ironically, another challenge may one day be the popularity of specialty coffee at origin. As we all work together to enhance the quality and value of specialty coffee, producing countries are taking note. Alan thinks that, one day, the scales will tip in the direction of origin countries. Rather than exporting their specialty coffee they will keep the majority of the coffee in country. This is the great hope and fear of many in the specialty coffee industry.
Farmers roast their own coffee at Yirgalem, Sidamo, Ethiopia. Credit: Phil Schluter