January 7, 2020

Tackling The Challenges of Trading Coffee in East Africa


In East Africa, over five million people are either coffee growers or work in the coffee sector. It is the birthplace of coffee and home to some of the world’s leading premium coffee-exporting countries, such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.

But small farm sizes, weak infrastructure, and climatic and political instabilities mean coffee trading in East Africa can at times be challenging. For those more accustomed to buying from Latin America, some of these difficulties can come as a surprise. But how can importers and buyers tackle these challenges and support producers? And why do some buyers continue to believe trading in East Africa is easily worth the extra effort?

Lee este artículo en español Enfrentando Los Desafíos Del Comercio de Café en África Oriental

Coffee farmers and a box with coffee records. Credit:Thomas Delbar

Structural Challenges

Unstable political climates, bureaucracy, weak infrastructure, and difficult topography are just some of the challenges that can cause bottlenecks in East Africa’s coffee trade. Add climate change and low market prices to the mix and you get an environment that could be off-putting. Producers, exporters, and importers are all challenged at some level.

  • Farm Size

While farms in Latin America and Asia can be extensive, East African farms are often extremely small. In some cases, they are just a few trees in a family’s garden.

Thomas Delbar, Head of Supply Chain Sourcing at green bean coffee exporters and importers Supremo, sources from Latin America, Asia, and East Africa. He also has 12 years of experience of exporting from Ethiopia and Uganda. He tells me that Supremo imports a lot of coffees from Burundi, DR Congo, and Rwanda, which can be complicated origins to work with. “One of the main challenges, which also is actually a beauty of East African coffees, is the small size of the farms…,” he says. “It makes quality control and consolidation of lots of coffees very difficult.”

The thousands of small farms are the reason why East African countries produce such characteristically diverse coffees with a striking range of aromas. But traceability back to the farm becomes a major challenge, as lots are usually all processed in cooperatives. Unless there is a detailed monitoring system in place, keeping track of a specific farm lot can be near impossible.

The same goes for quality control. Monitoring quality every step of the way when it involves so many actors is a Herculean task. It calls for a great deal of involvement from the buyer.

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Farmer checking coffee drying on raised beds at a farm in Burundi. Credit: Katie Garrett

  • Poor Transport Infrastructure

Inland logistics in producing regions can be a major problem in East African countries. While roads can often be in better condition than is commonly believed, the OECD reports that “the major inefficiency concerning transport infrastructure in East Africa is the length of time taken to get products from the producer to consumer and the high cost of transport.”

Even just getting the coffee beans from the farmer to the wet mill can be a challenge. Producers face long distances and difficult topography, with heavy rains further complicating the issue. 2019 has seen flooding affect millions of people across the region, with several hundred people dying.

“Roasters and buyers may not realise that a smallholder farmer in Burundi or in Kivu has to walk up to twenty kilometres daily to deliver [their] coffee and go back home…,” Thomas tells me.  “Carrying a bag of ten to sixty kilos of cherries or dried parchment on your back or on the back of a donkey is not always easy on sloppy and slippery terrain.”

In general, the coffee journey from farm to port is long, arduous, and often expensive, fraught with unexpected weather or political incidents. Add the time it takes to get sea-worthy container space on vessels, and the shipping time, and the entire process can take up to two or three months in some cases. The slowness and unpredictability of proceedings in producing countries contrasts sharply with the expectations of immediate responses and precise scheduling in consumer countries. Balancing this can be a challenge for buyers and importers.

Thomas tells me that to handle this, his company uses buffer stocks or “stocks of coffees that we have bought, but that we have not pre-sold to any of our buyers”. These are not, however, the same as the buffer stocks that were historically stored by the ICO to control supply, demand, and pricing. These buffer stocks are fresh coffees stored in warehouses in countries that present less logistical challenges for shipping.

“We keep some stocks in a fresh, dust-free environment, high-altitude cities, which are Kigali and Nairobi,” Thomas explains. “So typically for Congo or Uganda coffees we would keep them in Nairobi, and for Burundi and Rwanda coffees, we would keep them in Kigali… which means we’re also in capacity to be very quick at shipping our coffee.” 

  • Changeable Political Climates & Regulations

In countries more prone to political instability, the coffee trade can be affected by sudden changes in regulations, heavy bureaucracy, or general political conflicts. Burundi, for example, can be a difficult country to import from because of this. Government-fixed prices and payments centralised by the government frequently result in month-long payment delays to the exporters. Trading in countries like Burundi, Tanzania, and Congo can sometimes feel like jumping through hoops.

Coffee farmers at a farm in Burundi. Credit: Katie Garrett

Vulnerability & Resilience

While structural challenges cause problems for buyers, producers in this region are also particularly vulnerable. Climate change, low yields, and low prices mean farmers often lack resilience.

  • Climate Change

East Africa is one of the most suitable regions for coffee production not just on the continent but across the globe. Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Madagascar make up over 80% of all African highlands. The East African highlands is a region sitting above 1,500 m.a.s.l. or with daily mean temperatures below 20°C/68°F. Temperatures are moderate, rainfall is “adequate”, and the soil is fertile and well-suited to agriculture.

But climate change is threatening this coveted climate. Rainfall is one of the major issues. Irrigation is extremely rare on small East African farms, meaning that producers depend on reliable rainfall to be able to produce their crops. Yet farmers are already noticing unseasonal wet weather that is affecting their production.

Early November in Ethiopia should be the dry season. In Jimma in southeast Ethiopia, however, the weather in November 2019 was wet and rainy. The coffee cherries, all laid out on the drying beds, had to be covered with tarpaulins to protect them from the rain. When this happens, it doesn’t just slow down processing and delivery: it also increases the risk of mould. In turn, more cherries have to be discarded. Quality, yield, and delivery speed fall.

View from a coffee farm in Burundi. Credit: Johan & Nyström

  • Low Yields 

The prevalence of garden farmers doesn’t just make quality control and traceability more challenging; it also leaves producers more vulnerable.

In 2017, the ICO reported on sharp declines in production since the early ‘90s in “the majority of [African] countries”, especially the East African nations of Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. It blamed the liberalisation of the coffee market and dropping coffee prices, exacerbated by conflict, limited access to resources such as fertiliser and finance to replace trees, and a lack of formal training.

When yields are low, profits also tend to be small. Per pound of cherry, the investment of resources and time has to be higher. This means it requires an even smaller drop in coffee prices for an East African producer to be operating in the red.

  • Low Market Prices

In 2017, a Fairtrade International and True Price pilot study found that smallholder Fairtrade farmers in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya did not earn a living household income. This was before the coffee price crisis hit and the C price hovered around US $1.00/lb or less for most of 2019.

Now, as rainfall pushes down production and quality, and the coffee price crisis continues to loom over the industry, farmers are abandoning their coffee crops in favour of things that will pay for food, healthcare, and education for their family. Cereal crops can be a more lucrative option, while All Africa reports that some Kenyan producers are giving up farming altogether and instead turning to real estate development.

A view from Kivu Lake in Africa. Credit: Katie Garrett

Tackling The Challenges

Despite the heavy challenges facing importers and producers working in East Africa, the region remains an attractive option for those willing to work on building strong relationships, supporting producers, and finding ways to tackle the challenges. Investing in producers is quickly proving to be one of the most effective ways to ensure that coffee production remains alive and well. It is also an investment in quality.

  • Quality-Focused Training

Thomas tells me that Supremo has been tackling quality control by providing training for farmers on proper picking and handling and for washing stations owners on quality control examinations of cherries. “We’ve seen with time a drastic increase in the quality being delivered,” he tells me, adding that it doesn’t just have an impact on cup scores.

Good quality control means that farmers do not see their lots rejected and hard work go to waste, increasing efficiency. It also means that primary market access is enabled and importers also benefit from an overall strengthened supply chain. It is a win-win situation for all, and a catalyst of trust in the producer-buyer relationship.

Supremo also works as a direct trade facilitator, organising the logistics of importing coffee after the buyer has agreed a price with a producer in person in the countries the company operates in. Thomas tells me that he sees quality training as being more effective when it’s done as part of a direct trade transaction.

“The supplier has met the buyers,” he stresses. “And once you’ve had that face to face [meeting and] know who [they] are, you much more want to make the effort to preserve the quality for the guy you met six months ago or 18 months ago, whom you remember very well, who has sent you pictures and put a picture of you on his Instagram and has told you, ‘You need to use hermetic packaging from the very start.’ So, there’s that human relationship part that’s very important.”

Both the producer and the buyer benefit in this scenario. Higher quality products translate into better cupping scores and higher prices. Meanwhile, the stability of a confirmed buyer means that producers can confidently invest in items such as hermetic packaging.

A coffee farmer holds two coffee seedlings in Burundi. Credit:Katie Garrett

  • Capacity Building

In addition to training, investing in infrastructure and resources can have a significant impact. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with widespread hunger. It is considered by the UN to be a “least developed country”.

With striking levels of widespread poverty, Burundi benefits greatly from capacity building. As part of Project Akawa, Supremo works with 11,000 smallholder farmers across the country on plant renovation, water treatment, and fertilising. Farm equipment is provided to producers who would not otherwise have access to it. Training and knowledge exchange are also a key part of the project. Thomas explains that this has led to greater quality and yield for producers.

  • Certification

Thomas tells me that coffees from Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo are least at risk of containing the glyphosate herbicide considered by the WHO to be “probably carcinogenic in humans”, due to East Africa’s tendency to produce organic coffees. Producers usually have smaller lots and often forest-grown coffees, which also has a positive impact on the planet.

Thomas tells me that certification for being organic, Fairtrade, and UTZ can help producers. Their coffee is more appealing to buyers. In fact, UTZ certification is part of Project Akawa for this reason, and Thomas explains that since the producers they work with became UTZ certified, it has provided them access to new markets.

Supporting producers in marketing their sustainable coffees both gives them access to price premiums and expanded markets, which in turn helps them weather low prices and yields.

View from a mill in Burundi. Credit: Johan & Nyström

The Rewards

Although tackling the challenges requires significant investment on the part of importers, Thomas assures me that the rewards more than outweigh the difficulties.

  • Impact

Thomas describes the ability to have a social and economic impact on a large community of smallholder farmers as a “blessing”. Not only do East African countries depend on coffee for a large share of their export earnings, but coffee also has the tremendous potential to positively impact the lives of the region’s millions of smallholder coffee farming families. Buying coffee from this region at a fair price is effectively investing in the lives of its smallholder farmers.

Jonas Hult is in charge of green coffee buying at Johan and Nyström in Stockholm, Sweden. The company has been working directly with producers in a relationship facilitated by Supremo. For Jonas, the mutual growth of his business and producers’ businesses has been a highlight of the relationship.

“We’ve been around for 15 years now and some of the producers we’ve been working with for 10 years. And to be able to grow together, I think, is very rewarding…,” he says. “We’re able to grow our volumes with our producers that we have a relationship with.”

Washed coffee drying, being moved at a farm in Burundi. Credit: Katie Garrett

  • Traceability & Accountability

As the world wakes up to the harsh realities and inequities prevalent in producing countries, traceability is increasingly becoming a priority. Consumers want to know that buying a cup of coffee is supporting – even in a small way – someone in achieving a living income and thriving. 

Importers and roasters are held accountable to consumers in this respect. And although it can be hard to trace coffee back to the individual producer in many East African coffees, they are able to work directly with cooperatives in which the purchasing of their coffee has a significant impact. 

Thomas tells me that he can tell buyers not just about flavour profiles and cupping scores, but also about the story behind the coffee. He can say, “It’s also women from the Kotwibakabo group in Rwanda who produced it. Would you like to know more about it? This is what they do.” 

He tells me that the cooperatives can also hold importers and buyers accountable. “Unity is strength,” he says. “The fact that they’ve grouped themselves together gives them leverage on their buyers, you know. They can tell the primary buyer… [We’re] not happy with this. We need training on this. We need equipment for that.” 

He adds, “We see the supply chain as something in which everyone has to be happy in it. They have every right to request certain things and they usually obtain them.”

  • Outstanding Quality

East African regions are renowned for their floral, fruity, and unique flavour profiles. Jonas tells me that the quality of the coffee is one of the main rewards from trading in the region. “The quality of the product, that’s why we love these countries… The flavour profile is unique – especially in Ethiopia, Burundi. But all the countries in Eastern Africa are producing really, really good coffee.”

Women sorting coffee at a farm in Jimma, Oromia, Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha

East Africa is an attractive region for specialty coffee buyers, thanks to the exceptional quality of the coffees. Ethiopia’s Geisha and Harar, Kenya’s Kamacharia, Rwanda’s Rukara, Burundi’s Kayanza, Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro… it’s a star-studded list.

There are significant challenges when trading coffee in these countries. Getting beans from farmer to consumer can be an uphill battle. But the beauty in these challenges lies in the impact that overcoming them has on East Africa’s smallholder farmers and their families. Direct trade, investment in certification schemes, training throughout the value chain and lasting partnerships are just some of the ways importers can address the challenges head on.

The result? Social and economic empowerment at one end, and fantastic coffees accessible to consumers worldwide at the other. 

Found this interesting? Read Burundian Coffee: Stop Listing Problems, Start Taking Action s

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Supremo 

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