July 6, 2020

Why Do Coffee Productivity Levels Vary Between Countries?

Coffee crop productivity can be influenced by a number of factors, including farm practices, access to resources, and quality of infrastructure.

Issues with coffee pricing mean that many producers struggle to maintain financially viable farms. This makes high crop productivity a priority, particularly for commercial coffees.

In places like Brazil and Vietnam, farm productivity tends to be higher, partly thanks to mechanisation and partly as a result of other outside factors.

Productivity levels are measured in terms of raw yield, generally calculated as metric tons per hectare, or t/Ha. Levels in Vietnam and Brazil are around 2.5 t/Ha and 1.5 t/Ha respectively, but for most other producing countries, this measure is considerably lower. 

The average productivity level in Central American countries is somewhere between 0.5 to 0.75 t/Ha, while in Africa, yield levels range from 0.1 to 0.8 t/Ha. In Asia, average yield figures are hard to calculate thanks to a lack of information, but beyond Vietnam, rates appear to be increasing – Indonesia and India yield 0.76 t/Ha and 0.8 t/Ha respectively.

Read on to understand why productivity levels vary so much from country to country.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Por Qué la Productividad Del Café Varía Según el País?


How Do Farm Practices Influence Yield Levels?

Prof. Jeffrey Sachs is a University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. In this study, he says: “Yield rates have increased by over 100% in Vietnam and 30% in Brazil [between 1990 and 2019]. Those increases contrast starkly with the relatively stable yields for most other coffee-producing countries.”

However, even in countries with higher production levels, low coffee prices mean that many farmers struggle to support themselves or their families, let alone invest in their farms.

Farm practices are just one reason that productivity levels are higher in places like Brazil and Vietnam than they are in other countries. To explore this, I spoke with Carlos Brando, Director of P&A Marketing and Chair of the Global Coffee Platform.

Choose Your Crop Wisely

It is very important to choose the best variety to plant. According to Carlos, there are three main traits to consider: “Think of coffee varieties that are more productive, those that are pest or disease-resistant, and look into quality as well.”

One thing to consider: there is no perfect variety for all environments, and the right one to choose will depend entirely on the producer’s objective. 

“A variety that works very well in one country may not suit another,” Carlos says. “For most growers, productivity will come first. But in Central America, where there was this huge leaf rust problem, you’ll have to look for rust-resistant varieties.”

Plan Before You Plant

It’s important that farmers plan well before they plant. They have to ask a lot of questions – how much space does there need to be between each plant in a given row? What’s the ideal distance between rows? How high should each plant be allowed to grow?

“The first thing you should look at is leaf area,” Carlos says. “The more leaves you have, the more efficient photosynthesis becomes, and therefore, the more branches and cherries you can produce.”

In most countries, however, the planning leaves something to be desired. “Sometimes, you have a lot of plants, but they’re close together and they don’t grow very tall. A lot of growers keep the plants short, but in Brazil or Vietnam, you see much taller trees.”

Taller trees benefit growers who have access to mechanised picking methods. As Carlos says, “this means pickers have to use ladders or use machines like handheld harvesters, but if you have this equipment available, your trees can grow higher and you end up producing more.

“What we learn to do in Brazil is to plant along a line. You have a greater distance between the lines, let’s say two and a half meters, and little space between the trees on the same line – maybe one metre at most.” 

He says that’s enough to allow mechanisation, but, “more importantly, you get a lot of light in the whole tree – the base and the top – so you get a bigger leaf area, more branches, and ultimately more productivity.”

To Shade Or Not To Shade?

It’s commonly believed that shade-grown plants are less productive, but produce higher quality coffee.

Carlos says that heavier shade tends to decrease productivity. However, this doesn’t mean that producers should be removing shade entirely; light levels should be managed to ensure a balance between productivity and quality. Producers can modify the levels of sunlight that plants receive by pruning where necessary. 

“That’s what they’re doing in Ethiopia,” Carlos says. “They’re not removing all the shade, but just some of it, to increase productivity.” And this is reflected in the 2020 forecast for Ethiopian coffee productivity levels, which are set to increase from 0.74 t/Ha to 0.82t/Ha over the past four years.

Shade-grown coffee, however, does have other advantages, according to Carlos. “When leaves fall, they are incorporated into the soil as organic matter, and, as a result, we use less fertiliser, or don’t use it at all.”

This is not a catch-all solution, however; Carlos warns that for those coffee growers who want to maximise productivity, less shade and more fertiliser is likely the best option.

Understand Your Soil

Maintaining soil nutrient levels is incredibly important for farmers. “Even with good soil, if the plantation is old, the nutrients tend to dry out,” Carlos says. As a result, farmers have to add fertiliser.

But how do you know which nutrients are needed, and how much to add? Carlos says it usually comes down to analysing a soil sample: “Soil analysis will tell you which nutrients you are missing. This isn’t just limited to the three main ones (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) but also micronutrients like borum, magnesium, and so on. Both Vietnamese and Brazilian coffee growers fertilise, and they fertilise in a heavily technical way.”

In other countries, Carlos says that some producers don’t fertilise enough. For example, according to this report from the International Coffee Organization, ”African agriculture is characterised by low productivity due to under-fertilisation of soil and the lack of regular husbandry. In Rwanda for example, only 25% of farms are treated with fertiliser.“ 

Carlos also says that some producers think that because they plant in rich, volcanic soil, they don’t have to use fertiliser. In this case, he says that the plants will still produce, but that the results might not be optimal:  “If you don’t fertilise, sometimes you’ll reach a ceiling in terms of productivity and yield.”

Another important point to consider alongside nutrient levels is the soil’s pH – its acidity level. The coffee plant performs optimally in slightly acidic soil – a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5 – but acidity also increases slowly over time. Carlos explains that sometimes even when the producer fertilises the soil, the pH is too acidic. “In order for it to be corrected,” Carlos says, “you have to add lime.” 

Unwanted Guests

No matter what farmers do to prevent it, sometimes the unthinkable happens, and coffee crops are struck by pests or disease 

In 2011/2012, an epidemic of coffee leaf rust, a disease caused by a fungus that drastically reduces productivity, struck many producing countries in Central America. Estimates show that over the five years that followed, as many as 70% of farms were affected.

And it doesn’t stop there; beyond leaf rust, coffee plants are also affected by the berry borer, the leaf miner, and other lesser-known pests. “In some countries, there are other diseases too, like white stem borer in India,” Carlos says. This pest, which arrived in 1838, is devastating for arabica plants, and has cost producers in India millions of dollars.

Since the first Brazilian leaf rust outbreak in 1970, producers have had to cope with the disease, but their efforts have been supported through public investment in research, training and extension services, and credit availability for farms. 

In this article, José Braz Matiello, a researcher at Brazilian government-supported research foundation Fundação Procafé, says: “The research developed the control methods, the assistance took the technologies to the producers, and the credit supported the execution of the control practices.”

Farmers mainly protect their crops through the use of pesticides. But even this isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Carlos says that in remote areas, people pay a premium for their food when compared to “the middle-class people who live in better areas.”

“The same thing happens with the small growers in many of these countries, because the market is inefficient. They pay more for fertiliser and pesticides. When they have to buy equipment or even fertiliser, they don’t have the capital. So they turn to finance, which requires collateral – often the land. But many growers don’t have the title, which means that they can’t secure credit.”

If the producer grows organic coffee, there are other environmentally-friendly options to avoid chemicals, such as biological control.

The Importance of Investment

André da Silva is the Senior Managing Director at Tropysync, a green coffee importer headquartered in Maryland, USA. He thinks that investment in science and technology is highly important for improving productivity, and, according to him: “This does not happen in [other] countries [beyond Brazil and Vietnam]. That part of science and technology is still in its infancy.”

It’s difficult for some producers, however, to make long-term investments into their farms. Carlos says: “The money the coffee grower is being paid is worth less and less each day, thanks to inflation. So even though the money is the same, in real terms, growers have less money to invest and improve. That’s not a technical problem. That’s a socioeconomic problem, a developmental problem.” For many growers, this creates a vicious cycle.

But how have Brazil and Vietnam kept increasing their productivity levels despite these issues? Well, according to Carlos, the answer is simple: state intervention and competitive markets. In these countries, he says, “you have to have government support with research, training and extension services, infrastructure, logistics, and credit. This is especially helpful for smaller growers who don’t have the option of working on their own.” Competition, Carlos adds, also makes the market more efficient.

Coffee productivity varies a lot from country to country, and there’s no one deciding factor influencing yield levels. Growers have cited everything from farm practices and credit supply to access to resources and infrastructure.

But one thing is for sure: consumption keeps rising, and as it does, growers will need to keep pace. Increased productivity levels will be fundamentally important in securing a sustainable long-term future for growers, particularly for those who farm commercial coffee.

Article written by Ivan Petrich. Feature photo: Hands holding coffee cherries. Credit: Meklit Mersha. Quotes from José Braz Matiello were translated from Portuguese. Photo credits: Ivan Petrich, Julio Guevara, Ana Valencia, Mayorga Organics and Eduardo Ferreira. 

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