East Africa produces some of the world’s best coffee. This is for a number of reasons, including the region’s unique climate and geography. But what about processing?
Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania are all established origins in the coffee industry, and between them they hold a significant share of the global market. But how is their coffee processed?
As the two main established methods in the global coffee sector, washed and natural coffee processing are both present in the region. But which is more popular? And what about experimental coffee processing? Are there any barriers to that, and is it growing in popularity here, as it is in Latin America?
To learn more, I spoke to four coffee insiders based in the region. They told me more about processing in East Africa, and how stakeholders can drive a focus on experimentation. Read on to learn more.
You might also like our article on the origins of coffee in Africa.
Processing techniques used in East Africa
In East Africa, prominent coffee producing countries include Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Today, it is the fifth-largest coffee producer in the world by volume, and is renowned among specialty coffee lovers for its thousands of wild heirloom varieties.
Historically, Ethiopian coffee processing was driven by co-operatives. Groups of two or more co-operatives formed unions, which then assisted with processing, as well as hulling, polishing, and packaging.
However, in recent years, with legislative changes to the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange (ECX), some coffee farmers have started to move away from this model. As vertical integration has been permitted since 2017, some producers have opted to process their coffee individually.
Private washing stations are also becoming increasingly popular, representing another transition away from the co-operative union model.
Ethiopia is known for both washed and natural coffees, but the ratio and popularity of certain processing methods varies depending on the region in question. For instance, around 60% of Sidamo coffee is washed.
At a nationwide level, however, research indicates that some 29% of Ethiopian coffee is washed, while almost all of the remaining is natural processed. Washed Ethiopian coffees are known for their delicate floral and citrus notes, while natural coffees from the coffee are “funkier”, with a sweeter, bolder flavour.
Experimental processing methods are becoming increasingly popular with Ethiopian farmers, too. Some of these have come to be used in tandem with new or emerging varieties, which often start as heirloom cultivars before becoming more prominent.
The highly acclaimed Wush Wush, for example, has been subjected to various fermentation techniques in an attempt to amplify its distinctive fruity characteristics.
Almost all coffee grown in Rwanda is arabica, and most of that is washed. Coffee cherries sourced from multiple Rwandan farmers are first sorted in water, before being pulped.
After pulping, the cherries are graded, putting them in one of three categories: A1, A2, or Grade C. Later, the first two categories then undergo waterless fermentation. In very rare instances, some Rwandan coffee is honey processed for special markets.
There is also still some natural processing in the country, but the scale is low. For some farmers, higher yields are favoured over quality.
William Peters is a Tanzanian coffee processing and trading expert. He says that around 90% of Tanzanian arabica is washed; internally, it is described as “mild arabica”. However, he adds that a small percentage is subjected to natural processing, too.
“After harvesting, the coffee is spread on drying areas [for natural processing],” he says. “This process is similar to the robusta one. Arabica processed this way is referred to as hard arabica.”
Most of the robusta coffee produced in this region is natural processed in this way. Although William believes this is slowly changing, he says that without adequate knowledge and access to the market, the washing and fermentation of robusta remains uncommon.
Organically grown coffee is also being grown in Tanzania, but it still undergoes conventional processing methods.
“After harvesting, the coffee is dried on dry surfaces or tarpaulins and later delivered to the hulling factory after drying,” he explains. “There are other organisations that use the wet process, but mainly it’s just natural sun drying.”
Joe Hage-Chahine is the Managing Director of Ugacof (Sucafina Uganda). He says that while robusta isn’t washed, Uganda is also known for its fully washed arabica.
He explains: “Though the region produces incredible naturals, fully washed is the emblematic taste consumers tend to expect from East Africa, with its acidity, complexity, and floral tones.
“It’s the processing method that best highlights the full potential of East African coffees.”
However, he says that some individual producers who own processing stations are trying new methods. Some of these methods include the natural processing of arabicas and honey processing, among others.
Furthermore, there are some experimenting with fermentation techniques. Methods such as carbonic maceration and anaerobic fermentation are gaining interest in the region.
In Kenya, it is rare to find co-operatives or smallholder farmers using anything other than washed processing. One of the potential reasons for this is that farmers are bound to the methods dictated by co-operatives, who handle all processing responsibilities.
Farmers deliver their coffee to the co-operatives, and in many cases, that is the end of their involvement. Because washed processing is seen as a compromise between cost efficiency and quality, it’s widely used.
Coffee in Burundi is predominantly washed (somewhere between 70 and 80%). It is grown between 1,250 and 2,000 m.a.s.l., and is largely of the Bourbon variety.
Altogether, this means coffee in Burundi is renowned for its brightness and florality, with berry notes. There is however, also some natural processed coffee in the country, which has a jammier and creamier flavour.
Co-operatives & processing in East Africa
While this is not a blanket rule, co-operatives in East Africa often handle processing for smallholder farmers at a central location. For example, William says that almost all processing in Tanzania is undertaken at what are known as CPUs (central pulping units).
These are owned by the co-operatives, and they generally handle all the pulping, fermentation, and washing of coffee supplied by individual farmers.
“These small producers do not know who will buy their coffee from the auction,” William says. “They do not have control of it, so they just take it to the co-operatives, and that’s it.
“They just want their coffee processed in whichever way, so that they can get paid.”
However, this can at times be a barrier for experimentation with processing in the region. As CPUs in places like Tanzania deal with large volumes of coffee from massive areas and dozens of different farmers, experimenting is not always an easy prospect.
For starters, it requires knowledge of new processing methods as well as the infrastructure and space to carry them out, which is not always readily available.
Barriers for developments in processing
According to William, the Tanzanian Coffee Board has been conducting education aimed at improving and scaling coffee production, rather than exploring new or alternative coffee processing methods.
The board sees coffee production as the more urgent issue, as many farmers have already uprooted their coffee plants. Yields and production numbers are the priority.
“The farmers got disappointed by the low prices paid for their coffee and most of them eventually cut down their trees for other cash crops such as bananas,” William explains.
“It is really difficult to convince the same farmers to now come and invest in other processes. To them, that is an added cost that is too much.”
For large farms, he says, it is a similar story. With an established market, there is already demand for coffee processed using a certain technique or method.
It’s a similar story in Burundi, William says. Co-operatives are keen to sell processed coffee as quickly as possible, as farmers often operate at a subsistence level.
“The farmers are not willing to wait forever before getting paid,” he explains. “With some of these processing methods, the coffee takes too long to be ready for sale. Farmers are not willing to wait that long.”
Rogers agrees that funding is one of the major obstacles to improving processing or using alternative techniques. Often, co-operatives have more pressing concerns.
“In our case, we are a growing co-operative, and the aim is to maintain that growth,” he adds. “The funds are a major factor.”
However, this broad trend is by no means true for every farm in the region. In Kenya, for instance, there are large farms starting to invest in new methods like carbonic maceration and aerobic/anaerobic fermentation, as are some producers in Ethiopia.
The owners and directors of these estates explain that they are able to invest in these methods because there is already a market for the coffee. They say it is expensive to establish the facilities, but once set up, this coffee attracts higher prices.
This makes it difficult for anyone but the larger farms to break in, and even then, there’s no guarantee of a sale at a price premium.
Joe adds: “[In Uganda], we’ve experimented with honey and yeast-fermented robusta recently. The coffees tasted great, but it is often difficult for roasters to justify the high cost associated with these niche products.
“Experimental production methods add more value when linked to yield or productivity increases, especially in the case of robusta, since it is mostly a volume driven product.”
Is change important? And how can it be achieved?
Joe adds that it is important to have a variety of processing methods, as this gives farmers and cooperatives more flexibility.
He says: “Consumer trends shift constantly, and variety in processing methods allows producers to respond to this demand and remain resilient to market changes and evolution, both at the individual and country level.”
If done at the correct scale and with the right procedures in place, he says, shifting to other processing methods can be a sensible move.
He explains: “Processing techniques and technologies can be expensive without adding a lot of value or fetching the premium that is expected from these processes.
“The key is to implement best practices diligently, at every step of the chain, in order to capture and preserve the most value from each bean. Only then would it become sustainably profitable.”
Meanwhile, Rogers believes that with more time and access to new information, new methods will be put into action at a co-operative level.
“After we have established ourselves, we shall invest in new methods that will also help with increasing quality,” he says.
All of our interviewees believe that East African coffee farmers would benefit from improving their coffee processing, whether that means a focus on quality in the processing itself, or a full switch to a new method.
However, these practices should be sustainable and sensible when implemented, given that any kind of change will require a lot of investment.
It remains to be seen how long it will take for producers in East Africa to innovate in processing on a wider scale. However, most of the professionals I spoke to are optimistic that with proper education, the right investment plans, and improving market access, it’s certainly possible.
Enjoyed this? Then try our article on ensuring consistency in coffee fermentation and processing.
Photo credits: Peter Gakuo
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