August 29, 2022

Understanding the relationship between cycling & coffee production


Many coffee farms across the Bean Belt are located in remote, rural areas in low-to-middle income countries. This means that while green coffee might be transported by road to ports or exporters, many farm workers rely on other forms of transport – including bicycles.

While we have previously highlighted the relationship between cycling and coffee in consumer countries, it’s becoming increasingly clear that bicycles often have a role to play in coffee production, too.

As well as being an affordable and reliable transport option for labourers who move from farm to farm during harvest season, they also don’t actively emit greenhouse gases – making them a more sustainable option for travel. Furthermore, there are even examples of bicycles being used during post-harvest for depulping. 

I spoke to two coffee professionals to understand why bicycles might be so important for people involved in coffee production.

You may also like our article exploring the relationship between coffee and cycling.

a bicycle parked on a coffee farm

Exploring the relationship between cycling and coffee production

Although we may first think of bicycles as a means of transport, it’s important to understand that there is a longstanding historical relationship between the coffee industry and cycling.

Colombia, for instance, has been home to some of the world’s most celebrated professional cyclists over the years. 

A significant proportion of this success has been attributed to the support of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC). The FNC is a non-profit organisation which represents and promotes the production and export of Colombian coffee.

During the early 1980s, the FNC established the Café de Colombia cycling team, which predominantly competed across Europe. This was a key part of the organisation’s strategy to improve the profile of Colombian coffee on the international stage, and raise awareness in Europe.

As well as the FNC team, Colombia also saw individual success through Luis Herrera, one of the most famous Colombian cyclists of all time. In 1987, he became the first South American competitor to win the major European professional Grand Tour cycling race.

As a result of Herrera’s success, cycling became more and more popular in Colombia in the years that followed. Over time, many other Colombian competitors took part in various other professional cycling races, including the Tour de L’Avenir in France.

As far as other coffee producing countries are concerned, since 2015, professional cyclists from prominent African coffee origins such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya have also been present at competition events. This includes the Ethiopian athlete Tsgabu Grmay who cycled for the Trek-Segafredo team in 2018 – a professional cycling team co-founded by Italian coffee company Segafredo Zanetti.

will corby sits atop a bicycle at a coffee farm

How do bicycles help coffee farm workers?

Will Corby is the Director of Coffee and Social Impact for UK roaster Pact Coffee and an avid cyclist.

Will explains that bicycles can be powerful tools for people working in coffee production in many Latin American and East African countries. 

“Where the terrain [is less mountainous], some people in coffee-growing communities use bicycles to deliver their coffee to be processed or sold,” he says. “Coffee pickers will also use bicycles to transit between farms to continue working.” 

Although the initial cost of purchasing a bicycle can be significant in rural communities, it generally pays off, as cycling is often the most accessible, affordable, and sustainable mode of transportation in these remote areas.

Moreover, research has found that bicycles can help to effectively reduce poverty levels in rural communities in low-to-middle income countries – including those that grow coffee.

The same study (which focuses on Malawi) also concluded that if a household is further away from a “motorised” road, the likelihood that the household is living in poverty will increase. Cycling can help to mitigate this.

Further research carried out by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy Europe found that when 300 households living in poverty in Uganda were provided with subsidised bicycles, the average household income increased by some 35%.

Post-harvest processing

Abbigail Graupner is the Business Development Partner at Chica Bean, a roaster and exporter in Guatemala that works with female smallholder farmers.

Abbigail explains that as well as democratising transport, bicycles can also be used to process coffee.

She tells me that pedal-powered equipment can be used on coffee farms to assist in some post-harvest processing methods, especially when depulping coffee. 

“We’ve been able to provide a bicycle depulper for six of our producers,” she says. “This has allowed the producers to depulp more coffee in a shorter amount of time.”

Abbigail elaborates on how the bicycle depulpers are constructed.

“They are about the same size as two bicycles [with a depulping machine attached to the front],” she says. “We had them made for us, but there wasn’t enough space for the pulp to be separated from the seeds, so we made the holes bigger.”

Essentially, farm workers turn the gears (as if riding a bicycle) to operate the depulping machine. The depulping mechanism is connected to the gears, so that the skin and fruit are removed from the parchment as the user pedals.

She adds that some pedal-powered depulpers can perform better than more traditional equipment, mainly because farm workers can operate them much more quickly than by hand.

The efficiency of bicycle depulping equipment can have a significant impact on coffee production. Instead of transporting large amounts of cherry to post-harvest processing facilities, producers can carry out depulping directly on the farm.

“These machines can result in a cleaner depulping process; they can easily separate the seeds from the skin of the cherry,” she explains. “Bicycle depulpers are also generally inexpensive, and they help to increase available space on smaller farms that sell coffee as parchment.

“For many producers, selling coffee as cherry is common because the space to carry out depulping and drying is limited,” Abbigail adds. “But with pedal-powered depulpers, it’s a step towards [potentially increasing their income by selling coffee as parchment].”

two female farm workers use a pedal-powered depulper

Benefits beyond coffee production

Cycling is also a unique way to bring coffee communities together. Will says that in Pitalito, Colombia, groups of local producers meet up for weekend bike rides on routes that run between farms. 

“Usually the route will include stops at local farms, rather than coffee shops,” he explains. “We stop for a tinto and a pastry before moving onto the next farm.”

Alongside a more localised perspective, cycling culture in coffee-producing countries can create a unique opportunity to encourage more tourism in the area. 

In Colombia alone, there are dozens of companies that offer planned trips for cycling tourists. Visitors are able to go on guided tours around the country’s more remote coffee-growing regions, which may include staying on coffee farms.

For larger farms and estates, accommodating guests is more likely to be feasible – meaning producers could have another way of diversifying their income. However, for smallholder farmers who potentially have less land and infrastructure, it’s unlikely that they would see a significant financial benefit from hosting guests.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that some people in coffee-growing communities are reliant on cycling as a means of transport. Farm workers will often use bicycles to move from farm to farm during harvest seasons, where they often pick cherries across multiple farms in a short period of time.

It should be recognised, however, that while this is a low-cost method of transport, it is not always necessarily the most feasible or safest in the rural and remote areas where coffee production takes place – particularly for women and girls.

an elderly coffee farm worker carries coffee cherries

For a number of reasons, we can see that bicycles play a key role in many coffee-producing communities. Bicycles are generally more affordable and easier to maintain than motorised vehicles, which some coffee farm workers may not have access to.

Moreover, we’re also seeing evidence that bicycles can play a role in the post-harvest stages of coffee production to assist with milling and processing.

However, for many people in low-to-middle income countries who cycle from farm to farm during harvest season, this is the only feasible option for transportation, rather than a leisurely alternative. While it is certainly a lower-cost and low-emission method of transport, it’s important to appreciate that in these remote, rural regions, cycling can be a necessity rather than a choice.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to grow a socially responsible specialty coffee & cycling culture.

Photo credits: Nick Castellano, Will Corby, Chica Bean

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