Sustainability seems to be the season’s hottest buzzword. As such, has it become passé? What does it even mean? We’ve spoken with Sucafina’s chief operating officer in East Africa and sustainability manager, Justin Archer, about the Kahawatu Foundation and broader issues of sustainability in coffee.
How did the Kahawatu Foundation come about?
Around 2010 the government of Burundi started privatising its coffee assets and sold a number of coffee washing stations to private traders and exporters. By 2012/13 Sucafina had become a significant investor in Burundi, sourcing coffee cherries directly from around 60,000 smallholders. At the same time the government’s exit from the sector created a void in the supply of agricultural services to farmers.
In order to keep supporting farmers with advisory services, Sucafina initiated the creation of an independent foundation that could partner with donors to channel technical support to Burundi’s smallholder farmers. The Kahawatu Foundation was founded in Switzerland in 2013, and immediately thereafter a not-for-profit organisation of the same name was established in Burundi. The name “Kahawatu” is a simple play on two Swahili words “kahawa”, meaning coffee, and “watu” meaning ‘of the people’.
The model proved to be a success, and partnerships with both the public and private sector soon led to projects on GAPs (good agricultural practices), health, gender and youth. In 2016, the board decided to establish a new branch in Rwanda, and then another in Uganda in 2018.
Today the foundation spends around USD 850,000 a year and supports 45,000 farmers in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, focusing on three main pillars of activity: providing technical advice to farmers, empowering women in farming households, and improving access to rural services like health and schooling.
How is the Kahawatu Foundation supporting farmers and enhancing coffee production?
I think the most important work we’re doing is on supporting farmers to learn and adopt best agricultural practices. I think it’s amazing how much can be achieved with relatively few resources. We’re not pushing fertilizers, we’re not pushing any particular technologies, we’re just helping people to become better coffee farmers by simply using the resources and assets on their farms. These are things like pruning techniques, better mulching techniques, better ways of dealing with pests and diseases on the farm.
We work very hard to not only help coffee farmers but also try to address some of the important pillars within communities, like education, health, gender dynamics, and environment. We recognize that we need to engage with coffee farmers and invest in productivity but then also look at all those very important community issues that actually influence coffee production and are also affected by the fluctuation of coffee prices. That’s always been there at the foundation, and I think that’s great.
How do your initiatives change from location to location?
Every farmer is an individual. Every community has different challenges. It’s so hard to get it right when you are limited by resources and working with so much human complexity. We’ve had our fair share of failures but also some encouraging successes. We just need to keep investing a lot more time and effort to try and get it right.
I think one of my frustrations with the general approach to sustainability in our industry is that we love to compartmentalize things into simple buckets of issues. For instance, I think gender is a very big and important topic, but I’d love to see a slightly more nuanced approach. I don’t think we have enough information right now to say that what’s true in, say, Western Uganda also applies to Northern Burundi or Western Rwanda for example, and yet the solutions are always presented as relatively ‘text book’ and homogenous. I guess I’ve become more skeptical about blanket approaches to development issues. I would love to see more nuanced programs depending on local dynamics and circumstances.
What do you think the future of coffee farming looks like?
We won’t manage to save every single smallholder and transform them into super-efficient Brazilian-style farmers. It’s not going to happen unfortunately. There’s also a very real consideration about whether it’s desirable to use the world’s resources to support inefficient smallholders as opposed to doing larger scale agriculture. That’s a debate that needs to be had. The sustainability movement, like any industry, tends to perpetuate its own mantras and become increasingly narrow in its focus. As an industry, and in partnership with governments and public sector programs, we need to find ways to transition some farmers off the land and into other activities. A lot of research suggests that many smallholder farmers only stay on the land because they feel trapped and have few alternatives.
At the same time, our programs do demonstrate that you can double the yields of an inefficient farmer within a year if the farmer implements what they’re taught. And they can probably triple or increase yields by five times over the next three to five years if they follow through on it. All over East Africa there are striking disparities between the productivity of committed and uncommitted farmers, often living side by side.
But beyond that, I think we’re probably a bit too focused in general on productivity. The productivity game feels like a quicker win. But the long-term future for farmers in East Africa is better quality not just more coffee. And I guess the reason that we’re sort of in that trap—for want of a better word—of still focusing on productivity, is that we still haven’t found a solution to the question: “What do we do with those farmers who will probably have to exit the business?”
How does Sucafina fit into Kahawatu’s supply-chain?
First of all, it’s important to note that the foundation was initiated by Sucafina in 2012 and is now independent. Even though Nicolas Tamari, CEO of Sucafina, is the President of the board of directors at the foundation, the rest of the board is made up of both non-coffee and coffee members, some of whom are roasters and traders themselves. Sucafina contributes part of the Foundation’s operating budget every year. The rest is raised through donor programs and partnerships.
At the same time, I think it’s crucial, based on experience, to have an off-taker in the supply chain. Unless you have some sort of market outlet for the farmers, it’s very hard to speak about true sustainability. The whole engagement with farmers is rewarding considering all that we are doing with training and capacity building.
What can roasters and importers do to support sustainability efforts?
I think there’s an unfair burden placed on the farmer and the trader to address sustainability. Whether you are Sucafina or whether you are a farmer, the reality is that both operate at the extreme end of the supply chain where margins are very, very thin and there’s a lot of risk. The brands and the consumers will demand action on certain sustainability objectives but won’t necessarily pay for them. If brands want sustainability, then their consumers have to pay more for coffee. It’s that simple. And those price incentives need to filter back down through the supply chain.
At the same time, I think that roasters don’t do enough to educate consumers on the major issues affecting the supply chain. My guess is that most consumers assume that as long as their coffee has a sustainable logo on the packet, then somehow amazing things are happening in the background and farmers are living a good life. In this sense, much of the current sustainability movement in coffee is being used a defensive strategy for brands but is not yet a game changer for farmer livelihoods. The second issue is that roasters don’t do enough to convince their customers to consume good quality coffee. If we have more people consuming great but rare East African coffees as opposed to cheaper, lower quality, Vietnamese or Brazilian blends then the coffee world would be a much happier place.