The plight of the African coffee farmer; call for sustainable solutions

By African Union Commission (AUC)

Africa has the greatest number of coffee producing countries, compared to other coffee-growing regions. Of the 56 coffee growing countries in the world, 25 are African. Those 25 countries are home to over 716 million people. This figure represents over half of the rural population of those 25 countries, and well over half of the total coffee farmers and workers globally. In Ethiopia, for example, 15 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the Coffee Industry and Coffee accounts for 60% of total export earnings.

However, despite its vast investment of land and human resources in the coffee sector, Africa's share in global coffee production is modest and declining. Africa's share now stands at 12 percent of the global production, compared to 25 percent in 1990. This is partly due to a 50 percent increase in total global production, from 93 million bags in 1990 to 143 million bags in 2015

H.E Mr. Erastus Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission during the 4th World Coffee conference, called for definite and sustainable approaches to address this worrying trend, that is contributing to the poverty levels through loss of income generating avenues and rising unemployment levels, reduction of coffee growing countries Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and is also threatening to slow down the achievements of the aspirations of the African Union's Agenda 2063.

To address the plight of the African coffee farmer, Mr. Mwencha underscores five key areas of concern, which, he notes if not addressed, will continue to threaten production and low returns from the coffee sector.

He notes the need to review the low share of the final product value that accrues to farmers. He is calling on coffee sector stakeholders in the value and supply chain, such as associations, traders, exporters, governments, and trans-national coffee processing corporations who hold the negotiating capacity and have the ability to influence prices to advocate for the interest of the farmers. FAO estimates that less than 30 percent of the revenues generated by world coffee sales remains in the coffee producing countries. Smallholder farmers on average receive less than 10 percent of the retail price, with close to 95% of the value chain going to distributers, middlemen and retailers.

The Deputy Chairperson acknowledges that though significant efforts have been invested in strengthening farmer associations through the establishment of Commodity Exchanges, which protects farmers from market volatility, there needs a review of the institutional arrangements and policy framework in the coffee supply chain. He stressed the need to strengthen farmer communities who have mostly been weakened by the liberalization of the coffee sector in Africa. Liberalization of the coffee sector eliminated government managed auctions and created the opportunity of selling directly to the private sector.

Low productivity is another key reason Mr. Mwencha highlighted for the low returns from coffee cultivation. He observed that African farmers lack access to extension services, knowhow, technology, finance and investment capital to upgrade their operations through important agricultural practices such as intensification and fertilization. He proposed that solutions to boost the sector be drawn from looking at value addition activities in Africa and respect for intellectual property so as increase returns to coffee producing communities. .

In recent years, climatic shocks have been serious threats to farmers. Although not a new phenomenon, climate change and climate variability have been on the rise. Mr. Mwencha points out the need for farmers to explore smart farming techniques to sustain and boost production of the coffee berries.

The Deputy Chairperson further notes that while women undertake the majority of vital maintenance and harvesting work on African smallholder coffee farms, they remain disadvantaged in the industry and tend to have little control over the harvest proceeds. In this regard, Mr. Mwencha emphasized the importance to train women and provide them with adequate information that advances their opportunity to contribute to the decision-making processes that affect them and their families.

However, all is not lost for the vital economic sector. The Deputy Chairperson sees recourse in the Vision 2020 initiative. Vision 2020 is based on the belief that single entities alone cannot effectively bring about change in the current coffee sustainability landscape and aims to link them to markets by forging efficient and sustainable public-private partnerships. Mr. Mwencha says Vision 2020, will fully align with, and complement, the African Union's strategic plans and programs and the United Nations 2030 Global Sustainable Development Goals. He underlined the diversity of programmes under the 10-year implementation plan for Agenda 2063, which can help coffee farmers. Those include building climate resilience capacity, enhancing investments and introducing technological advancements in the agricultural sector, encouraging science and innovation, value addition that rewards famers, and enhancing gender parity, particularly for rural women.

The 4th World Coffee Conference under the theme “Nurturing Coffee and Diversity.” attracted more than 1,000 international coffee producers, buyers, decision makers, private sector representatives and international agencies.