SCPs: Making Coffee Sustainable from the Farm to your Cup

Hi all, Fabian here from the Think-team!

I must say, my coffee intake has reached unreasonable heights recently. Apart from making me work (and think), I do love the taste of coffee. I’m sure most of you out here (hopefully not) get through your day with a daily dose of caffeine, be it plain, with milk, or a blended with caramel syrup or whatever you call those Starbucks drink. But, do you actually know the journey of that coffee to reach your cup?

Truth be told, before I came across one of our projects, namely Switch Africa Green (SAG) I didn’t actually know the full process from bean-to-cup. Let alone how you can make each process more sustainable – both environmentally and socially! In the past year, we have been part of the SAG Program, a project funded by the European Union and implemented in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), to provide capacity building activities on Sustainable Consumption and Production practices (SCPs) to the food value chain MSMEs. In this case, we were looking into Kenya’s Coffee industry and writing up these SCPs in a policy brief for Kenyan policymakers. So, what did we write to them and why should they care about these SCPs?

SCPs are crucial to reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, SDG 12 defines sustainable consumption and production as “promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all.” Coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide; it makes sense that we should put more attention its environmental and socio-economic impact. In turn, SCPs actually solve more than one SDG. CROSS PROMO, we have an online SDG training about this, stay tuned!

Okay okay, so it is a big deal, it’s part of a global agenda, so what are they? Well in this project, there are about 16 of them to be exact. If that sounds overwhelming, wait until you hear about the SCPs for Dairy (stay tuned for the next blog post). But let’s categorize them, shall we?

Coffee begins in a farm. Spoiler alert, for those who didn’t know, coffee is part of a fruit. I know right?! So are cashews (a different topic for a different time). Turns out, it’s pretty tricky to grow them with climate change going on. Water stress conditions and low irrigation levels, pests, and many horrible things. Luckily, we got several SCPs to cover us. There are eight farm-level SCPs namely: Integrated coffee and livestock farming, Compost, Animal manure, Shade tree, Single stem farming, Block Labelling, Pest Management, Precision farming.

If you’re still reading this, don’t worry I won’t bore you by explaining each of them, so keep on reading. Anyway, you can learn more about integrated livestock farming (biogas) here, and about agroforestry here 😉. What I thought was cool was using natural pesticides for pest management, such as growing lemongrass in between coffee plants! No longer should we worry about drinking pesticides. Plus, you can make lemongrass tea! More importantly, implementing any of these farming methods individually or in combination will not only help in building resiliency towards dry season and decreasing the carbon emissions, but also increase qualifications for sustainability certifications that could lead to higher and competitive coffee prices in both national and international markets.

Alright so after we’re done cherry-picking (literally), it goes to the factory for processing. Now we have to take the fruit off to get the bean. That's right, you don’t actually drink the fruit (it’s not a smoothie), you can however make it into a tea! #zerowaste. So, how do you process this? With the one and only dihydrogen monoxide! Current pulping process require a lot of water :/, which isn’t super sustainable. Thankfully, the eco-pulper (left photo) was born! As one of the SCP in the factory-level, the eco-pulper can reduce water use by about 92%. While traditional wet processing uses 6 liters of water per kg of berry, an eco-pulper would use 0.5L of water per kg of berry, so more coffee with less water. Yay.

What’s even more sustainable is to just leave it be..? It’s called natural coffee! In this process, red, ripe cherries are directly dried in the sun carefully to avoid molding. The processing of natural coffee requires no water for pulping, therefore saving 100% of the water that would otherwise be used in full washed or eco-pulping coffee. Moreover, in a full adoption, it will further eliminate the investment and maintenance costs associated with pulping machineries, saving even more money!

Fun fact, I started ordering natural coffee in artisanal coffee shops ever since I discovered this. I really really like the taste, it’s sweet, it has character, it’s fruity but not too acidic. Pro tip: if you don’t like black coffee but don’t want a milk-based coffee that overpowers the taste of the coffee, order a Cortado! Equal parts espresso and milk. My current favorite blend is Ethiopia Idido. Anyway, still quite a lot to talk about, so bear with me.

SCPs are not exclusive to environmental sustainability but also social and economic. Value addition is a common practice to sell coffee at a higher price by increasing its quality, which also means increasing the income of the sellers. For instance, coffee labelling and recording is an example of value addition. Traceability of coffee is important for the farmers to conduct quality control and the marketing of coffee by understanding their exact characteristics. Properly certified and labelled coffee often sells fast and fetch higher prices, which could increase the farmers’ income. Thus, this could incentivize coffee producers to keep producing high quality products. And who wouldn’t want to know where your coffee is actually from? Unless of course, you don’t drink real coffee and instead drown your coffee with sugar and pumpkin spice every fall. Just kidding, the occasional Pumpkin Spice Latte is indeed my guilty pleasure.

Okay so now it’s dry and you’ve got the green beans. Not drinkable yet, you can’t grind these and brew them, I promise you it won’t be matcha. You want to get that maillard reaction (fancy way of saying caramelization) by roasting them! Roasting and packaging are considered value addition, as doing these escalate taste and attractiveness of the coffee produced. As mentioned, coffee value addition could enhance profitability and increase employment level in the coffee industry. Speaking of which, check out our coffee roaster here.

Okay that’s it for now, there are several more SCPs but this is getting too long. Either way, that’s what I call a journey. Feels like some sort of metamorphosis for coffee if you ask me. Whether your coffee is put into a pressure machine, or blended with sugar and milk and have a barista misspell your name, they all go through the same few process. I hope you all will start to appreciate every cup a little bit more knowing that it’s quite a process to reach your cup! More importantly, I hope you understand the challenges of making it sustainable, because although they may not be the easiest ones to employ, they sure are worth it to make your coffee taste great now and for your future grandkids. We are here for the long run!

Oh and by the way we will have a webinar on the 4th of December as part of the SAG workshops! So stay tuned for my next blogpost. Thanks for making it to the end of this blog, it only took several cups of coffee. I promise I’m drinking sustainable ones – that is 😉 which you can buy here!

See you next time!

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