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Africa Looks To Colombia For Tips On Sustainable Coffee

Producers from Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia have visited the Colombian estates of producers to discover the social, environmental and aesthetic benefits of growing shade coffee.

Coffee growers in Manizales, Colombia (left), and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (right)
Coffee growers in Manizales, Colombia (left), and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (right)

BOGOTA — Which is better, Colombian or African coffee? Whatever your preference, both regions are major world producers and have begun to work together to produce coffee that offers much more than enticing flavors and aroma.

This idea exchange began when producers in Rwanda and Burundi explored how they could focus on quality but also on environmental care and long-term sustainability. They wanted to generate additional revenues via tourism and improve the welfare of coffee workers at the same time.

“The two countries begin to identify these elements as important practices for sustainable landscape management, with numerous environmental and social benefits,” says Paola Agostini, the World Bank’s Africa Regional Coordinator. So it made sense that they wanted to visit South America, where Colombia’s Coffee Axis, or Eje cafetero, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.

Producer Fabiola Vega, 65, proudly touches the coffee “cherriesstarting to mature on her plants, which are covered by the generous shade of other trees that help reduce parasitic infestation and pesticide use, and help her produce top-quality coffee.

With the help of specialist consultants in sustainable farming, her estate is also home to 35 cows and 600 trees planted every year for reforestation. And revenues from tourists who visit to admire the area’s natural beauty mean more income for coffee growers like her.

Vega tells a group of unusual visitors — coffee growers from Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia — about her sustainable methods. “I use the leaf litter as fertilizer,” she says.

Besides their tropical climate and mountainous terrain — and the horrible conflicts they have endured — these countries have something else in common with Colombia: large-scale coffee production. But methods differ on either side of the Atlantic. In Rwanda and Burundi, shade-grown coffee is in its infancy. In Colombia, it is a century-long tradition among many of the 560,000 families producing coffee, even if sun cultivation was encouraged for some years.

In coffee’s original country, Ethiopia, it is still possible to find it as a woodland crop growing under the shade of trees. In Burundi, half its almost nine million inhabitants depend on coffee, which remains sun-grown. “With climate change, we see that production decreases at times of drought,” says Jumaine Hussein, a World Bank adviser on natural resource management.

Colombia produced more than 650 million kilograms of coffee in 2013. And about 40% of the entire cultivation area is under shade. The visit by the African delegation was intended to let them personally witness successful coffee production that respects the environment and helps improve both the landscape and living conditions for the producers.

Visitors could also see how to establish a biological corridor, where trees connect two forests to safeguard regional biodiversity and provide other environmental services. They shared ideas with growers on creating alliances with commercial partners that assure them markets for their products in exchange for meeting quantitative and qualitative production levels. They also experienced eco-tourism on a coffee estate.

As in any exchange, the Colombians also had an opportunity to learn from their African colleagues. Before long, Colombian growers and specialists may well be traveling to check out coffee plantantions somewhere on the African continent.

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