On February 12th, the Rainforest Alliance hosted the second Sustainability Day in partnership with the Africa Fine Coffees Association (AFCA) in Rwanda. The event brought together more than two hundred attendees, including farmers, NGOs, sustainability experts, research institutes, government representatives, companies and other stakeholders. In three sessions we looked at how to address the main challenges in coffee farming – ‘old farmers’, ‘old trees’ and ‘old technology’ – and discussed what can be learned from the experiences of the participants, both in their successes and failures.
We kicked off the day with a session moderated by George Watene of the Global Coffee Platform presenting the results of the coffee viability studies commissioned by the Kenya and Uganda Coffee Platform. This short introductory session set the scene for the day by outlining three key issues in the coffee sector and animated everyone to lively and frank discussions.
Old Farmers: Finding Ways to Activate the Next Generation of Coffee Farmers
The first session focused on the issue of how to engage youth in coffee farming. A presentation and panel discussion were hosted by Kimberly Easson from the Partnership for Gender Equity. The main problem identified is that there is currently a significant generation gap at play in coffee farming, with a lot of mistrust between the older and younger generations.
During the discussion, it was agreed that a way forward needs to focus on how to give youth an opportunity to develop and flourish in coffee farming. In order to do this, issues of price volatility are one of the concerns that need to be addressed, which may be accomplished through providing more trainings and education on how to increase farm productivity and by engaging role models that will inspire and guide the younger generation.
Easson summarized it well when she said: “What remains a challenge for sustainable coffee is to really continue to expand our perspective, thinking and work to involve all the other people engaged in the production of coffee: women and youth.”
This is an issue that will also be addressed in the new Rainforest Alliance agricultural standard that’s currently being developed, with publication planned for the end of this year. The Rainforest Alliance already has many projects worldwide to support youth in agriculture, and the work on the standard will help embed this deeply into the work worldwide.
Old Trees: How to Make ‘Renovation & Rehabilitation’ a Part of Farm Management
The second discussion of the day looked at a major long-term issue affecting coffee farms: aging trees. Raina Lang from Conservation International led this presentation and panel discussion, which also included a group work component that allowed stakeholders to share their personal experiences. Lang made the point that more than half of the coffee trees in East Africa are over 50 years old. With this deteriorating tree stock, particularly present on smallholder farms, renovation and rehabilitation (R&R) practices are critical to boost sustainable productivity and to ensure the future of coffee. At the same time, R&R can be expensive, and due to uncertainty about the future, it is an important but potentially risky business decision for coffee farmers.
Lang noted that “there’s never a right time for R&R practices when there is no extra money to invest in the farm, but, as we move forward, it is something that really needs to become a part of the planning process.”
In terms of solutions, the conversation veered towards how to do R&R in more efficient ways, the importance of including it in an annual plan and how to get grants and loans to help lessen the financial burden on farms. In the end, it was recognized that although it is difficult, with good planning and farm management practices, it is possible. Looking ahead, this is another area that will be addressed in the new Rainforest Alliance standard.
Old Technology: Incorporating New Technology and Innovation in Coffee Farming
Last but not least, the issue of old technology in coffee farming was brought to the table. Led by Gigi Gatti from the Grameen Foundation, a partner on our SAT4Farming initiative, the session focused on digitalizing the Internal Management System and ways in which coffee farmers can use data for decision making. The benefits of technology in coffee farming include better monitoring of farms through satellite imagery, enabling farmers to adapt to climate change and come up with solutions faster.
One point that kept coming up during the session was that it is important to invest in people as well as the technology and that successful tech integration should be combined with regular training of the technology users. And that while new technology presents many opportunities, we need to be realistic about the current barriers, including internet access, data protection and the upfront investment of farmers.
As Gatti articulated it: “Technology is an enabler but what matters is the implementation and the way people use it. You have to invest in the staff on the ground and the users. Adoption is key.”
With the new Rainforest Alliance standard being more data driven than ever, these challenges will continue to be confronted in order to scale up the reach of our programs and monitoring of our work.
Working Together to Make Coffee Future Proof
With all of the insights that came out of this year’s Sustainability Day, one of the greatest benefits was simply getting so many stakeholders together in one place. Facilitating these discussions allows us to hear and learn from people across the coffee supply chain, which helps everyone better address the issues together. Because, as the Rainforest Alliance Chief Regional Officer Ria Stout put it: “We want to make the coffee sector future-proof, and collaboration is key to make the sector fit for the future.”
Feel inspired by what you learned about this year’s event? Want to know more or join the conversation? Here you can view the presentations of the day. We also invite you to be part of the next Sustainability Day at AFCA 2020 and help us make the coffee sector future proof!
If you are not yet engaged but are ready to invest in sustainability, learn more about joining the Rainforest Alliance today. If you are already a partner, there may be ways we can help you reach your stakeholders or drive greater impact. Contact us!