The sun rises over the evergreen village of Hurumu in southwestern Ethiopia. Aster (47) and her family are working in their nursery amid thousands of seedlings. The breeding of new trees has become an important part of the family farm under the International Climate Initiative (IKI) project “Restoring Degraded Coffee Landscapes,” and contributes to reforestation in Ethiopia. It also contributes to the preservation of forest landscapes in the region and the local action against climate change.
Worldwide, agriculture is one of the main drivers of deforestation. In particular, smallholder farmers often expand into originally forested areas without fully exploiting the potential of their already used areas. This is also the case in southwestern Ethiopia where the UNESCO Forest Biosphere Reserve, and an important carbon sink in the Oromia region within Yayu are located – as well as where the farm of Aster’s family is.
Yayu: The genetic origin of Arabica coffee
The Yayu Coffee Biosphere Reserve is considered the Genetic origin of Arabica coffee. Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa. More than two million smallholder families grow coffee as the basis of their income. This contributes to about 5% of Ethiopia’s GDP. Coffee is more than an agricultural product in Ethiopia. Not only with the firmly anchored coffee ceremony, but also coffee consumption is also an important part of Ethiopian culture.
In the core of the 167,000 ha Yayu Biosphere Reserve there is a high genetic diversity of coffee Arabica. This area should remain unused by humans. The project focuses on the transition zone, i.e. the outer edge of the reserve, from which the pressure on the natural forest, which is considered a biodiversity hotspot, is increasing.
In the transition zone, coffee grows naturally under shade trees. Mostly it was not planted but has grown wild. It is used by smallholder families, but not properly managed. As a result, yields are low and there is a risk that shade trees will be cut down to grow more coffee. The consequences are a loss of biodiversity, CO2 storage potential, and the destruction of the heterogeneous ecosystem in which the coffee grows.
But coffee that grows in Yayu in semi-forested areas or directly at the farm buildings in the so-called “Garden Coffee” cultivation holds great potential: In contrast to most other crops, the coffee plant finds ideal conditions in agroforestry systems. Well managed, it brings yields that enable stable economic conditions to smallholder families and contributes to the preservation of biodiversity and climate protection.
Low productivity and low income in this area are drivers for the expansion of coffee cultivation into the protected core zone of the Yayu Biosphere Reserve. Coffee is the most important source of income for smallholder families. Therefore, agronomic knowledge of how they can improve their yields and living conditions with better, climate-friendly coffee cultivation and processing methods without being a driver of deforestation is very important. With proper management of the existing coffee trees, a doubling or more of yields is possible.
The Garden Coffee or semi-forested systems in Yayu form a very good basis for this. With existing trees, agronomic skills can be applied to improve yields and income. Where appropriate, further shade trees can be planted, for example as windbreaks or natural land boundaries, thus contributing to reforestation in Ethiopia and making coffee farms more climate-resilient. This is where the IKI project ‘Restoring Degraded Coffee Landscapes’ comes in.
Aster’s Garden Coffee System covers two acres. The family plants coffee, avocados, and bananas on it but like many other families, Aster’s family had problems with their farm. Old, too densely planted and unmanaged coffee trees brought poor yields. The effects of climate change such as unusual weather caprioles or new diseases on the coffee plants were also increasingly problematic. In addition, the family was not a member of a farmer organization, which meant that they had no access to advice, information, know-how, financing, and other services essential for modern agriculture and could not fully exploit the marketing potential of coffee.
Creating better living conditions with agricultural knowledge about coffee
The project implementation partner in Ethiopia is Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Ethiopia (HRNS). A private foundation with more than 15 years of experience in agronomic projects in coffee regions. The main areas of work on sustainable agriculture and processing methods on coffee farms, farmer organizations, and gender equality were brought together in the project in Yayu. The goal: Better and more climate-resilient agricultural practices should improve the living conditions of smallholder families, contribute to reforestation in Ethiopia, and reduce the pressure on natural forests.
Aster began attending a Farmer Field School (FFS). She still remembers: “In the beginning, I was supposed to stump my coffee trees, which I definitely didn’t want. Then I can’t harvest anything anymore.” Finally, she agreed to first cut back a quarter of the trees, but only if HRNS takes responsibility if they did not grow again. She states: “My farm was full of old coffee plants with minimal to no yields for many years. But now the old dying trees are bearing fruit again. I have become an advocate of stumping and other agricultural techniques such as diversification and use of shade trees.”
Thanks to the improved cultivation methods, Aster’s family was able to more than double their coffee harvest. Most recently, she earned almost 6,000 euros with coffee and other farm products. And because she started to diversify her cultivation with corn, she was able to earn an additional 2,500 euros.
Garden Coffee as a scalable business model
Her Garden Coffee has become a successful business model and thus an example of the scalability of the approach. As part of the project, the implementation partner UNIQUE forestry and land use GmbH have carried out a feasibility study to determine the potential of scaling sustainable coffee production in the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia.
Skeptical at first, Aster is now the driving force behind the family’s economic success. Through the gender component of the project, the family has learned how to jointly develop and implement a vision for the family farm. “We have learned to show respect and understanding for each other and to collaborate more,” says Aster. And her husband Eshetu encourages her: “I am the proud husband of a wonderful, assertive and independent woman,” he says, adding: “We have overcome the deep-rooted cultural setup and the idea that women and men should have different roles. I do everything my wife does, including fetching water, collecting firewood, and cooking.” Then his wife nudges him into the page and adds: “The one thing that only women do and men don’t do is give birth!” It was Eshetu who encouraged Aster to take responsibility for the transformation of her family.
Increased yields alone do not help smallholder families a lot. They must become active and strong participants in the coffee value chain. To this end, the project works with nine regional farmer organizations and a coffee cooperative and supports them in the professionalization in processing, storage, and marketing. Aster’s family has become a member of the Lacosaya farmer organization. She now has better marketing opportunities for her increased yields. She has access to and is part of the coffee value chain. In addition, she can proactively participate in shaping her community with other farming families through the farmer organization.
New income with new trees
Because of the membership in the farmer organization, Aster learns additional knowledge for the family farm. She is doing much more than just planting coffee. Additionally, the family now makes their own compost which Aster believed had no use and would be a waste of time before the project explained to her the advantages.
“We have a large vegetable garden in the backyard where the corn also grows. What we do not consume we sell. We have a balanced diet, and we generate additional revenue that we invest in our children’s education or reinvest in our coffee production.” – Aster.
The coffee farm is a family affair for Aster. The whole household incuding her husband and her uncle Adissu help. Aster’s children Kassahun and Engabu are also taking part in their free time when not in school. The fact that the two can now go to school is also due to the better income of the family.
To not only be dependent on coffee and also to contribute to the reforestation in Ethiopia, the family has opened the nursery. “In this way, we make our contribution to nature conservation and have another income,” says Aster. Around them are thousands of small coffee plants and seedlings of various fruits such as avocado or banana and future shade trees. To date, a total of 63 nurseries for coffee trees and shade trees were supported by the project. The 225,000 coffee tree seedlings produced so far support the necessary rejuvenation of the coffee farms through new plantings. Aster has now planted around 5,000 new coffee trees on her grounds. All are part of the future in the Yayu Biosphere Reserve and reforestation in Ethiopia and help to reduce deforestation and degradation pressure. Aster smiles.