The Case for Sustainable Robusta

The need to push for sustainable Robusta production is real. As Africa’s oldest and largest Robusta producer, Uganda could lead the way in sustainably-produced Robusta farming, setting a precedent for Robusta producers worldwide. On our mission to add value to the coffee supply chain, The Coffee Quest is working closely with our Ugandan Robusta producers to secure the future of their trade. 

Its annual yield of world-class Arabica and Robusta coffee provides household income to an estimated 1.7 million farmers throughout the country. That’s 18% of the world’s coffee farmers. In spite of the gradually growing influence of Arabica beans, Robusta production still strongly outnumbers its delicate cousin, accounting for over 80% of Uganda’s annual coffee output. Ugandan Robusta experienced its 5-seconds-of-fame on the global stage after the 1975 frost wiped out the Brazilian crop, but fell just as quickly when coffee prices crashed at the end of the 80s. Since then, it has continued to dominate the Ugandan smallholder landscape.

However, as with many climate-sensitive crops, coffee production, and the livelihoods that depend upon it, are threatened by increasingly volatile environmental changes.  

Robusta: The villain of the coffee world

For years, the specialty coffee world has sneered at the mention of Robusta. It is tolerated as a “necessary evil” in creating commercial or household blends for the more unrefined palettes but enjoys nowhere near the grandeur that arabica beans do. Its association with agri-industrial coffee plantations and low-quality, mechanised harvests, as seen in countries such as India and Brazil, has led to a narrative of Robusta being incompatible with environmentally sustainable production.

Can Uganda produce ‘green’ Robusta?

However, this narrative is gradually being re-written by companies like The Coffee Quest, that place the story behind the product centre-stage. More and more consumers are demanding transparency in their products, including Robusta. This shift in consumer demand filters down the production chain to the producers. 

In 2018, only 3% of Uganda’s coffee exports were certified “sustainable”, well below the then global average of 8%, and leagues below Europe’s 50% “sustainably-sourced” coffee imports in 2020. With two-thirds of Uganda’s Robusta exports currently going to the European market, increasing EU policy regulations and demands concerning sustainable production standards threaten the future of this trade, and the livelihoods that live off it. 

Uganda’s coffee production relies on the hard work of small-holders farming average plots smaller than 0.25 hectares. Arranging inputs or sustainability certifications for so many farmers is a costly, and frankly unrealistic, affair, given the high levels of informality throughout the production chain. Furthermore, private investors are often more hesitant to support smallholders, as the smaller the farm, the riskier the returns. However, the cost of transitioning to more sustainable practices can be furthered significantly through other means, such as thorough and appropriate farmer training

This is where we have decided to jump on board. The Coffee Quest has joined the Futureproof Coffee Collective, to help our Ugandan Robusta producers adopt appropriate climate adaptation practices to secure their future livelihoods. Our project identifies three focal points hindering sustainable production, which we tackle through four years of training and knowledge-sharing: ecological degradation, gender inequality, and underpayment.

The Coffee Quest X Brand Coffee Farm

We’re partnering with Brand Coffee Farm, an agro-ecological model coffee farm focused on producing Robusta with added value, with the aim of upskilling smallholder Robusta farmers in central Uganda’s Mubende district. Together, we are implementing a regenerative agriculture model, whereby knowledge around circular production methods and post-harvest handling are shared with local farmers.

Agroforestry and other ‘green’ practices

To begin with, the robusta coffee plants are intercropped with vanilla and banana trees, with plans to later add macadamia trees, which will allow for shaded coffee cultivation, as well as additional income for the farmers. Shaded coffee is commonly associated with high-grade arabica beans, as the dispersed sunlight slows the growth of the cherry, allowing for a longer development of the flavour profile. Combined with exceptional post-harvest processing, we see a unique “specialty Robusta” crop on the horizon

Starting 2022, the farm launched a series of organic composting activities generated from green waste produced as a side-product of the farming practices. These organic fertilisers not only allow farmers to increase yields in line with sustainability demands, but also reduce expenses going towards external inputs. Other projects in the works include bee-keeping, mushroom farming and solar-powered farms. Exciting times!

The future is green - and female!

But wait, there’s more. Studies of coffee farmers across Africa have concluded that, when granted access to resources, female farmers adopt considerably more socially responsible and environmentally sustainable practices. In cases of poor climate-change responses, these are commonly linked to traditional gender barriers limiting female household members’ access to finances, land, and social services. Providing female farmers to overcome these structural barriers is a significant first step in reforming green production practices

The Coffee Quest has been actively involved in empowering female farmers in Uganda in the past, and see this as an opportunity to continue and grow our work. Female farmers earned considerably less than their male counterparts, despite carrying most of the harvest and post-harvest work. A primary reason for this is their lack of decision-making power over household assets. This financial independence improves significantly as land-ownership and proximity to urban hubs increases, which helps explain why central Ugandan has the highest percentage of female coffee farmers and landowners. In focusing our gender inequality work in this region, we hope to maximise our impact on the sector as a whole.

Join the Quest for sustainable Robusta!

We, the consumers, must also do our part to secure the future or robusta, and the millions of livelihoods that depend upon it. We demand environmentally and socially sustainable production practices for arabica coffee and have thereby created and secured a market for a premium crop. This has enabled many arabica farmers to step off the brink of survival and flourish. We can achieve the same fate for Robusta farmers, by composing a narrative of “sustainable Robusta”.

Join the revolution, step onboard!

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