One Change Could Help Ethiopian Coffee Farmers Triple Their Yields
This post is from Paul Stewart, global coffee director, TechnoServe.
Fedila Hussein and Mustafa Tesfaye’s farm was once typical of many in southern Ethiopia: the aging trees spread across their half-hectare plot produced little coffee, and the couple struggled to earn a living. So in 2013, Fedila and Mustafa enrolled in the Coffee Initiative program in order to learn how to improve their yields.
One of the practices they learned about was stumping, in which farmers rejuvenate their old coffee trees by cutting them down to the stump so that they can grow back stronger and more productive. It’s a vital practice for improving the yields on Ethiopian coffee farms, many of which — like Fedila and Mustafa’s — are characterized by old, single-stem trees with declining yields.
The program’s farmer trainer demonstrated the practice and explained that while the tree would not yield anything during the first year it grew back and a limited amount during the second year, by the third year it would produce three times as much coffee as it had beforehand, and it would maintain those yields for years to come.
Still, the couple had trepidation: foregoing income from any of their coffee trees seemed like a big gamble. “Even if I attended the training strictly, I was doubtful about adopting the practices, especially to stump the old coffee trees,” said Mustafa.
That reluctance is common. We see that stumping in particular gives farmers pause, and they need something to get them over the mental hurdle. For Fedila and Mustafa, it was seeing the farm of a neighbor who had stumped his coffee: the way the trees grew back strong and healthy inspired them to stump their own trees.
Once they began, the couple proved to be committed to the practice, stumping 764 trees in 2014, 645 in 2015 and 400 in 2016.
The impact of stumping
All that stumping yielded enormous changes on their farms. Before they stumped their coffee, Fedila and Mustafa harvested about 200 kilograms (kg) of coffee per year. After the stumped trees had fully grown back, they harvested 4,700 kg, a 23-fold increase secured without adding any chemical fertilizers or other costly inputs.
Not every farmer will experience yield increases of quite that magnitude, but they can expect to triple the yield from any coffee tree they stump. This would have a transformational impact in Ethiopia, where low yields trap many farming families in a damaging cycle of declining incomes, underinvestment and shrinking farm size.
But not every farmer has a neighbor like Fedila and Mustafa’s to inspire them. How do we encourage farmers to stump their coffee? A new study points to one promising option: incentives.
Would a small incentive make farmers more likely to stump their trees? That’s what we were trying to find out when TechnoServe designed a pilot in Ethiopia’s Sidama region.
The pilot, funded by the Max und Ingeburg Herz Stiftung through HereWeGrow and evaluated by research firm Laterite, examined stumping in four communities. Two control communities received training on stumping, while two pilot communities received training as well as the offer of farm tools for those coffee growers who stumped their trees. The incentives ranged from pruning shears, bean seeds and a saw for those stumping at least 50 trees, to a wheelbarrow for those stumping more than 150 trees.
When Laterite researchers revisited the communities a year later, they found a significant difference: while 5.5% of farmers in the control communities had stumped their trees, 15% had done so in the pilot communities. The average number of trees stumped per farm had increased from 40 in the control communities to 80 in the communities where the incentives were provided.
The incentives were also highly cost-effective: the tools cost between $0.33 and $0.49 per stumped tree, while at current prices, farmers can expect to earn an additional $1 annually for every tree that they stump, with those additional earnings likely to continue for more than a decade.
An opportunity to scale
That change can be transformational. With their additional earnings from the stumped coffee, Fedila and Mustafa replaced their small, thatch-roofed house with a larger one topped by an iron roof. They bought Holstein cows to provide an additional source of income. And they sent their children to university; one is now a doctor at a local hospital.
Many of Ethiopia’s more than two million coffee farming families would also benefit from stumping their coffee trees, and providing incentives to do so has the potential to drive change across the sector. First and most importantly, it would help these families increase their incomes and escape the poverty trap, as Fedila and Mustafa did. It would also boost the supply of Ethiopian coffee by up to 100%, which is important as production is increasingly consolidated in just a few countries and climate change threatens vital growing areas.
Realizing this potential will require cooperation and investment from an array of stakeholders across the coffee sector, donor agencies and government. If we work together, however, we have the opportunity to transform millions of lives.