The world according to Inka: How Ethiopian Smallholders can immediately improve their yields (and finances)

Inka

A crucial member of our troupe during our early December road trip through the Kaffa highlands was Inka. Inka is an internationally engaged soil expert who spends much of her life helping farmers adopt “climate smart” methods. We were more than happy to have her on board of our Land Rover, because with her on the team we could truly provide our FairChain smallholders valuable information to help them improve their yields. Not just long term best practices, but also immediate impact that leads (again immediately) to move money for them.

On the trip she inspected our smallholders’ soil, vegetation and agriculture practices. Following closely in her footsteps were, of course, our ‘4 A’s from Jimma University (read their stories on this blog), eager to learn from her. Inka was also the one who came up with the brilliant idea to organize group sessions involving some 30 locals in order to reach even more farmers. No sooner said than done – farmers could lay hand on correct pruning of coffee trees and discuss the best composting methods:

composting training session

Farmers learning about composting

Now that's pruning

Now that’s pruning!

Inka spent the few weeks following our trip organizing her findings into concrete recommendations for, specifically, the smallholders working the land around the Tega&Tula farm near Bonga Town. These farmers are amongst our most ambitious FairChain farmers. Rather than edit her assessment down, we thought we’d share them with you, dear coffee drinkers, without sweetening them up. So without further ado, here are Inka’s most important takeouts. Enjoy the read, very interesting!

  • All the smallholders are eager to learn and improve.
  • Their coffee trees are not well managed, with trees planted way too close to each other.
  • There is no sign of rejuvenation: the majority of the trees exceed 3 meters, a height that makes them difficult to harvest. Many of the trees, in fact, were very old, many upwards of 60 years old.
  • The shade cover of many trees was too much. Often, they used the wrong type of trees for shade – trees with large leaves rather than with feathery leaves, which let through more sunlight.
  • Coffee tree disease is rampant – the main culprits were coffee berry disease, coffee wilt, coffee rust, white spot, leaf roller, leaf miner and dieback.
  • The majority of farmers do not use fertilizer but natural mulch made from weeds and branches combined with composted manure – and sometimes nothing at all.
  • The major nutrient deficiencies in the plants are Nitrogen and Phosphorus, but there are others as well.
  • The farm soils were predominantly moist, coarse with sandy loam, well structured with good drainage and water holding capacity, which is good.
  • The trees stood stable and their roots were looking goood – there is no apparent problem with harmful soil nematodes, or roundworms, which are detrimental to coffee plants.
  • Due to good mulch or plant coverage, there are no erosion issues, either.
  • The majority of farmers do not use fertilizer but natural mulch made from weeds and branches combined with composted manure.
  • The soil seems fertile enough to continue to support coffee plants, but with the improved cultivation and management techniques soil fertility will become a high priority.
  • The main agronomical challenges named by the farmers are weeds and disease. They also named labor shortage as a major issue due to that farms have to compete for harvest workers. The Tega&Tula farm, for example, pays twice as much per kilogram for cherries than other farms in the area.
  • They need training on how to better select the type of shade trees they use: feathery banana leaves that let sun through better than large opaque leaves, for example.

According to Inka, these are the most pressing needs for our farmers:

  • They need to improve their skills in disease prevention and management.
  • They need training on how to better select the type of shade trees they use: feathery leaves that let sun through better than large opaque leaves, for example.
  • They must improve their ground compost preparation methods. So far they make compost in pits, which creates a lot of unnecessary work and make aeration of the compost difficult. Great if they can use cherry pulp or the water from coffee washing, as it’s full of the best nutrients for coffee.
  • General improvements in how they handle their harvest and post-harvest
  • Focus on practice field training that can eventually be accompanied by written and/or images that guide them
  • For increased harvest hygiene and affordability, they can construct drying tables out of renewable materials like bamboo.

Thanks Inka, you’re awesome. Now let’s get to work making this happen!

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