Java Enabled: Coffee Farmers in the Mist, Pt. 1

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

You've probably heard of Jane Goodall, but you might not have heard of the place where she conducted her famous research, Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. While the park is best known for Goodall and her chimpanzees, the surrounding region of Kigoma, Tanzania, and the Kanyovu cooperative might soon be known for its coffee -- and its role in securing a future for the park's wildlife.

The bright green square of Gombe Stream National Park pops off the screen of Tanzania's Google Map. The satellite image draws a clear line between the deep greens of the park and the dusty browns around it. Local farmers have progressively cleared the forest up to the park's boundaries for cattle grazing and cash crops. While the locals respect the park's boundaries, their use of the land threatens the long-term sustainability of Gombe's famous wildlife.

A recent initiative lead by Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importer based in Portland, Oregon, may help the park increase wildlife diversity and provide a successful crop for local farmers. Last week, I spoke with Genevieve Edens, one of Sustainable Harvest's Tanzania office members, about the company's progress as the program winds down its second year.

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Coffee's key to the equation lies in its ability to grown under a canopy. The work at Gombe National Park is essentially another version of "bird-friendly" coffee (just on a much larger scale). Bird-friendly coffee supports bird populations through selective plantings that provide a natural habitat and an income for locals.

One of the eventual goals of Sustainable Harvest's work is to create wildlife "highways" between Tanzania's protected areas, all while using coffee as the foundation. When managed efficiently, the canopy can also provide farmers with lumber, firewood and mulch. Sustainable wildlife "highways" could help both Gombe and the people of Kigoma, but the business know-how has to be there first. And that's where Sustainable Harvest's development expertise comes into play.

Edens admits that Tanzania is not as well known for coffee as its East African neighbors. Ethiopia and Kenya have long been household names for coffee, and even Rwanda has recently come into its own as a specialty coffee producer. Uganda is also taking steps to a larger coffee economy, as I wrote in March.

When Sustainable Harvest first arrived in Tanzania, Edens said the Kanyovu cooperative was not an ideal partner for the company: "The management is not at the same level as you see in Latin America. There, the cooperatives are based on a more communal model. Cooperatives in Tanzania struggled with a lot of internal politics."

Thanks to a grant from the Lemelson Foundation, Sustainable Harvest has enough money to run a three-year development program for the 4,000-member Kanyovu cooperative in Kigoma, Tanzania.

Edens says that when Sustainable Harvest first arrived in Kigoma, a lack of general knowledge about coffee cultivation and processing and a lack of management skills were the greatest hurdles facing the farmers. Since then, Sustainable Harvest has addressed its work in Kigoma on three levels: land stewardship, technology and long-term market relationships.

Since Sustainable Harvest arrived in Kigoma, the cooperative has received some of the highest prices paid for Tanzanian coffee, and the highest ever for the cooperative: $1.96 per pound.

Next Week: How Sustainable Harvest is helping to turn the Kanyovu cooperative into a national model for coffee cooperatives in Tanzania.

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