The coffee sector in West Africa: its impact on the economy and the environment

11Mar2015
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by Patrick Chabert

Coffee is a universal drink with considerable economic impact. It is the most traded agricultural product in the world in terms of volume, coming before wheat, and the second raw material, in value, after oil. World coffee consumption is measured in bags. Current consumption is 140 million bags and is expected to reach 175 million bags by 2020. In the meantime, we therefore need to produce an extra 35 million bags, most of which will be of robusta coffee.

This is the coffee used in the manufacture of freeze-dried coffee, for which demand is exploding in Asia. West Africa, therefore, a major producer of robusta (100,000 tonnes per year in Côte d’Ivoire alone) has the opportunity to position itself in force on this market, if not to become market leader. The region could, thanks to this export product, finally take advantage of the strong growth in Asia – in China in particular. To do this, it first has to adapt its coffee sector to meet the agro-industrial and environmental challenges in this field.

The coffee market is like an iceberg. Its visible part is the coffee we consume every day. It is this final product that arouses the interest of investors. But they are unaware that it is in the submerged part that the kernel of the activity and the opportunities are concentrated. In its non-visible part, coffee is a truly complex industry in which producers interact with a range of actors from scientific research, business and related industries (energy, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, agri-business and textiles). Ignorance of this organization into sectors largely explains certain agro-industrial failures, particularly in developing countries.

In general terms, analysis of the coffee chains in Africa reveals that they are not on a par with the mode of production elsewhere in the world. Production volumes are mostly low, and productivity is poor, due to a lack of mechanisation of production units. Treatment and processing operations are almost non-existent. Poorly informed about marketing opportunities, producers cooperate little with one another on the sharing of information on prices and suppliers. The absence of trade promotion with international buyers leads to a problem of lack of familiarity. Lastly, chains are mostly incomplete insofar as waste generated at different stages of the production process is not valorized.

As an agricultural sector, coffee has a close link with the environment on which production can, under certain conditions, have a negative impact. If it is not dealt with effectively, coffee bio-waste emits CO2 and methane, both greenhouse gases. Coffee processing waste (pulp and skin) is currently burnt or discharged into rivers. In West Africa, the dumping of waste in unregulated tips remains the main way in which this waste is "processed". Collection and valorization are most often undertaken by the informal sector which, in addition to its scant resources, has no competence in this matter. Recycling is, therefore, marginal and, contrary to the goal it ought to have, coffee ends up putting the health of the public at risk.

The development of the coffee sector, therefore, involves the creation of a model which reconciles economic development with limiting its negative environmental impact, on the principle of circular economy. The circular economy of coffee makes it possible, at every stage of production, to re-use the items obtained – including waste – to create re-valorized consumable materials. This objective can be achieved through at least three activities: valorization of material through the creation of secondary raw materials; energy valorization through the creation of electrical or thermal energy; and biological valorization through the creation of compost and bio-active components. This circular concept of coffee resource exploitation is contrary to the uncontrolled exploitation that currently prevails.

The coffee sector in West Africa is at an important crossroads. In a context of growth in world demand, particularly boosted by demand from Asia, it now has the opportunity to establish its production potential. This issue is part of the dynamic of diversification of the economies of West Africa in favour of agri-business, which will enable the region to put its growth on an ever more solid footing.

Patrick Chabert is the President of the International Institute of Coffeeology.

 


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