Smallholder farmers constitute by far the largest group of actors in the coffee sector. To make coffee production climate-smart it is crucial to understand the real needs of those millions of men and women, who produce roughly 80 percent of the world’s coffee. The overarching challenge is to do this effectively while simultaneously enhancing resilience of farmers families and production systems against climate change. Experts concurringly stress the central roles that dynamic agroforestry and circular economy need to play in the future to enhance biodiversity, save on agrochemicals, diversify farmers’ income sources, and create perspectives for youth.


The significance of agroforestry cannot be underestimated. To better understand the requirements of the coffee tree, it is important to know that coffee is a species that belongs to the semi-deciduous forests of the lower story. What is more, these forests are ecosystems characterized by abundance of water and nutrients. Knowing this, it cannot surprise that full-sun coffee monoculture triggers physiological stress in the plant, leading to premature aging and increased susceptibility to attacks from pests and diseases.

Global climate change is a challenge, but to what extent is regional climate change perhaps even more relevant for smallholder farmers? Site conditions vary considerably from country to country and even within coffee regions, as do the specific effects of climate change like heavy rainfall, heatwaves, drought or mudslides.

Dr. Joachim Milz

Pioneer in Global Dissemination of Sustainable Agricultural Practices, ECOTOP Fundación, Bolivia

Consequently, coffee cultivation systems should always be oriented towards the plant’s original ecosystem, which is generally characterized by forests. This makes upgrading shaded and unshaded coffee plantations into dynamic and resilient agroforestry systems pivotal. As coffee production sites differ within and between countries, Milz demands to introduce Dynamic Agroforestry (DAF) Systems in National Research Projects favorably in all coffee-producing nations.

In contrast to Milz’ sweeping perspective, Leônidas Melo, Professor for Soil Fertility at the Federal University of Lavras, Brazil, and Silvia Torres, Project Coordinator at Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Brazil work on practical aspects of circular economy. They work on methods that do not exhaust themselves in waste management but rather contribute to adapting to climate change and even mitigating it.


There are three major types of organic waste deriving from coffee production being coffee husk, pruning residues and coffee wastewater. This contrasts with three options to add value to the coffee waste which are producing organic compost, bokashi (fermented organic fertilizer), or biochar.

Agroforestry Indonesia

However, starting simple has its benefits: Organic compost – preferably mixed with manure – improves the soil structure and fertility and allows better absorption of nutrients by plants because it stimulates the activity of microorganisms. Applying organic compost regularly over the years will result in a progressive reduction in the use of chemical fertilizers. If farmers add a special mix of microorganisms and sugar to the compost, the resulting product is called bokashi. It instantly activates the microbiota, helps promote the biological balance of the soil, and in effect decreases soil plant pathogen populations.

The potential to recycle organic waste from coffee farming in Brazil is huge: Our country produces 50 million bags of coffee each year, which equals of 3.0 million tons coffee husk annually. If only half of this is used to produce biochar, Brazilian soils could be enhanced with 1.5 million tons every year.

Silvia Torres

Project Coordinator, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung, Brazil

Recycling organic material in a meaningful way not only increases coffee yields and the efficiency of chemical fertilizers but also allows for the long-term accumulation of soil carbon which is effectively CO2 sequestration from the atmosphere.

Leônidas Melo

Professor for Soil Fertility, Universidade Federal de Lavras, Brazil

Producing biochar takes circular economy even a step further. Carbonizing organic waste in a special process generates a highly stable carbon-rich material. Biochar can correct soil acidity thereby enhancing the soil’s ability to retain water and improve fertility. It favors the microbiota in the soil, due to its porosity, and provides a permanent storage of carbon and reduces emissions at farm level (e.g. N2O). Continuous application of biochar in consecutive years guarantees progressive accumulation of organic carbon in the soil.


However, even if environmental challenges can be met, social and economic factors still contest coffee production in the majority of coffee farming communities. The situation of young coffee farmers e.g., in Honduras is not easy as only a third of them owns land, and only 30 % are employed. Only 10 % are organized in a farmers association and a mere 12 % accesses financial services although 31 % receive financial assistance. This results in two-thirds of young coffee farmers in Honduras reporting a lack of economic opportunities. Still, 86 % of them see future business opportunities in coffee cultivation and 95 % believe that climate change affects coffee production.

More than half of the young coffee farmers in Honduras, who have been interviewed, think or have thought about migrating away from their community, is an alarming fact that Pablo Ruiz has been researching in his position as Executive Director of Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) Central America. Therefore, HRNS introduced the Climate Pioneer concept in Honduras in 2020 and expanded their activities already two years later to Guatemala. Since then, 110 youth graduated and currently 200 take part in trainings.

Climate Pioneers
Climate Pioneers

The Climate Pioneers curriculum covers a minimum of 30 training hours where life skills like leadership, critical and innovative thinking are taught and complemented with vocational training. Most participants are 16 to 30 years old. Additionally, the curriculum encompasses climate change awareness and action modules as well as basic information and communication technology skills. The vocational part includes on-farm testing methods and basic extension and advisory service practices like teaching skills and transferring knowledge in their communities.

After absolving the Climate Pioneers curriculum, young people can choose their journey to become either an entrepreneur through establishing a new business or a change agent to implement climate action. The aim is to install local capacities with youth to take on active leadership roles in communities and farmer organizations. This helps build climate change awareness and promote increased use of climate-smart agricultural practices.

Long-term positive impacts in agricultural landscapes require a multi-sector integrated approach that addresses the unique challenges of rural youth.

Pablo Ruiz

Executive Director, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Central America

In Honduras, half of the participants are young women with many of them putting theory into practice. So far:

  • 52 % managed their own demonstration plots
  • 33 % established their own entrepreneurship to diversify their income with the majority doing this outside of coffee cultivation
  • 26 % were elected to decision-making positions within their farmer organization while 7 % started to work as extension agents

In Guatemala, the situation is quite similar. However, here even 70 % of the participants are women. So far:

  • 33 % are now managing their own demonstration plots
  • 50 % have established their own entrepreneurship most of them – again – outside of coffee cultivation
  • 33 % took up leadership positions and 23 % now work as extension agents

Ruiz considers to update parts of the Climate Pioneers curriculum due to high input costs and new EU regulations. Seeking out partnerships with other institutions like universities offers possibilities to further strengthen the Climate Pioneer model. It remains important to explore opportunities in marketing coffee from young people.



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