Coffee by-products are often an unseen challenge to responsible, sustainable production in the landscape of green bean production and processing. When coffee processing stations discard the coffee fruit’s pulp, mucilage and sometimes parchment of their small-hold coffee growers, these by-products often end up polluting nearby land and water supplies. That´s where by-products unfortunately turn into waste. In Ethiopia’s coffee growing areas, large amounts of coffee husks and mucilage water are left unused. In most cases, the husks are either left in the fields or disposed of by burning in open air pits – the latter causing pollution and environmental damage; the mucilage water often stays for months in large ponds.
Many current coffee production methods are environmentally unfriendly and a cause of environmental degradation. This prompts the question: Is there a way to minimize the waste from coffee processing and reduce the strain on the environment in coffee producing areas?
Dilla, a city 361 km south of Addis Ababa, is one of the leading areas of coffee production in Ethiopia, namely of the famous Yirgacheffe coffee. The whole city faces the challenge of dealing with the disposal of coffee by-products as coffee processing is Dilla’s main industry. It turns out that at least one of the coffee producers in Dilla has recognized the value in these waste products as source material for briquettes and runs a facility which collects by-products from several of their own coffee washing stations and processes them into briquettes. I was traveling to Dilla for my full time job at TechnoServe-Ethiopia and was curious to see the operations behind this process and wanted to get a sense of whether this recycling was effective, viable and scalable.
The briquette factory has, according to management, the capacity to manufacture 40 tons of briquettes per day, which are then sold to cement and soap factories for 2 Ethiopian birr/kg (4 cents USD/kg). The briquettes, I was told, are not suitable for domestic use as they create quite a lot of smoke.
The factory primarily uses pulp collected from the coffee washing stations they own and process as the source material for the briquettes. While they could use the husk from naturally processed coffee as well, it is more valuable when sold as qisher (cascara), a locally consumed tea. The briquettes produced from pulp burn hotter than briquettes made from conventional wood, which makes them ideal for industrial use. The processing of pulp into briquettes also helps to reduce the strain on local clean water supplies and helps to lessen the number of trees cut down to produce energy by burning the wood directly or turning it into charcoal.
The briquette factory is a good example of upscaling to minimize the environmental impact of coffee production. The briquettes provide a cost-effective source of fuel for other industries, while reducing the coffee processor’s pollution footprint. The sale of the briquettes provides a secondary income platform for the facility owner (a coffee producer), and additional jobs for local citizens. Additionally, less pollutants are released directly into the atmosphere and the processing of the organic materials for fuel releases fewer greenhouse gases into the air compared to the natural decay of those same organic materials. The reduced deforestation has a double impact in that fewer trees are cut for fuel and those trees continue to pull carbon dioxide from the air as they grow.
While briquette production is not an “end-all” for developing cleaner, more environmentally friendly coffee production, it is a start towards recognizing the potential of the efficiency of upscaling that can be applied across many aspects of the coffee production process.
I found there are some discrepancies between published articles/press releases about the Dilla Briquette Factory and the information I got during my visit. For that, further exploration is needed.
I was not allowed to take any pictures at the factory (except the one that I used as a title picture).
Here some links to the “pre-history” of the factory: