May 30, 2024 – At Sucafina, our long-term goal is to help farmers develop coffee growing models that have a positive impact on farmer livelihood, the environment and communities. Agroforestry – intercropping trees into fields of cash and food crops – is a key component of creating regenerative agriculture coffee growing systems.

While we recognize that agroforestry systems are important, there isn’t a fixed model to establish agroforestry in coffee communities, and each situation is context specific. Sucafina is actively involved in early trials on several projects that are working towards sustainable agroforestry systems. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Why Agroforestry?

“Promoting agroforestry feeds into our three overarching goals: it has one of the biggest potentials for carbon sequestration and it’s a positive way to reduce deforestation (Protecting Our Planet). It can provide alternative incomes for farmers (Investing in Farmers) and feed into a living income (Caring for People),” says Suzanne Uittenbogaard, Group Sustainability Program Manager.

Right now, Sucafina is engaged in agroforestry projects in Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Vietnam.

What Makes a Good Agroforestry Project?

Since agroforestry projects are farmer-focused projects, good project designs require a strong connection with and understanding of farmer needs, wants and capacities. “It is very important to have a good understanding of farmer needs and capabilities because everything that’s possible starts based on if the farmer can – and wants to – plant trees. But it also depends on whether they understand the benefits of planting trees,” explains Leon Sanchez Blanco, Global Agronomy Manager.

The preparation is often the most important part of an agroforestry project. It is during the consultation and discovery phase that we get a sense of the current status quo, both in terms of what the land can support and what farmers are open to doing. With this initial work, we come up with the potential design of the project, which includes how many trees, which species, and by when we start planting seedlings.

It is vital to validate the plan for tree planting with the interests and needs of the farmers. “You must do everything in close collaboration with farmers to get insights into what they’re interested in and capable of. And it requires lots of training to demonstrate the benefits of agroforestry so that farmers buy into the project," Leon continues. 

Benefits for farmers can include additional income and nutrition through fruit trees, better climate change adaptation, wood they can sell and more. Sucafina’s on-the-ground network is vital for training farmers about what they can gain from investing in agroforestry, and our global network is also being leveraged to help farmers connect with other actors to gain additional benefits, such as carbon credits for carbon sequestration.

Once the plan is laid, timing is essential for successful projects. In countries where irrigation is not common, you have to time the seedlings so they can be planted in the rainy season, get enough water to survive.  

Main Challenges

Once a project is planned and the distribution of seedlings begins, there are several challenges that can disrupt plans, including attention competition and low tree survival. 

Attention to land competition is an especially important constraint in certain areas when coffee prices are high at the time the seedling distribution begins, which is what we’ve seen in Vietnam this year, Leon says. “When coffee prices are very high, farmers will focus on coffee as much as possible to maximize their income, and they may not have as much interest in agroforestry on their land,” Leon says.

The role of the program implementers is to partner with farmers and provide demonstrations and information around why agroforestry will benefit farmers more in the long term. “We need to show them that these trees will not be competing with coffee but will actually benefit their coffee production and net farm income,” Leon explains. “But these are long-term investments where they won’t necessarily see immediate effects, and it’s hard for the farmers to see those benefits, especially when the market is high.” The challenge is to build the case for the farmer about agroforestry and good practices through trainings, demo plots, and one-on-one consultations.  

When farmers buy into the program and plant seedlings, the next concern is tree survival. “It’s very important that you plant seedlings at the right time,” Leon says.

The Results

In these first few years of agroforestry work, we are still learning how much carbon sequestration these projects can deliver. “We need to validate in the field. We’re working with modeling systems, but the reality remains to be seen. We will have to go to the field, measure the growth and diameter of the trees and calculate the true CO2 sequestration amounts,” Leon says. 

The goal is to continue scaling up agroforestry projects to remove carbon in our supply chain. The research we are doing now may play an integral role in future projects at Sucafina and beyond that help reduce carbon emissions, close living income gaps and build a flourishing and resilient coffee growing landscape.