Penagos on designing processing equipment with a smaller footprint


For decades, Colombian manufacturer Penagos has designed processing equipment that allows coffee producers to reduce their water usage, electricity consumption, and carbon footprint.

Known for producing clean and vibrant flavour profiles, washed or wet processing is the most common processing method seen on coffee farms across the globe. Unfortunately, using so much water in the process means it’s often not as ‘clean’ for the environment as it is in the cup.

With this in mind, Colombian agricultural machinery manufacturer Penagos has spent the last 50 or so years designing washed coffee processing equipment that uses less water. Elias Ariza Villamil, Coffee Line Manager at Penagos, says its equipment for pulping, demucilaging, classification, and transport, as well as how Penagos designs coffee wet mills, has the lowest water consumption in the world.

“We were the first company to design equipment that could pulp coffee without water, and since then, have looked at how we can help reduce consumption of water across coffee processing,” says Ariza Villamil. “When you use less water, there’s less treatment required of wastewater, which reduces the carbon footprint of the processing.”

Diego Botello, International Sales Agent at Penagos, says as coffee traders and roasters look at the sustainability and carbon footprint of their own supply chains, many realise just how big an impact is made at the farm level.

“Traditionally, farmers didn’t think about things like water contamination or the smoke from burning leftover coffee husk. Now, climate change is affecting the weather and what land can be used to grow Arabica, so big companies are raising awareness about this pollution,” Botello says.

“For farmers, it can be difficult to address these emissions. First, it goes against their idea of how coffee was traditionally produced. Second, because their income is very low, they cannot always afford new machines.”

Claudia Penagos, Corporate Relations Manager for Penagos, says it’s crucial these larger coffee players who want to improve their sustainability help smaller producers make the change.

“Big companies are putting special attention on sustainability, but it’s not as easy for small producers,” Penagos says. “It’s expensive to produce coffee sustainably. Everybody is trying to save water and energy, but without help, the change will go very slowly.

“We are committed to sustainability and are talking with the big coffee roasters and traders, learning what they need, what are their concerns, and how they want to help.”

Penagos works with many coffee business, governments, and NGOs in several countries to improve the sustainability of coffee production. Starting in 2009, Penagos partnered with Technoserve and the Zero Hunger program, installing eco-friendly wet processing equipment in several communities across East Africa. Penagos says the program has been particularly vital for female-led communities.

“We’ve had a lot of success cases with women working with our wet mills, who have improved the income, living conditions, and quality of life for themselves and those in their communities,” she says. “In Ethiopia, we have installed more than 300 wet mills for cooperatives and each case is a success story.”

This initiative helped Penagos establish itself in Africa, with other producers and cooperatives seeing the benefits of its equipment. Penagos is now active in 40 coffee producing countries around the world, with agents or distributors in 24 of them.

The relatively compact size of its equipment, which often combines several different functions, has been a key differentiator of Penagos on the market. Botello says this makes the equipment, particularly its compact wet mill UCBE range, more accessible to many farmers.

“Since Penagos launched its first compact wet mill – rolling pulping, sorting, and demucilaging into one – in the mid 1980s, we’ve always aimed to make smaller machines with a lot of features to help farmers,” he says.

“This comes from looking at the needs of the farmers. Every day, hand labour is becoming more expensive, and it’s difficult for farm owners to hire only the experienced pickers who can identify ripe cherries. So, we’ve adapted our latest equipment, the UDC, to not only pulp and wash coffee but sort out the unripe cherries too.”

The UDC uses vibro-elastic pulping channels to pulp the cherry without harming the green bean. A sieve then removes the mature pulped beans, while the others are sent to a second high-pressure sieve that filters out green cherries while pulping remaining semi-ripe beans. A final pulp remover takes away any excess pulp. A demucilage stage is optional, so producers can decide how best to process their coffees.

Replacing several machines with one smaller unit significantly reduces the energy usage and space required at a coffee farm or mill. Botello says this is possible thanks to the Penagos research and development team having decades of experience in the fields. Recently, Penagos looked at how it can also cater to new developments in coffee production, like the washed processing of fermented coffees. This came to life in September 2018, with the unveiling of the Ecowasher.

“Ecowasher helps farmers wash their fermented coffees in a faster, cheaper, and sustainable way, saving water, human labour, and power,” Botello says. “Many buyers are encouraging farmers to experiment with fermentation so they can produce specialty of differentiated coffees. We adapted our technology to suit this new trend.”

Claudia Penagos says compared with any other machine that fill a similar role on the market, Ecowasher uses almost a third of the power.

“It’s a proven technology. As soon as coffee producers see the Ecowasher, they want to buy it,” Penagos says. “In Africa alone, we are sending about 35 machines to Rwanda and 12 machines to Kenya. Even if producers have not seen the Ecowasher in person and are not convinced, our partners – including some of the world’s biggest coffee traders, which source most of their post harvesting equipment from Penagos – want to put these machines in their hands, because they believe in the results.”

Not only does Penagos continue to improve the footprint of its products, the manufacturer looks internally at how its own production can have a better impact on the environment. Penagos has reduced and, as much as possible, avoids material waste in its production process.

Future Penagos facilities or offices will also conform to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, with better ventilation and natural lighting reducing energy usage.

“We have to give back what we take. The new generations are more concerned with sustainability, and we all have to change how we think about the things we do. If we don’t do that, we won’t have a future, so Penagos is committed to doing it,” Penagos says.

Penagos will also continue to look at how it can design equipment with lower energy and water usage at the farm level. Ariza Villamil says environmentally friendly dry or natural coffee processing equipment is a current focus for the company.

“The highest percentage of carbon footprint at farm level comes from the fertiliser, which requires a lot of energy and transportation. This will take time to reduce, but what we can influence now is emissions from processing,” he says.

“We’ve set goals to reduce 80 per cent of the energy needed in processing, and that starts with small changes, like the design of the wet mill using special tanks that need less water to move coffee.”

Larger initiatives to reach that target involve helping farmers form cooperatives, organisations, and associations, so they have access to better resources and education.

“We know smallholders individually produce more contamination. If they’re joined together, it’s easier to manage the treatment of waste like water, one mill will use less electricity, and you can increase quality and productivity of the coffee,” Ariza Villamil says.

“The coffee industry is in danger, and we need to start by putting the right tools in the hands of growers.”

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