Saving grace: Coffee processing equipment that can help save East Africa’s water resources

Eight years after Ulf Kusserow started promoting the Penagos pulper to East Africa out of his base in Tanzania, he can hardly name a coffee-growing country in the region without the pulper. “Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya,” Kusserow ticks off the list. “Pretty much any country in East Africa has Penagos.” He guesses there are probably 500 washing stations now in the region. While Kusserow should probably take some credit for the rapid growth in popularity of the machine, he acknowledges that there is a single technological trait that makes the pulper so attractive in the region: in a place where access to water is limited and clean water even more so, Penagos equipment pulps coffee with very little water. “Water is obviously very precious here, and very scarce,” he says. “The water we have in eastern Africa is not really enough. We hardly have enough to grow with, so when we can cut down on the water used in processing it gives us more to grow the plant. Also, you are looking at some pretty high density areas, where water is often contaminated by people using the streams [for washing]. By limiting the amount of water we need, we can guarantee a hygienic process.” The machine’s point of difference is that it works as a conical vertical pulper. In the complete processor unit, the pulper works through a conical screen to remove the skin. This dry technique has the double benefit of also limiting screening time, as the beans don’t need to be dried off. To remove the mucilage in the next stage of processing, around one litre of water is needed to clean about 0.2 kilograms of cherry. From there, the beans can be put straight onto the drying tables, and the coffee dries in about half the time, with no requirement for fermentation tanks. The Penagos is also available as just a pulper, where the screen is a drum type and that will only remove the soft flesh and therefore the beans will still have to be fermented, then washed and dried. With the price of quality coffee continuing to rise, arguably never has there been a better time for regions like east Africa to improve the quality of their beans and ensure maximum return. “With a guarantee on quality, the farmers can get a guarantee on a price they will achieve. They can process for a lower [input] price and as a bonus they don’t need to use water. They’re also saving a lot of time, in that the drying time is reduced,” he explains. As a farmer for the last 20 years, Kusserow understands the importance of getting top dollar for coffee beans. Unlike some crops such as tea where the farmer can harvest throughout the year, coffee requires investment all year but only returns once a year. “There’s these challenges in general related to coffee. To bring a crop forward you need some strong cash flow management,” he says. “It’s not easy for people who are spending money all year, only to get paid once a year.” Starting at $400 for the smaller capacity machines, the prices may not seem overly expensive, but this can be quite a high cost in poorer regions. In this regard Kusserow says a few development agencies have been helping out. In one project the Africa Wildlife Fund purchased some machines to help limit environmental damage to the region. The machines were first developed for Brazil and quickly penetrated that market and later Columbia. They are now present in most big markets in South America. The company has now entered Costa Rica as their first Central American market and Penagos is even popping up in India. A point of difference in the Americas, however, is that they are mainly being employed by large corporations, from 20,000 to 60,000 kilograms an hour, compared to Africa where they start at 400 kilograms an hour. John Zentveld, the director of coffee and coffee processing equipment company CAPE Australia, has been an exclusive dealer of Penagos equipment to the Pacific, selling the waterless pulpers into developing markets in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Tonga, Tahiti and Pitcairn for the last two decades. He first came across the equipment 22 years ago when he was looking for spare parts for a client in North Queensland. He flew to Colombia and was instantly impressed not only by the superior quality of the machine and facility of assembly, but the technology that caters to nations concerned not only about water usage, but the environmental damage of waste water as well. In one instance, they installed a machine in a research station in New Guinea that previously used 52 litres of water to process one kilogram of coffee. That water would then flow down a hill and fill into a pond, which eventually overflowed into the river, contaminating a major water supply. “In New Guinea, they’re getting very serious about their use of water and waste water,” says Zentveld. He goes on to explain that not only do the machines save water, but any water that is used is mixed with the pulp and used as fertiliser on the plants.   In Indonesia, Zentveld points out that most farmers are small land holders with minimal resources and no electricity. With the Penagos equipment they can carry the pulper into the field, leave the pulp behind to fertilise the trees and bring the pulper back along with the beans, without having to post someone out to guard the equipment. Previously, he says many farmers didn’t have the resources to harvest their beans in time and they would leave them to become overripe on the tree. Now they’re able to harvest in time and produce a high quality bean that demands a higher price. “That’s a big difference,” says Zentveld. “It’s a win-win situation.”  Another important characteristic that makes life easier for the farmer is that the Penagos equipment is fairly simple to use and requires a simple set-up. Smaller units can arrive in crates and be used almost immediately, while greater capacity units need a bit of foundation work ahead of time. As for operation, Kusserow says that pretty much anyone with a one-day introduction can use the machines.    The machine is also unique in that it has the capacity for any size required. Prices are equally as variable, ranging anywhere from $400 to $20,000 for the top machines. For very small-sized households, they still encourage hand pulpers, which similarly don’t require any water. Typically in Africa, a group of farmers will form a cooperative to purchase a pulper. With the use of machines like the Penagos, Kusserow says these rural cooperatives are able to compete with private estates. One strong sign of the machine’s success is that while Kusserow has replaced many other types of pulpers, he has yet to see one of his machines replaced. The wide spread of any advanced equipment is a positive move for the region, a sign that farmers should start getting more money for their coffee as the quality improves. For those who can’t afford equipment, while their coffee will be bought, the purchase will likely be from the lowest bidder. “But I think it’s changing now,” says Kusserow. “We’re seeing really good quality coffee come out of the regions and it’s going up every year. There’s a big difference in coffee as farmers move away from the traditional process.” With the price of coffee at an all-time high, Kusserow does warn that farmers shouldn’t get too comfortable with what they’re getting, because like with everything, prices are cyclical and these highs, too, shall fall. He notes that now is the best time to invest, although at time of writing it was too soon for Kusserow to tell if farmers were taking advantage of the increased income to guarantee their returns for the future.  “This [farmers investing] is what we should expect, that they should invest now for when the prices go down. The margins are good now that the prices are high. But, the days will come when prices drop and then it’s especially important to keep better margins,” says Kusserow. “It’s obvious when people are producing better coffee, they get better return. They can improve their situation, for their families, mostly they want to invest in education because more than anything that’s what will lead to the greatest development.” Water fact
According to the latest UNESCO report, 1 billion people lack access to improved water supply and 2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation

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