From the Field, News

Monday, October 11, 2021

Piloting Water Sustainability

Sucafina’s sister companies in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya are piloting water purification and wastewater treatment projects that will pave the way towards more sustainable water management at coffee washing stations.

Water use and conservation have become a major focus for Sucafina, as part of the environmental pillar of the company’s three-pronged sustainability strategy of Caring for People, Investing in Farmers and Protecting our Planet.

Wastewater: The Problem

At washing stations, freshwater from local rivers is frequently used to pulp, ferment and wash coffee. During this process, a large amount of organic matter is released into the water, including proteins, sugar and pectin. All this matter in the water makes it unfit for drinking and can cause other problems, such as algae growth in local waterways.

For this reason most washing stations in East Africa traditionally treat waste water by using a system of ponds to gradually evaporate dirty water or treat it before releasing back to nature. However, these ponds are frequently placed near rivers and streams which increases the risk of contaminated water leaching through the soil or overspilling in the event of a flood or soil erosion.

 At the same time, both the cherry pulp and the fermentation process contribute to GHG by releasing methane – a gas that is several times more potent than CO2.“Wastewater from coffee washing stations is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases and an environmental risk for water systems,” explains Justin Archer, East Africa COO and Sustainability Manager. “We pledge to minimize water usage by ensuring that all our washing stations meet World Bank standards on wastewater management by the end of 2023.” Sucafina owns and operates more than 50 washing stations across Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda and has the potential to make a significant impact by addressing wastewater treatment.

Another concern is the general lack of access to safe drinking water for the communities where we work. Many communities do not have access to treated water and women and children must frequently fetch water by hand and then boil it to make water safe to use. In addition to the time is takes to fetch and boil enough water for each household, this process also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) through deforestation and burning wood for fires. This may seem like a small impact, but when multiplied by the number of families cooking with wood every day of the year, it adds up to significant GHG released into the atmosphere.

Our Approach: Uganda

In Uganda, Sucafina’s washing stations are trialing a 3-step process to clean wastewater from coffee processing.

The first treatment step is a settling tank, where wastewater is piped directly after use. In the tank, water is treated to cause suspended solids to drop to the bottom of the tank, and also skimmed to remove floating mucilage. Water sits in the settling tank for approximately 12 to 14 hours.

In the second step, water is filtered through two sub-chambers. In the first, the neutralization tank, lime is added to lower acidity to normal levels. Then, the anaerobic baffle reactor (ABR) causes anaerobic fermentation that removes many of the microorganisms that use a lot of oxygen.

In the third and final step, water is piped into constructed wetlands and reed beds.

Together, these steps filter water and remove most remaining compounds, making the water safe to reuse in operations.

Sucafina Uganda’s washing stations are also installing eco-pulpers and using dry fermentation methods that will drastically reduce water usage.

Our Approach: Rwanda

Rwacof (Sucafina Rwanda) is similarly addressing wastewater through a local lens. To reduce their overall water consumption, Sucafina Rwanda is installing a low-water-use pulper at Musasa washing station (and later 10 other stations operated by Rwacof). This switch will reduce water consumption from 3 liters to 2 liters, per 1kg of cherry. The plan is to continue reducing overall water consumption in the next step of their project.

Finally, wastewater and cherry pulp will be treated with anaerobic fermentation that will break down dissolved solids and other nutrients. The gases produced from this fermentation will be captured and used for home cooking, electricity and more.

Overall, this ambitious project is aiming to reduce Sucafina Rwanda’s carbon emissions at the washing station level, contributing to a more sustainable coffee supply chain.

To support producing communities, they’re installing filtration systems that will filter water coming into the station and plan to make this filtered water available to nearby communities. This will save immense amounts of time for women and children, who fetch and purify water each day, while reducing the GHGs from boiling water daily to sanitize it.

Our Approach: Kenya

At Kenyacof and Kahawa Bora (Sucafina Kenya), our operations are structured differently than in neighboring countries and thus, our approach to addressing wastewater is different. In Kenya, as per the current laws we work exclusively with other washing station partners and do not independently own stations. Our smallholder partners deliver to cooperative washing stations and our small estate partners typically process their own coffee. To support our partners, our wastewater projects are part of a larger program to help producers attain certifications likes RFA/UTZ or Café Practices.  

Sucafina Kenya plans to ensure safe wastewater disposal at all their partner factories with consistent infrastructure maintenance. They are investing in annual maintenance water recycling systems and wastewater lagoon repairs and in improving surrounding wetlands to promote adequate water filtration in the lagoons.

Smallholder farmers are encouraged to reuse coffee pulp as an organic fertilizer for their crops and on small estates it is required to properly dispose of wastewater. Through Kahawa Bora Millers, Sucafina Kenya’s dry milling operation, small estate owners can maintain traceability throughout the milling process, something that can’t be done at other mills. When they market their coffees under their own names, small estate owners take home a larger portion of the profits and are then able to reinvest some of those profits into their estates, creating a more sustainable and environmentally friendly supply chain. 

Better environmental protection is a benefit for everyone and Sucafina is leading the way in wastewater treatment projects. We will continue to decrease our overall water use, expand our water filtration programs and better treat our wastewaters.