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Business Case
A 100-Year Journey:
Achieving Sustainability for All in the Coffee Industry

Global demand for coffee continues to rise, but climate change is expected to shrink suitable land for Arabica coffee beans by 50 percent by 2050. Japan's Key Coffee is working to protect the future of coffee, starting in Tana Toraja, Indonesia.

Global demand for coffee continues to rise, but climate change is expected to shrink suitable land for Arabica coffee beans by 50 percent by 2050 — just 30 years away. Key Coffee, Inc. is working to protect the future of coffee and coffee farmers, starting in Tana Toraja, Indonesia. We spoke to the company’s director and EVP Kazuo Kawamata, an experienced former manager of a directly operated plantation in Tana Toraja.

First move: Reviving of “phantom Toraja coffee”

Celebrating its centenary in 2020, Key Coffee’s wide-ranging business spans the international farming, manufacture and retail of coffee, and the development of restaurants and cafes. The company started an Indonesian plantation approximately 50 years ago to help the local Tana Toraja region revive its “phantom coffee,” so-named because of its rarity. The initiative involved establishing a 530-hectare plantation, providing necessary expertise to local farmers, and purchasing each farmer’s coffee beans at the fair price. Today, Toraja Coffee has grown into a significant brand that has improved the livelihoods of coffee farmers.

“Having successfully revived Toraja Coffee, we are ensuring it doesn’t return to its phantom state by promoting the sustainable development of the environment, farmers and companies, including responding to climate change,” Kawamata explained. “In that sense, our 2050-focused efforts are an extension of our established practices. These efforts fall into three categories: 1) developing climate-change-resistant coffee bean varieties; 2) test-growing on model coffee farms, and: 3) developing post-harvest coffee bean ripening technology.”

1. Developing climate-change-resistant coffee varieties: IMLVT

To help resolve coffee industry problems by reaching out to other organizations, in 2016 Key Coffee started working with World Coffee Research (WCR) on sustainable coffee production, and participating in WCR’s International Multi-Location Variety Trial (IMLVT) to develop new, rich-flavored coffee varieties with greater resistance to climate change and crop-damaging insects. To date, coffee-growing tests have been conducted mostly within the region where a coffee variety was originally cultivated, but the IMLVT is collecting data from global cross-variety growing tests — for example, growing traditional Brazilian coffee varieties in Indonesia.

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Key Coffee has set aside 2ha of its Indonesian coffee plantation to test-grow an initial 35 coffee plant varieties (including out-of-region varieties), and later expand to 42 varieties. A Kawamata explains, IMLVT trials are underway in 26 countries, but few companies dedicate as much as two hectares to the initiative.

“We can mount a solid, persistent challenge, thanks to the strong trust nurtured with local growers over a half-century of joint coffee-growing in the region. Our perspective is always long-term, including securing workers and operational capital,” Kawamata says. “Three years into the IMLVT project, we are seeing clear differentials in the suitability of different varieties. WCR amasses big data from similar trials worldwide, which it makes available to global research institutions to help develop new coffee varieties.”

2. Test-growing on model coffee farms

Key Coffee is preparing to test grow high-performing IMLVT varieties on model coffee farms in Tana Toraja.

Image credit: Key Coffee

“Our IMLVT test-growing farms currently cultivate approximately 40 coffee varieties. Over the next few years, we hope to learn more about out-of-region varieties that, in practice, appear to suit Tana Toraja growing conditions well,” Kawamata explains. “These high-potential varieties will then be shifted to our model farms for trial cultivation. We originally established model farms across the region to teach local people appropriate coffee-growing methods, so I’m keen to swiftly share the IMLVT trial results to help the local community.”

The model farms are also being used to investigate the increasingly severe soil runoff experienced in Indonesia.

“Indonesian coffee farms are generally located in sloping, mountainous ground, 1,000 meters above sea level. Some soil runoff is inevitable, given the sloping terrain; but in recent years, higher precipitation has exacerbated the problem, creating a serious issue. Building terraced fields could be a solution, but the maintenance involved renders that unrealistic. Instead, we recommend farmers plant grassy cover crops under the coffee plants, which we are doing at our model farms. Cover crops take time and effort to plant, but we will use data to illustrate how that translates into improved profits, and to promote local understanding,” Kawamata says.

3. World-leading KEY Post-Harvest Processing

The third approach centers around Key Coffee’s unique, world-first KEY Post-Harvest Processing method for the careful selection of harvested coffee beans. Before removing the outer exocarp and flesh by pulping, KEY Hyo-On Jukusei — an ice temperature ripening technology — force-ripens coffee cherries by preventing freezing even in sub-zero temperatures.

Kawamata explains why this technology is an effective 2050 countermeasure: “As climate change reduces the temperature differential between night and day, the coffee cherries won’t ripen sufficiently, and quality will deteriorate. Force-ripening coffee cherries using this careful selection technology would improve quality, support coffee bean prices, and enable us to protect the livelihoods of coffee farmers. We are exploring how to create new agricultural cooperative-style groups to convey the expertise required to introduce this technology into local production.”

Establishing sustainable methods by 2030

We asked Kawamata about the company’s future vision.

“We should see some clear benefits from these three approaches within the next five years,” he asserted. “We will also confirm new technologies and systems for implementation in Tana Toraja by 2030. Beyond that, we will seek to spread the knowledge gained in the region to other countries. East Timor and Papua New Guinea are located on a similar latitude, so our expertise could be of use there.”

Given its long tradition of working closely with coffee and coffee farmers, Key Coffee is committed to achieving sustainable development in every region across the globe.