How Cuban coffee is changing to retain more value

Cuban coffee served
  • Cuba’s annual coffee exports have declined from 330,000 bags to 130,000 bags since the mid-1950s
  • Some supply chain actors are trying to reverse this trajectory with a broader focus on improving long-term productivity
  • If successful, this could help Cuban coffee compete on the global stage

CHANGE IS afoot in Cuba. Despite a favourable microclimate, the country has faced challenges beyond that which have hindered coffee production. Now, with the support of powerful stakeholders driving development across key coffee-growing regions, Cuba is being put back on the map.

Coffee production in Cuba took off in the mid-19th century. Surges in global demand led to a shift in focus from arabica to robusta – which had higher yields and provided consistent exports to major international markets, such as Germany and the Netherlands.

At peak production in the mid-1950s, Cuba exported more than 20,000 tonnes of coffee per year (over 330,000 bags). However, following the Cuban Revolution, the nationalisation of the coffee industry and trade embargoes from the United States, production and exports took a sharp downturn.

Today, annual coffee production stands between 9,000 and 11,000 tonnes, and Cuba’s coffee sector faces challenges beyond the country’s legacy of a difficult geopolitical situation.

There has been an overall lack of investment to address inadequate infrastructure and outdated technology used for coffee production. These problems have persisted since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was Cuba’s primary source of international support.

As the country seeks to improve the quality of exported goods and enhance sustainable agricultural practices, new efforts are underway to revive Cuban coffee.

Cuban coffee farm

Taking steps to transition to organic coffee production 

Of the world’s developed countries, Cuba currently ranks 5th in terms of sustainable development. Today, over 30% of the country is covered by forest – an increase from 13% in 1959.

As the country seeks to revive its coffee industry, the challenge will be to improve quality and increase the scale of production while continuing to protect and reclaim the natural environment.

One of the initiatives that has been started to address this challenge was launched in 2018 and currently involves 249 farmers in the southern provinces of Santiago and Granma. It seeks to improve the overall sustainability and commercial viability of Cuban coffee by focusing on forest preservation, improved agricultural practices, women and youth empowerment, and a streamlined supply chain. 

As part of its environmental goals, the project helps to preserve natural forests and promotes local biodiversity – many of which believe is crucial to guaranteeing the quality and sustainability of Cuban coffee.

“La Reserva de ¡Tierra! Cuba by Lavazza is a premium organic sustainable blend made with coffee that comes entirely from Cuban plantations supported by Lavazza Foundation’s project,” says Michele Cannone, Global Brand Director at Lavazza.

The project also focuses on building a shorter supply chain through capacity building, awareness-raising and knowledge-sharing – with the goal of retaining as much value at origin as possible. 

sensor in coffee plantation

Leveraging technology and training for a more sustainable coffee sector

For those working to increase production and improve coffee quality and sustainable farming practices, technological solutions are proving to be a valuable tool.

The integrated blockchain used for the “La Reserva de ¡Tierra! Cuba” product line is a good case in point. This seeks to improve the transparency and traceability of this Cuban espresso blend for the end consumer – acting as an “immutable ledger” for recording transactions.

“By leveraging blockchain technology, we can provide a transparent proof of origin, a log of field activities, and a full view of the coffee journey from the field to the cup to its customers,” says Michele. 

Coffee farmers are also increasingly turning to technology to reduce the impact of production on the planet. The goal is to support forest conservation and help farmers cope with the impacts of climate change.

“We have installed sensors in plantations, then sharing the data to adapt and develop agricultural practices and optimise the use of resources,” says Michele. “The monitored data includes air temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind speed/direction and soil humidity.”

For true sustainability, advancements in technology must go hand-in-hand with efforts for social development – including empowering women and youth.

Women make up 70% to 90% of the global coffee industry’s workforce, and an increasing number of young people are abandoning coffee production completely. As such, empowering and educating these groups may not just be crucial for the success for coffee production in general.

By providing training and education initiatives, the Lavazza Foundation is working to involve women and young people more sustainably in coffee production, fostering a situation of more stable employment throughout the year.

The project has implemented a final manual sorting system, managed by an all-female team of 95 women. It classifies the coffee in the traditional Cuban way – by quality segment – and eliminates defects that cannot be detected mechanically, helping to improve the quality of the final product.

Implementing greener, more cost-effective and productive systems and processes will contribute to the long-term sustainability of Cuba’s coffee industry. Reduced trade and production costs, larger crop volumes, and better quality will transform into better return on investment, better incomes, and will help retain next generations in the sector through better economic incentive.

By developing agricultural practices in an environmentally responsible way; and making space for social groups and labour segments that were previously withdrawing from the industry, Cuban coffee holds great promise. And as global demand for high-quality, sustainable coffee continues to rise, Cuba is an origin to watch.

Please note: Lavazza is a sponsor of Coffee Intelligence.

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