NAMA Café » Coffee Value Chain

Costa Rican coffee is well known for its high quality and coffee production has historically been closely linked to its national identity. Coffee exports have made a vital contribution to the country’s GDP until the mid-20th century. Since then, coffee production in Costa Rica has suffered different crises such as the collapse of world market prices for coffee in the 1980’s and more recently the resurgence of the “Roya” (coffee rust), a fungal disease which is reported to have affected more than 60% of the Costa Rican coffee growing areas in 2013. Coffee is the dominant crop in Costa Rica, produced on more than 20% of Costa Rica’s agricultural cultivation area (93,774 ha).

By law, the country only allows for the production of Arabica coffee and most production areas are located from 800 m up to 1,800 m above sea level. The hilly terrain of its production area and the generally high labour costs of manual labour imply relatively high production costs. Additional pressures on the sector include urbanization processes, mainly in the greater region of Central Valley San Jose, which encroaches on coffee growing areas. Another fact is the limited interest of younger people to continue coffee farming, especially on small farms. High levels of soil acidity in some regions and upcoming pressure from climate changes are other currant tendencies. Although the coffee production area suffered a decrease by 5% since 2011, its productivity has grown as the coffee production has increased by 25% during that time. 


The Costa Rican Coffee Sector

According ICAFE figures the coffee industry is comprised of more than 52,000 farmers who grow just over 93,000 hectares of coffee throughout the country. Coffee producers are mostly organized in cooperatives: smaller, medium and big cooperatives conformed by up to 50.000 farmers. Overall, there are 192 cooperatives in Costa Rica.

Traditionally these coffee cooperatives are linked to its mill or “beneficio”, as called in Costa Rica, a word derived from “benefit”. Therefore, the relationship between producer and mill can be described as a synergy or win-win alliance, often including social and health services offered by the mills. Interesting is the tendency towards micro mills: while in 2007 Costa Rica counted 99 coffee mills, currently 256 micro-mills are registered at the ICAFE. Small and medium mills, with up to 50 employees usually sell up to 5.000.000 kg of coffee per year often to special customers in and out of Costa Rica. Medium and great mills with up to 100 employees commercialize between 5.000.000 to 10.000.000 kg of coffee per year. The big and very well structured coffee mills are located mostly in two regions, Los Santos and the Central Valley. In the high-quality region of Los Santos, the two the biggest mills in Costa Rica, Tarrazú and Coopedota, represent a 10% of the Costa Rican coffee producers (3,000 producers from Tarrazú and 1,000 belonging to Coopedota).

Besides the producers and mills, the coffee sector comprises 57 exporters and 37 coffee toasters, together representing 8 % of the Costa Rican workforce.


Energy-efficiency in the processing of coffee

At the mills the different layers of the coffee cherries are removed to obtain the coffee beans; hereafter they are classified and dried. A small part will also be roasted. There are coffee mills that use water for the separation, the transport in the mill and the sorting of the beans. This water frequently gets contaminated by the by-products. Reusing and recycling the water would save valuable resources and lower emissions. Besides the water, high amounts of biomass are produced.

In the production of one ton of coffee beans, 2.25 t of pulp, 0.9 t of mucilage and 0.25 t of husk are generated. Normally, the pulp is thrown away, producing methane and bad odour. Together with the husk, the pulp could be composted, producing a very fertile soil. This procedure reduces emissions and at the same time diminishes the use of fertilizers. Another option is to use this biomass as a source for bioenergy. This could make processing more sustainable and at the same time lower the costs for the mills. Using coffee husks as fuel can save much firewood. The water of the pulp and the mucilage, together with the waste water, could for example be transformed to biogas through anaerobic digestion. Husks could be used as fuel in an oven to generate heat for the drying and roasting process. Another option to produce bioenergy and gain self-sufficiency is the use of solar panels.


Emissions generated in coffee production and processing

It is estimated that the coffee sector’s emissions account for 5,6% of emissions in the agricultural sector and 1,56% of the total emissions of Costa Rica, making it second largest emission source in the country’s agriculture. Coffee production emits the three most prevalent greenhouse gases: nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and carbon dioxide (CO2).



Greenhouse gas


Emission sources

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Nitrous oxide


Synthetic fertilizers deliver essential nitrogen to the soil, but they also stimulate a reaction that emits nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere. N2O accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gases and can have a global warming potential almost 300 times that of CO2 over 100 years.

  1. Teach and incentivize growers to use new fertilization methods that improve efficiency, thereby lowering the amount of fertilizers required.
  2. Intersperse trees that are nitrogen fixers among the coffee plants. Nitrogen fixers have properties that naturally turn atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen fertilizer used for the coffee plants, minimizing the use of synthetic fertilizers, and helping conserve the soil.



After coffee berries are picked, water is used to separate the skin and pulp from the bean. The process results in wastewater and discarded pulp that emit CH4.

  1. Treat the wastewater so that it can be recycled and reused for further coffee processing.
  2. Convert the biomass (discarded pulp) into usable energy.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)


Many coffee mills dry the coffee beans using processes that require electricity or firewood. Conventional methods of generating electricity, such as burning coal and firewood, emit CO2. In addition, cutting down trees for firewood lowers natural CO2 absorption from the atmosphere. The inefficient use of land resources further impacts the natural removal of GHGs from the atmosphere.

  1. Utilize the energy generated from biomass gasification of the discarded pulp.
  2. Use agroforestry methods to add trees to the coffee plantations to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, shade the coffee plants, and improve the soil.