Productivity of coffee plantations is threatened by both climate change and decreasing revenues of coffee growers. Using shade trees might protect against temperature variability, erosion and excessive radiation but there may be trade-offs in productivity and quality. While impacts of shade trees on arabica (Coffea arabica) have been reviewed, a global synthesis on robusta (Coffea canephora) coffee is lacking. We assessed how shade affects robusta growth and productivity, and what are the interactions and trade-offs. We conducted a systematic literature search in Web of Science and CAB Abstracts on 16 December 2019. Thirty papers fulfilled our inclusion criteria of being experimental studies on the impact of overstory trees with approximately half being from Brazil or India. Shade improved robusta tree growth and yield with some contrasting effects on physicochemical and biochemical properties. Shade (> 30%) was associated with reduced beverage quality. Significant interactions between shade and location, rainfall level and robusta clone were found. Among the clones tested, 06V, C153, LB1, GG229 and JM2 showed a higher productivity and growth (from + 17 to + 280%) under moderate shade (41–65%). This is the first meta-analysis of the effects of shade on robusta coffee. By synthesizing data from different studies, we highlight for the first time that the effect of shade on robusta coffee depends on tree age. Shade had positive impacts on older robusta trees (mean of 16 years), while the impact of shade on younger trees was either insignificant or negative. We highlight the importance of both clone type and tree ages. Research gaps included a lack of knowledge on the effects of shade with respect to coffee and shade tree age as well as interactive effects. More in-depth studies are needed to understand the mechanisms of how shade trees affect robusta coffee.