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Coffee’s growth in southern Africa

From the May 2017 issue.

Southern Africa’s coffee output has slumped since 2003, but industry officials say production is set to expand in coming years.

Coffee in southern Africa

Southern Africa’s four leading coffee nations are planning a comeback on the international stage for specialty beans.

After years of challenges, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are increasing efforts to get production back on track, with production in the short to medium term likely to recover to between 800,000 and 1 million bags.

This comes at a time when the world market has seen the supply of top quality Arabica coffee cut back in most key coffee producing nations as a result of years with poor prices and bad weather.

From the lush mountains in northern Malawi’s famous Mzuzu coffee region to Zimbabwe’s western Chimanimani region on the border with Mozambique, across the green valleys of both northern and south-eastern Zambia, coffee plantings are coming back – in part, local officials say, because the emerging local coffee culture has sparked renewed political interest in a sector that just a decade ago was given short odds at survival in this region.

“Malawi is still relatively unknown as a coffee producing country,” said the Dutch coffee group SpecialtyCoffee.nl in a blog post. “It is a very interesting place for coffee though, as top-end varieties such as the Geisha and the Kenyan Bourbon mutation SL28 can be found here.”

Coffee was first introduced as an estate crop in Malawi in the early 1890s and for the first several decades it was primarily cultivated by larger estates across the country.

But by the 1930s, the bigger estates had increasingly turned to tobacco as a leading cash crop, and most of the coffee production was left in the hands of smallholder growers, particularly in the Mzuzu region.

To this day the Mzuzu region is still known among those in the industry leading efforts to reclaim its reputation with coffee connoisseurs. During the 1960s, the local coffee industry got a cash injection with funds and technical assistance from the Commonwealth Development Corporation that throughout the next two decades helped smallholder growers improve both yields and quality. Today, this effort is being renewed locally.

“Our farmers produce washed Arabica beans and today we have more than 3000 members, of whom 25 per cent are women. Our members have been growing coffee in this region since the early 1930s but it wasn’t until 2007 that we were able to restructure the community into the cooperative,” says Harrison Kalua, the Chief Operating Officer of the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union, or MCPCU.

Growing at altitudes between 1300 and 2000 metres, the coffee frequently gets rave reviews from coffee lovers and roasters alike. Organising growers into a fully modern cooperative has helped not only getting access to credit, but also assisted growers to establish direct contact with buyers in specialty markets across Europe, the US, Australia, and South-East Asia.

“We wanted to explore the unique quality beans we have, that is why we established the co-op, and besides the bean quality, we are also very highly engaged in social and sustainable activities and offer roasters everything from women’s coffee to different certified brands like Fairtrade, organic and 4C,” Kalua tells Global Coffee Report.

During the past five years the MCPCU has embarked on an ambitious re-planting project that seeks to rejuvenate a total of 250 hectares of land under the cooperative with 1.3 million new trees. Renovation efforts such as this has the official Coffee Association of Malawi confident that Malawi is on the road to re-establish annual output of between 30,000 and 50,000 bags in the short term. This target may not sound impressive, but for a country that saw production fall from 150,000 bags of prime grade beans in the mid-1990s to as little as 17,000 bags in the 2010-11 cycle, this is a significant step back to becoming a reliable and consistent quality producer.

African coffee

In Zimbabwe, the coffee story has been more dramatic c since a brutal armed conflict over land disputes erupted a few years into the new millennium. Just 10 years after coffee enthusiasts first started reading reports of the “super coffee” that started reaching the export market from Zimbabwe between 1994 and 1995, the outstanding quality left on trees preserved from a number of original Arabica strains from Kenya was nearly extinct. The political situation has stabilised since, and with that the welcome news that coffee exports from Zimbabwe in the past few years have re-emerged in the specialty market.

“The best Zimbabwe estate coffees are prized for their balance in the cup,” says Thompson Owen, a coffee buyer and one of the chief cuppers for Sweet Maria’s Coffee roasters in the US.

“A really good Zimbabwe has moderate acidity, rich flavours, good body and after-taste.”

Only a handful of coffee estates in the Chimanimani region near Chipinge survived the land invasions and struggled to stay in business, and the resulting national coffee output hit new lows at levels between 7000 and 12,000 bags. This compares to the peak of production of more than 250,000 bags in the early 1990s, according to the International Coffee Organization. In recent years, a comeback in exports has renewed interest in coffee from Zimbabwe and a number of US companies are now working to increase imports in order to raise funds for the much needed investment into the renovation of farms.

When it comes to untapped potential for a recovery in regional production figures, Madagascar is a key candidate. The world’s fourth largest island off the south-east African coast, Madagascar produced more than 1.1 million bags of Robusta and Arabica combined in the early 1990s.

Production would stay at close to 1 million bags all the way up to 1999 before the coffee crisis set in and took production all the way down to 147,000 by 2002. Production recovered to 728,000 bags by 2008-09 and has since stabilised between 500,000 and 600,000 bags, but in recent years the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has supported several initiatives to renovate ageing farms and raise yields.

USAID has worked to regenerate Madagascar’s coffee industry in poor areas by helping Arabica coffee farmers succeed, according to a report from the online forum Espresso Buying Guide.

“The effort has included new processing and training centres for farmers providing new techniques for everything from cultivation to roasting and emphasises sustainable farming methods,” the guide said.

A lack of investment and years of low prices, coupled with the growing negative impact from climate change, are still seen as the main challenge to recovery. As supply from Arabica suppliers worldwide has dwindled, a growing number of multinationals are now stepping up efforts to support local growers in the recovery effort and invest hard currency into ageing farms and renovation in order to secure the supply line.

Countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe hold massive under-explored potential for both bigger volumes and more top quality coffee, Varun Mahajan, Vice President of the Singapore-based commodity group Olam International, said last January.

These countries have “exceptional growing conditions to produce fine Arabica coffee but historically suffered from limited investment, leading to lower volumes,” Mahajan told local press at an event in the Zambian capital, Lusaka. Mahajan is also Commercial Head of Olam Coffee Plantations in East Africa.

Add the growing number of coffee aficionados to the recovery equation – aficionados who are willing to pay for better and unique flavours at home and in the export market – and growers across Southern Africa are getting excited about the revival of local crops.

“I would like to encourage farmers to continue in the coffee business because it is actually good business as long at one does it the right way,” says Teija Lublinkhof, chairperson of the Zambia Coffee Growers Association.

A pillar of the coffee industry in Zambia, the Lublinkhof family’s Mubuyu farm has long been a role model for the local industry since it first was planted in the 1980s. Zambia started growing coffee in the 1940s after missionaries brought Bourbon varieties from Kenya and Tanzania, but it was not until the 1980s that farmers eyed coffee as an opportunity for bigger commercial scale production. Dutch migrant Willem Lublinkhof was one of the pioneers in the mid-1980s when he turned to coffee in the Munali Hills some 80 kilometres south of Lusaka.

“Every stage of our production, from selection and bedding in the first seedlings, husbandry, selective harvesting, washing and sun drying, is carried out with one aim in mind: consistently guaranteeing the wonderful taste that more and more people are now discovering,” Willem Lublinkhof told GCR during a visit to the Mubuyu farm in the Munali hills.

African coffee

At its peak in the 2002-03 harvest, Zambia produced 120,000 bags but the negative effects of low prices and excessive cycles of dry weather led production to fall to as little as 3000 bags in the 2014-15 cycle, according to the ICO. These figures are now set to rise multiple times thanks to investment by Olam which in 2013 bought the Northern Coffee Corporation (NCCL), which owns four large estates in northern Zambia.

Olam has since poured US$30 million into renovating and replanting 1500 hectares of the 2700 hectares of cultivated land and expects to see production of about 42,000 bags between this and next year.

From the cradle of the traditional coffee growers in Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to smaller pockets of coffee production in Mozambique, South Africa and the island of Reunion, the caffeine rush is starting to re-emerge.

Tiny Reunion island, which gave the name to the world’s first alternative commercial variety of Typica with the Bourbon mutation in the 17th century, is working toward a full recovery of the island’s coffee industry.

Production from these countries is still too small to be registered in international statistics, but volumes are growing and commercial interest such as seen by Olam in Zambia is evidence of this.

“Our target is to have a plantation of around 2700 hectares in the Northern Province, which would make NCCL one of the largest coffee plantations in Africa,” said Olam’s Mahajan, adding that the Asian company already is looking to buy more land for production. Southern Africa’s coffee crop is set to expand, and this is exciting news to industry officials and coffee lovers.  GCR

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