INTERNATIONAL - Zimbabwean coffee was once known for its high-quality, sweet, citric, chocolatey profile. But it’s been almost 20 years since it all but disappeared from the world stage and the country lost one of its most promising industries.
The early 2000s saw farms seized and coffee production plummeting. Where fertile, red, volcanic soils once produced smooth, high-quality coffee and employed thousands of local people in a highly productive industry, there are now overgrown gardens, eucalypt and acacia thickets and scorched maize fields tended by unemployed subsistence farmers.
I grew up on this lush land, walking alongside my father, a pioneer and innovator for Zimbabwean commercial and smallholder coffee farmers. Chewing the red cherries from the bushes and playing with the kids of the local workers, coffee was part of my life from the time I could walk.
I learned so much about coffee farming from my father and our coffee-growing neighbours at Crake Valley Farm – the Boswell-Brown family. The story of Zimbabwe’s lost coffee farms is my story too.
Today, our coffee industry is a shadow of its former self. Yet the changing political scene could herald a new dawn for Zimbabwean coffee. If the private sector is once more allowed to flourish, there is a real opportunity to drive economic growth and reduce poverty through coffee production in a country of remarkable agricultural potential.
Zimbabwe, “The Perfect Coffee Country”
The small, landlocked, southern African country of Zimbabwe has 16 million people and a GDP of US $16.62 billion (World Bank). It was once one of the world’s coffee darlings. In fact, green bean buyer Mike Perry of Klatch Coffee remembers it as “very sweet” with “tart cherry tones”, a nutty aroma, and chocolate profile.
Its coffee belt follows the lush valleys and cool mountains along the border with Mozambique – part of the mountain chain that runs from the Ethiopian highlands. The region stretches from Chipinge, Chimanimani, and Vumba to Honde Valley and Mutasa. Boswell-Brown explains that “the higher, cooler and wetter areas produced better quality coffee – with premier quality from the Vumba first and then Chipinge, which is the larger farming area that used to produce 75percent of Zimbabwean coffee.”
He adds that “rainfall averages around 1375 mm a year with a record high of 3000 mm. Most rain occurs as heavy showers in a few months of the year”.
It’s the perfect coffee country, says Johane Jori of the Zimbabwe Coffee Mill (ZCM) Limited. This is why, back in 1992, a group of commercial and small-scale producers banded together to set up the coffee mill. Their aim was to process an additional 20,000 tons a year, bringing national capacity to 50,000 tons.
The Decline of Zimbabwean Coffee, in Numbers
In 1990, Zimbabwe produced 14,706 tonnes of mostly Arabica coffee from across 5,843 hectares (FAO). This is a remarkable green coffee yield of around 2.3 tonnes per ha; more than one third higher than any other African coffee nation. It still stands as record high productivity in Africa, with Ghana reaching 1.6 tonnes/ha in 2016.
This productivity was in part driven by private producers such as Boswell-Brown.
“One tonne per ha was not economic,” explains Boswell-Brown. “We needed two tonnes to make a profit, three to do well.” As such, they planted Catimor 128 variety for “its rust resistance, good yield and consistency. “It is a good workhorse,” he says.
But then, in 2000, the once prosperous nation fell into ruin. The political unrest and economic turmoil destroyed the coffee industry as militants seized private farms and forced their owners out of the country. They left behind productive farms and thousands of plantation workers, their families, and communities to face poverty.
Before 2000, there were around 180 medium to large family farms, several thousand small-scale producers and a handful of corporate estates, Johane Jori told Eastern News.
But today, the fallen coffee industry has yet to recover. In 2016, only 414 tonnes were harvested, produced on 1,784 ha. Three commercial estates and subsistence coffee farmers still eke out a living, according to Kenneth Chikanga, Editor of the Zimbabwe Digital News.
In 2017, the World Food Program reported 63percent of rural households in Zimbabwe lived below the poverty line with 27percent of children under five stunted from malnutrition. It’s a different country.
A Coffee-Less Zimbabwe
Had Zimbabwe coffee production continued its trajectory of innovation, cooperation and international research, it would no doubt still be famous today for its exquisite profiles and good yield. However, history intervened.
From the late 1990s until 2010, Zimbabwe struggled on several fronts.
The World Bank reports (here and here) a mismanaged economy, cash and foreign currency shortages, fiscal indiscipline and budget deficits, low confidence and almost no foreign direct investment. It had a ballooning trade deficit, corruption concerns, low productivity, a rigid regulatory environment and other negative economic fundamentals.
The once busy and prosperous coffee farming families like mine were displaced. Other than Crake Valley Farm, Tanganda Estates, and Farfell Estates, there has been little meaningful coffee production in Zimbabwe since 2010. The few surviving operations continue to be dedicated to producing reliable high-quality coffee for the local and international market, says Boswell Brown, who on Crake Valley Farm exports 70percent of his crop.
On coffee estates like my family’s, the coffee trees are dead or have been removed and used for fuel wood. Deforestation and poor farming and management practices have taken their toll on soil fertility. Erosion has led to the siltation of waterways, reduced water quality, and a long-term decline in food security. The factory that was once a vibrant hub lies in ruins and needs large capital investment to bring it back.
In 2017, the World Vision Zimbabwe Child Wellbeing Report expressed concern that a cash crisis would once again fuel inflation. Poor rural households have limited access to agricultural inputs and cash income for food, medicines and emergencies.
Bowell-Brown tells me that banks restrict cash withdrawals, which in turn results in farmers queuing for days to access cash to pay farm workers and buy inputs. A bag of fertilizer in Zimbabwe is almost 40percent more expensive than the exact same product in South Africa.
But things are changing in Zimbabwe. In late November 2017, the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa displaced the 37-year-long rule of Robert Mugabe. As many analysts have written, this may an opportunity for Zimbabwe to implement economic and political reform.
And despite its tumultuous recent history, Zimbabwe’s potential remains. It is a country generously endowed with natural resources and a young and comparatively skilled population.
New Opportunities for Coffee Producers
Agricultural economist Midway Bhunu says restarting Zimbabwe’s coffee industry requires a business-enabling environment, confidence, and the availability of patient capital, good governance and political stability.
“Speciality coffee has many virtues and can make a positive impact on rural communities”, said Midway. However, the technical, financial and time investments required to produce a reliable supply of specialty coffee needs a foundation of established coffee gardens and supportive social and governance systems.
Midway believes that the government may re-establish the security of land tenure – arguably Zimbabwe’s biggest obstacle for coffee investments. Rejuvenating existing or establishing new coffee gardens requires large capital investment as well as skilled management to oversee them from nursery to harvest in four years’ time. Secure land tenure and a significantly improved business-enabling environment will encourage banks to lend to businesses. (Of course, this is not the only change that is needed. However, it would be a significant start in the right direction.)
“Let’s get straight to the point,” says Johane Jori of Zimbabwe Coffee Mill.
“Private sector development is a critical step to rejuvenating the coffee industry. Industry diagnostics [already] under way will help to explore intervention possibilities and set the direction.”
Achieving consistent, high-quality, high-yielding coffee crops will take good agricultural practices, good governance, and patient private sector investment. But Midway tells me that Zimbabwe has the potential to take a lead among the 25 African coffee countries, says Midway.
Zimbabweans pride ourselves on our commitment to working together again for a bright future. As Midway says, we are looking forward to “ramangwana rakanaka”, a wonderful future.
- BUSINESS REPORT