Hoe for Zimbabwean coffee?

Could Zimbabwean Coffee Once Again Be on Specialty Menus?

Perfect Daily Grind

1 March 2018

Could Zimbabwean Coffee Once Again Be on Specialty Menus?

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.

Freshly harvested coffee cherries on Crake Valley Farm, Zimbabwe. Credit: Crake Valley Farm, Boswell Brown

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 75% 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.

Excelsior Estates, a 150 ha commercial coffee farm situated in the Eastern Highlands bordering Mozambique. It used to produce around 255 tonnes of red cherry ever year. Credit: Nicole Motteux

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”. He tells me, “It is a good workhorse.”

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. Just three commercial estates and subsistence coffee farmers still eke out a living, according to Kenneth Chikanga, Editor of the Zimbabwe Digital News. And in 2017, the World Food Program reported 63% of rural households in Zimbabwe lived below the poverty line with 27% of children under five stunted from malnutrition. It’s a different country.

My Family’s Story

But to really understand what happened in Zimbabwe, we need to look at more than just numbers. We need to look at the stories of its producers, of people like my father and neighbours.

Winter in Zimbabwe, in the months of June and July, is the time for picking ripe red coffee cherries. In the late ‘70s, my father, Hugues Motteux, General Manager of Excelsior Estates, would be up with the rising sun – the best time of the day in Africa. Together with his field managers, he supervised the quality of the picking that was done by 100 staff and seasonal labourers.

Every year brought different challenges. In Zimbabwe, most rain occurs as heavy showers in a few months of the year and are triggered by the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns. However, severe droughts in 1982/1984 and 1991/1992 had an impact on production.

My father recalls that, in early days, there was limited meteorological information. Generally, though, “winds from the west to east and from north to south brought good rains. Strong winds from the east to the west during the day and night between July and November indicated drought.”

Boswell-Brown, my childhood neighbour, also remembers the 1990 drought, as well as the 1960 frost. “It taught us a lot, including the importance of mulching, water management, and not to plant in the valley bottoms,” he says. “We created a diversified and balanced farm ecosystem to restore soil nutrients, quality and flavour to the coffee and guard against droughts and frosts.”.....

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