April 14, 2021

“Remodelling to make a real difference”: Coffee production in Zimbabwe

In the early 1990s, Zimbabwe was a recognised coffee producer. The country’s sector supported more than 20,000 farmers, who produced more than 15,000 tonnes of coffee a year.

However, a wave of domestic agricultural reforms at the turn of the century signalled a change. Low market prices, extreme weather conditions, and diminishing interest from buyers caused production volumes to fall to historic lows. Many producers abandoned coffee altogether in favour of other cash crops.

Today, production volumes in Zimbabwe remain well below their peak of a few decades ago, at little more than 500 tonnes per year. But thanks to a number of public and private sector initiatives, Zimbabwe’s coffee sector is recovering. Producers are starting to cultivate coffee again, and doing so is becoming a more attractive prospect. To learn more, I spoke with a Zimbabwean agronomist and a sustainable coffee expert. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article on yield and profitability on coffee farms.

An overview of Zimbabwean coffee

Zimbabwean coffee is cultivated in the country’s Eastern Highlands, near the border with Mozambique. The harvest season runs from May to September. Coffee farms in the country span over 9,500 hectares, the majority of which belong to smallholder farmers.

The country’s mountainous Eastern Highlands are well-suited to the production of arabica coffee, offering healthy levels of rainfall, fertile soil, cool temperatures, and altitudes of around 1,000 m.a.s.l.

Within the highlands, there are a number of regions which are known for producing coffee. Many of these are located in Manicaland, the country’s second-most populous province. These include the districts of Chipinge, Chimanimani, Mutasa, and Mutare (including the Vumba Mountains).

There is also the Honde Valley, which runs from the country’s eastern border into Mozambique, about 850 m.a.s.l. The valley is home to a number of tea and coffee estates, thanks to the fact that it receives good rainfall all year round.

Catimor is popular across coffee farms in the country, particularly in the Chipinge District, thanks to its resistance to coffee leaf rust and good yields. Other popular varieties include SL-14, SL-28, SL-34, and Caturra.

While the cup profile of Zimbabwean coffee varies, it is often well-balanced and medium-bodied with bright berry-like or citric acidity. It generally has a rich, complex flavour and aroma with common tasting notes including chocolate and wine.

The fall of coffee production in Zimbabwe

Admire Chamisa is an agronomist based in Zimbabwe. He says: “In Africa, Zimbabwe was once the ‘prince of arabica’.”

The period Admire refers to is the early 1990s, when Zimbabwean coffee production was at its peak. At the time, Zimbabwean farmers were cultivating 15,000 metric tonnes per year, placing it among the top 30 coffee producers by volume in the world.

However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zimbabwean coffee production fell sharply. An estimated 97% of the country’s total coffee crop was lost, with annual production dropping below 400 tonnes. 

This downturn has been attributed to a series of governmental agricultural reforms, chief among which was the redistribution of some of the country’s most successful coffee farms.

“The government embarked on a plan to retake farms from white settlers and redistribute the land to citizens,” Admire explains. 

“This had a devastating and far-reaching impact on the coffee sector, because these citizens lacked the knowledge required to run a farm,” he adds. “They didn’t know how to prune, and some couldn’t even follow the coffee calendar.”

This sudden transition, combined with extreme weather conditions and low market prices, caused production volumes to plummet. 

In the 1980s, Zimbabwe’s “coffee belt”, spanning its eastern border with Mozambique, was home to more than 100 coffee farms. Less than 20 years on, after this downturn, few remained.

Starting again: Outside investment

At the turn of the century, many Zimbabwean coffee farmers were left with no choice but to abandon their farms and focus on other cash crops like maize and tobacco. Coffee prices had slumped, and overseas buyers had looked elsewhere following the implementation of the aforementioned agricultural reforms.

However, in recent years, these farmers have started to return to coffee. Investment from Swiss coffee brand Nespresso, the NGO TechnoServe, and other public sector initiatives from across Europe have supported the recovery of Zimbabwe’s coffee sector.

Admire says: “TechnoServe and other NGOs are teaching farmers about the importance of a united front, helping with things like the marketing and processing of their coffee.”

Dr. Nicole Motteux is a sustainable coffee advocate whose work includes promoting responsibly produced and environmentally-friendly coffee. 

She tells me that Nespresso have also been paying Zimbabwean coffee farmers premiums for their coffee to drive this revival and encourage more farmers to return.

Nicole says: “Since the launch of Nespresso’s Reviving Origins programme in May 2019, we’ve seen an increase in the number of small scale coffee farmers.” In Zimbabwe, the programme works with farmers in the Honde Valley region, with a focus on improving productivity and sustainability.

Nicole tells me that in her opinion, these initiatives are not aimed at revival, but instead “remodelling” for a new era of coffee production.

“Most people are just talking about ‘reviving’ coffee in Zimbabwe,” she says. “It’s more about remodelling in preparation for a new phase in coffee production. There is the opportunity to invest in good agriculture practices, produce quality coffee, and engage with markets to attract higher prices and increase producer income.

“It’s time to rethink the industry, to remodel it to make a real difference, not only to people’s lives, but also to the environment.”

What does the future hold?

Things are already changing for the better for Zimbabwe’s coffee sector – while there is still a long way to go, TechnoServe predicts that around 2,000 smallholder farmers will return to cultivating coffee by 2025.

Admire also notes that there are now more young coffee growers than ever before in the country. He says that thanks to the support of various NGOs working in Zimbabwe, they are equipped with the skills to produce high-quality coffee. 

This is important for the future of the Zimbabwean coffee sector. In many coffee producing countries around the world, an aging workforce and a lack of interest from younger generations is creating a skill gap.

However, farmers aren’t the only ones driving this remodelling of Zimbabwean coffee. The country’s younger generations, many of whom have returned from studying abroad, are fuelling increased domestic coffee consumption in Zimbabwe’s cities and towns. A small number of roasters, like Mushe Coffee in Marondera, are even bringing higher quality coffee to locals and tourists alike.

Admire believes that this increase in coffee consumption and greater visibility among the country’s younger generations will be key to the return of Zimbabwean coffee production. 

“Since the arrival of the new president, groups of young people have been cropping up with the goal of reshaping the country’s coffee scene,” he says. “The social media generation is becoming increasingly curious about locally grown coffee; they want cappuccinos and espressos.”

However, there’s still work to do. Along with price instability and political unrest, some stakeholders fear producers are overdependent on investment from European brands and public sector initiatives. While their work has helped breathe new life into Zimbabwean coffee production, some worry that one day it will all be gone.

Nicole says that in her opinion, Zimbabwean farmers need to prepare for this eventuality by becoming as self-sufficient as possible.

“They need to get ‘brand ready’ and learn to engage with markets. The next step is turning smallholder farms into more business-focused operations. They need to reinvest and boost their production and quality.”

Less than a decade ago, coffee production in Zimbabwe was on the brink of collapse. Drastic land reforms had led to farms being redistributed among inexperienced coffee producers, who were subsequently vulnerable to price fluctuation and adverse weather conditions.

However, things are changing, and the country’s coffee sector is starting to recover. While it is still a long way off its peak of 30 years ago, but domestic interest, overseas investment, and continued technical assistance programmes all point to a positive remodelling of the coffee sector for Zimbabwean producers. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how technical assistance supports coffee producers.

Photo credits: Nicole Motteux

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