July 20, 2021

Mozambique: A new frontier for coffee production

Mozambique isn’t the first country people think of when they talk about coffee. It has historically produced negligible volumes of coffee, and both conflict and extreme weather patterns have stifled agriculture in the country for years.

In spite of this, the coffee sector in Mozambique is beginning to show some signs of life. Alongside the small-scale cultivation of the rare Coffea racemosa species, there has also been major investment in the Gorongosa National Park to support farmers.

To learn more, I spoke with representatives from Cultivar Coffee and Our Gorongosa, two groups involved with coffee production in Mozambique that seek to revive coffee production in the country. Read on to see what they told me.

coffee cherries

A history of coffee in Mozambique

Coffee has never been a key component of the Mozambican economy. It’s believed that it was first brought to the country by Portuguese colonists, who did attempt to cultivate coffee at a small scale when they arrived. 

However, after some time, it was decided that they would designate Angola (another Portuguese territory) for colonial coffee production, which remained a major robusta producer well into the early 1970s. However, in Mozambique, the focus shifted to growing tea.

After the Portuguese left in 1975, the landscape of the country’s agriculture sector only became more complex. A civil war in the country spanned from 1977 to 1992, and by the late 1980s, Mozambique was producing an average of just 1,000 metric tonnes per year. 

Since then, there has been a slow but steady decline. The most recent statistics from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation show that Mozambique produced just 827 tonnes of coffee in 2019.

This can, in some instances, be attributed to the difficulties the country’s agriculture sector faces. Conflict in the northern parts of the country has displaced more than 700,000 people over the last four years, according to the UN.

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2021, Tropical Cyclone Eloise struck the same region, which includes large swathes of farmland. More than 300,000 people were directly affected.

Eloise was also the country’s second severe storm in the space of two years. Two years earlier, Cyclone Kenneth made landfall, destroying 90% of homes on Ibo Island – one of a handful of places in the world where racemosa coffee is grown.

smiling woman

Modern coffee production in Mozambique

In 2018, Mozambique’s national income from just a few hundred tonnes of coffee was US $63,000. Export destinations included Belgium, Luxembourg, and South Africa. 

Today, Gorongosa National Park is the primary source of all Mozambican coffee, which is grown in a 600,000ha buffer zone on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa.

Quentin Haarhoff has spent more than 16 years working with large and small-scale coffee farmers in central and southern Africa. He’s now the Coffee Manager at Gorongosa National Park, which grows and exports coffee under the Our Gorongosa brand.

Our Gorongosa was established in 2019 to support sustainable development in the national park, using coffee as a means of generating income. 

Quentin says: “When I got here in 2007, these farmers had not even produced one bag of coffee.”

He adds that Our Gorongosa is investing its resources into improving coffee farming across Mozambique, as well as co-ordinating efforts to preserve farm biodiversity.

More than 600 local farmers are involved in the Gorongosa Project. The aim is to grow arabica coffee under shade trees in agroforestry systems through the park, simultaneously regenerating the rainforest and generating sustainable income for local agricultural communities.

At Gorongosa, farmers are encouraged to plant native trees among their coffee plants. Reliable rainfall means the trees are well-irrigated. Quentin also notes that Gorongosa coffee is organic – waste from the coffee trees is composted and reused as natural fertiliser.

The park currently has about 200ha of farmland, which are reliably producing coffees that score 82 or 83 points. Another 100ha will be planted every year for the next eight years, with the aim of hitting a total of 1,000ha by the late 2020s.

Processing, sorting, and grading all take place in the park itself. Some of it is roasted on-site for the Mozambican market, but the majority is shipped to roasters in the UK and USA, who pay a premium.

Gorongosa coffee is starting to receive recognition from other brands across the industry, too. At the beginning of 2020, Nespresso committed to aiding the project in Gorongosa as part of its Reviving Origins programme. 

mozambique landscape

Why Gorongosa National Park?

Quentin says that Gorongosa is one of the few places in Mozambique suited for arabica cultivation, based on rainfall, temperature, and altitude, among other factors.

It also offers perfect conditions for farmers to grow other crops, which helps them to diversify and improve their financial security. Bananas, pineapples and piri-piri chilies are a few of the plants that thrive alongside Gorongosa’s coffee trees, providing food for local communities. 

Coffee production also creates jobs, and promotes the conservation and regeneration of the forest. However, Quentin notes that growing crops in Gorongosa is not especially straightforward.

Quentin says: “It’s really wild, it’s really inaccessible, and it’s very difficult to operate in [Gorongosa National Park]. There’s also a war that is only just finishing. But [Mozambique has] got this wonderful national park where the health of the forest is linked to coffee growing.”

Gorongosa coffee is sold both in the United Kingdom and the United States. In many cases, much of the profits go back into Gorongosa National Park to provide education, support the community, and preserve biodiversity. 

This income is essential. Nearly 30% of the rainforest has been lost to civil war and subsistence farming over the last 15 years alone. 

white flower

Coffea racemosa

Alongside arabica cultivation in Gorongosa, however, there is a rare coffee species that is indigenous to this part of the world: racemosa.

Racemosa is so rare, in fact, that it only grows natively in a 150km2 band of indigenous forest that stretches from northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to southern Mozambique. 

According to Cultivar Coffee, this species is extremely resilient to drought and can survive up to nine months without water. It is able to thrive in sandy soils, and is naturally resistant to most pests. It’s also on the endangered species list in South Africa.

The plant takes the form of an open-branched shrub that reaches a height of up to 3.5 metres (about 11.5 feet). The white or pinkish flowers bloom in September, and yield round cherries which take on a dark purple or black colour when ripe.

However, the beans are about one-third of the size of regular arabica beans. They also have a low caffeine level, equivalent to around half the level of arabica, and about one-quarter of the level in robusta. This gives it market potential as an alternative for consumers who are caffeine-sensitive.

In recent years, racemosa has been hybridised with arabica to create the Aramosa variety. Aramosa has become popular with some specialty coffee enthusiasts, with several award-winning lots roasted by The Barn in Berlin.

Cultivar’s Charles Denison has worked with this slow-growing coffee species for years. He is also a qualified Q grader.

He says that he first heard about racemosa from a woman in Mozambique who used to grow it herself and roast it in a repurposed washing machine. Shortly after meeting her, Charles and his team bought as many seed stocks as they could.

He says: “At that time it was just her backyard project. She may have had only 2,000 trees.” 

Although the project is still in its experimental stages, Charles says that they have nearly 3,000 seedlings now, of which around 2,000 are kept in nurseries. 

However, even with all of these seedlings, there is still some doubt as to what a fully-matured racemosa tree “should” look like. All we do know is that these trees are extremely hardy.

Charles says that the Cultivar team is determined to prove the viability of these trees and the coffee they produce. After that, he hopes to be able to open up to buyers, with the aim of growing awareness of and the market for this coffee.

It is still very much unknown, and wasn’t even officially cupped until 2020, when Paradise Roasters in Minneapolis, Minnesota scored some of Cultivar’s racemosa.

At this point, the medium-light roast was described as “richly bittersweet” and “deep-toned”, with notes of “hop flowers, pink peppercorn, tangerine zest, quince, [and] fresh-cut fir in aroma and cup”. 

According to other distributors online, racemosa’s flavour profile is light, refreshing, and slightly smoky. It apparently has tasting notes of raw cacao and liquorice, as well as a distinctive earthy tone.

For all its challenges, Mozambique is clearly a unique coffee origin. From coffee production in Gorongosa to the cultivation of racemosa, there are plenty of interesting developments to keep an eye on.

If either of the markets grow for racemosa or Gorongosa arabica, there are sure to be new opportunities for Mozambican farming communities that have relied on subsistence agriculture.

“Anything that can support these farmers and bring more opportunity is going to be a good thing,” Quentin concludes. “We are in a unique situation in a unique part of Africa that hardly anybody knows anything about in the coffee sector.”

Enjoyed this? You might want to read our guide to Malawi, too.

Photo credits: Charles Denison, Quentin Haarhoff

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