Just a few decades ago, Cameroon was one of the biggest coffee producers in the world. However, in recent years, government policy has caused production figures to dwindle, and farmers have abandoned coffee in favour of other, more profitable crops.
Despite this decline, the country remains the 21st-largest coffee producer in the world, and there are many smallholder farmers and co-operatives in the country working towards a better future.
To learn more, I spoke to one of the country’s foremost coffee experts. He told me more about the problems facing Cameroonian coffee and how they might be addressed. Read on to learn more.
You may also like our article on Mozambique: a new frontier for coffee production.
A brief history of Cameroonian coffee
Cameroon was once the second-largest coffee producer and exporter in Africa. Its annual production figures were as high as 132,000 metric tonnes in the mid-1980s. The country’s largest ever yield was 156,000 metric tonnes, reported in 1990.
Coffee production started in Cameroon in the late 19th century. In the 1880s, German settlers set up trial coffee farms in Victoria, Ebolowa, Nkongsamba, and Dschang.
Production later expanded to other regions, including Yokadouma, Abong-Mbang, Doumé, Lomié, and Akonolinga. By 1928, 200,000 coffee seedlings had been planted in Dschang alone. Between 1960 and the early 1990s, the country doubled its production output, comprising around 2% of the global coffee market at the time.
However, a widespread push for liberalisation in the country’s agriculture sector in the early 1990s caused farmers to look elsewhere for more financially viable crops.
Despite the fact that its production volumes have been in decline for some 30 years, Cameroon is still the 21st largest coffee producer in the world, producing around 34,000 tonnes of coffee a year. The country’s coffee sector employs some hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of which are based in its rural heartland.
Modern coffee production
According to ICO statistics, Cameroonian coffee production fell by almost 50% between 2000 and 2010, dropping from over 65,000 to just over 36,000 tonnes. Production has remained low since 2010, never passing the 40,000 metric tonne mark. Its worst production year was 2014, when barely 22,000 tonnes of coffee were produced.
However, beyond issues with market liberalisation, productivity is also low. This is true for the country’s dominant robusta crops as well as its arabica trees.
There are several reasons for this low productivity. They include poor management practices, ageing coffee trees, an inadequate supply of fertilisers, poor soil health, and competition from other cash crops such as cacao.
The total area used for coffee production has also declined, having fallen by more than 100,000ha between 1970 and the early 2000s. Considering the continued decline in production, it’s likely that this area is even smaller today.
What kind of coffee is grown in Cameroon?
Matti Foncha is President of the Africa Coffee Trading Group, an expert on Cameroonian coffee, and the initiator of the Cameroon Boyo trading model. He says that both arabica and robusta are grown in the country, although robusta dominates.
“Arabica is produced in the west and northwest (English-speaking) parts of Cameroon,” he says. “This continues all the way to the French-speaking parts of the country, stopping maybe 150 miles from the ocean.”
Robusta, meanwhile, is predominantly grown in Littoral province, but to some extent in the Southwest, West, Adamawa, and East provinces, as well.
Matti adds: “The main varieties of arabica in Cameroon include Typica from Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region, first grown in the English-speaking part of Cameroon. The French introduced some Bourbon in the early 20th century.
“These two were dominant until the 1960s and 1970s, when the government introduced the Java variety. This was replaced in the 1980s and 1990s by an improved version of Java that was [disease and pest] resistant.”
Cameroonian coffee is harvested from September to December. While the cup profile for arabica is varied, Cameroonian robusta is said to have a rich, full, and nutty taste that is perfect for blending.
Co-ops & coffee processing
According to Matti, the co-operative structure in Cameroon was developed during the 1960s. He is critical of it today, however, and says that it’s full of “rampant corruption”.
He says that when coffee co-operatives first started in the country, the system worked well. It took care of the country’s smallholder farmers, providing them with materials, inputs, chemicals, and any necessary farming equipment.
However, he says that conflict and corruption have since caused the co-operatives to become a shadow of their former selves.
He also notes that the country’s coffee producers largely wash and process coffee themselves at their homesteads, using buckets. This, he says, prevents uniformity in processing, causing a decrease in quality.
Matti says that some farming organisations like his are starting to offer alternatives. These are what he describes as “micro washing stations” which can help address this issue with uniformity.
Matti’s organisation has also formed a “circle of excellence”, which relies on self-governing groups of 20 farmers who strive for higher-quality processing.
The organisation had built three pilot stations when the conflict in Cameroon started in 2017. Matti says that many farmers are currently sticking to natural processing due to instability in the region. He says that it’s very difficult to facilitate washed coffee processing in a conflict zone, as it requires constant attention.
“With naturals you can do some reconditioning and get back to good standards,” he says. “With washed coffees, however, if anything happens and you are forced to abandon it, you lose the entire coffee. There’s no coming back.”
Trade, quality & marketing
Historically, Cameroonian farmers would handpick their coffee and deliver it to agents who roamed from farm to farm during harvest periods. Today, however, most farmers sell their coffee to buying agents who come to the villages with cash.
Farmers generally sell their coffee in parchment, with a few selling it as cherry to be processed at a later date.
In some cases, co-operatives have marketing systems where they sell coffee on behalf of the farmers they represent. However, Matti notes that because of the corruption in some co-operative systems, farmers are sometimes promised bonuses which never materialise.
Matti explains that this is part of a wider issue with coffee price sustainability in Cameroon. He says that many smallholder farmers are paid unsustainable prices, which do not allow them to invest in their farm or improve the circumstances for their families.
What are the challenges for Cameroonian coffee?
Matti tells me that armed conflict remains the single biggest challenge facing Cameroonian agriculture as a whole – coffee and beyond.
Since the conflict (known internationally as the “Anglophone Crisis”) began in 2017, infrastructure and road networks have been abandoned, making logistics difficult.
On top of this, however, the country’s coffee sector faces its own set of challenges. They include the following:
- Liberalisation of the coffee sector, as mentioned above. This first happened in the 1990s. Before liberalisation, the government provided technical support, fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides, planting materials, and other extended services to the coffee farmers. However, since liberalisation, the private sector has been unable to step in and fill the void.
- Poor coffee prices. This has led to the total abandonment of many coffee farms as farmers shift to other crops. It’s also caused farmers to develop a negative perception of coffee.
- Ageing coffee trees. Older trees have consistently low yields, which will continue to be low until they are replanted (a costly endeavour).
- Farming knowledge and good agronomic practices are highly limited. Farming is still centred on traditional techniques.
- High production costs. Coffee production is labour-intensive, and coffee plants require more attention than other crops (such as cocoa). This is compounded by a labour shortage.
- A generational skills gap. Younger, more educated Cameroonians are also less willing to go back to village life and farm like their parents did.
- Challenges with coffee processing and quality. These include inconsistent moisture levels (due to poor natural processing). These problems occur at farm level, as there is limited knowledge regarding coffee processing, as well as at collection level, as there is a lack of quality guidelines among buyers.
- High costs of agricultural supplies and a lack of affordable credit. This makes fertilisers and other inputs inaccessible for most farmers.
To remedy these issues, the development of a comprehensive National Coffee Rehabilitation Project has been proposed by local experts. While funding is yet to be secured, stakeholders are hopeful that the project can help to revitalise Cameroonian coffee.
This long list of challenges mean that it is, if nothing else, an uphill battle for Cameroon’s coffee sector. Serious change will be needed if the country is to recover to the highs of the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s clear that some impetus from the public sector will be necessary, as will a co-ordinated effort to educate and support producers and coffee-growing communities. If they become more informed, Cameroonian coffee producers could in turn command a higher price for their crop.
There is also a need for better incentives, which could encourage farmers to re-engage with the coffee industry. As mentioned, most Cameroonian farmers are reluctant to produce coffee. It’s unlikely that they will be convinced otherwise without access to credit and the financial motivation to do so.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article of the origins of coffee in Africa.
Photo credits: Pexels, Matti Foncha
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