October 13, 2021

A guide to Tanzanian coffee production


Tanzania is the fourth-largest coffee producer in Africa, behind Ethiopia, Uganda, and Cote D’Ivoire. Despite this, the local coffee industry has faced challenges in recent years, with yields falling since a peak in the late 1990s. 

Despite this downward trend, coffee remains a key driver of the Tanzanian economy, and is the country’s largest export crop. So, how are things changing, and what are producers looking to do?

To answer this question and learn more, I spoke with a local coffee industry expert. He told me more about Tanzania’s coffee industry and how it aims to increase its production figures. Read on to learn more.

You may also like our article on the origins of coffee in Africa.

Tanzania’s coffee industry: A profile

Coffee was introduced to Tanzania from the Réunion, a French island off the east coast of Africa formerly known as Bourbon. Although it arrived as early as the 16th century, it did not receive major attention in the region until the arrival of German missionaries some 200 years later. 

Since the 19th century, coffee has been one of the most important exports in the country. It only makes up 0.7% of the global coffee trade, but it is the largest export crop in Tanzania – and has only recently been overtaken by other industries, such as tourism and mining.

It is estimated that over 320,000 smallholder farming households are responsible for 95% of the coffee production in the country. 

These families farm an average area of 0.5 to 1.0 hectares each, with the remaining 5% of all coffee produced by some 110 estates. An estimated two million additional people are employed either directly or indirectly in Tanzania’s coffee industry.

However, since the late 1990s, production figures have stagnated and fallen in various parts of the country, settling somewhere around 50,000 metric tonnes. They reached a brief peak in the mid-2000s, but broadly speaking, the industry is struggling to increase its production volumes.

This is for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notable was the arrival of coffee wilt disease in 1997. This disease (which affects both arabica and robusta plants) is caused by the tracheomycosis fungus, and results in the irreversible death of the coffee plant. 

Since the late 1990s, coffee wilt disease and a number of other environmental challenges have meant that individual plant yields have decreased. Furthermore, farmgate prices in Tanzania remain low. 

Growing regions and production profile

Keremba Brian Warioba is director and founder of Communal Shamba Coffee, a Tanzanian organisation that describes itself as a “catalyst for long-term social change”. Its works with smallholder farmers in the country’s Southern Highlands to support them to harvest and process their coffee.

Keremba says that Tanzania produces both robusta and arabica coffee, over 90% of which is exported. He notes that arabica is principally produced in the Ruvuma, Mbeya, Arusha, and Songwe regions, which are all located in the country’s Southern Highlands. 

However, coffee is also cultivated on the Tanzanian slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in the northern reaches of the country, often under the shade of banana trees. Areas such as the Mara region also grow arabica in this part of the country.

Keremba adds that arabica comprises 70% of all coffee grown in Tanzania, and says that the main varieties are Bourbon and Kent. However, other popular varieties include Typica, Nyassa, and N39. 

The Tanzania Coffee Research Institute has also released some more experimental varieties to local producers, which include SC 3, SC 11, SC 14, SC 9, and KP 423.

Robusta, however, makes up the remaining 30%. “This is produced primarily in the Kagera region, in the north west of the country, by the shores of Lake Victoria,” Keremba explains.

As with many major African origins, Tanzanian arabica is classically associated with the washed coffee profile: clean, bright, and floral. 

However, the split in arabica production between the country’s mountainous Northern Zone and rainy Southern Highlands means that there is a distinct difference in flavour between the two.

Northern coffees tend to have a pleasant aroma, a rich acidity and mouthfeel, and a sweet, balanced taste. These characteristics are derived from the mineral nutrients found in the region’s mountainous volcanic soils.

Southern coffees, meanwhile, are characteristically medium-bodied with fine acidity. They generally have good fruity and floral aromas and flavours. 

coffee cherries

Harvest & processing

Harvest periods in Tanzania depend on the region, but the ICO includes the country in its July group.

Keremba says: “In the north, harvest runs from July to December, and the same is true in the south. However, in the west, harvest runs from May to October.”

However, once the coffee is picked, processing can be an issue for farmers who are far from washing stations. Some will depulp using hand pulpers and process themselves, but many deliver their cherries to central pulping units.

“Many co-operatives own these units,” Keremba says. “Some of the members carry out a level of home processing before delivering it to these societies. 

“There are curing stations in Tanzania that aim to add value to cherries by processing it to high-quality, very marketable green coffee.”

Some 90% of the arabica produced in the country is washed. After processing and drying, however, coffee is then graded. Tanzania has its own grading system with a dozen individual grades: AAA, AA, A, B, PB, C, E, F, AF, TT, UG, and TEX. 

It goes without saying that the bigger the size, the more money the bean fetches. Perhaps the most popular among the grades is the Tanzanian Peaberry (PB), which is extremely sought after in both Japan and the USA.

Robusta, however, is typically natural processed. After drying, it is also graded according to size. However, Keremba notes that some experiments are underway with washed robusta and both natural and honey arabica, as producers try to diversify the cup profile of their crop.

Structure of coffee production & processing

“Smallholder farmers are organised into what we call agricultural marketing co-operative societies (AMCOS),” Keremba says. “Each AMCOS is the equivalent of a traditional co-operative.”

The AMCOS model became more prominent after the government introduced a number of dramatic, sudden regulatory changes to the coffee sector in 2018. 

Before these changes, both private buyers and exporters could buy both cherry and parchment, alongside co-operatives purchasing them from individual farmers. However, the new regulations stipulated that only co-operatives could buy cherry and parchment. 

These regulations came into effect with little notice just a few years ago. In the months afterwards, several local banks in coffee producing regions were forced to close, and a handful of private investors pulled out completely. 

Today, the AMCOS model is prominent in the Shilanga, Itete, Ilomba, Idiwili, Shinzingo, and Sambewe regions, among many others. 

Trade and marketing

“In Tanzania, large estates are licensed to process and sell their own coffee,” Keremba says. This is usually through direct export.” 

In the past, coffee buyers, exporters, and coffee processors in Tanzania generally preferred to buy coffee cherries, rather than green beans. This gave them more control over the washing process, as the quality of washing and drying can vary widely between smallholder farmers.

This was the case until 2018, when the new regulations came into effect. Now, coffee is broadly only sold as green, either through auction or through direct export. 

There are a number of regional coffee exchanges in Tanzania, including Songwe, Mbinga, and the main auction in Moshi. Auctions are held weekly on every Thursday, depending on the season and volumes. 

At these auctions, AMCOS offer coffee on behalf of farmers, and only licensed buyers and coffee dealers are allowed to bid.

However, beyond the auction system, there is an active “internal market” in Tanzania. This is where farmers sell their coffee to private coffee buyers, farmer groups, and co-operatives at farmgate prices. Coffee is sold as both cherry and parchment.

Some farmers of higher-quality coffee are also permitted to bypass the auction framework and sell their coffee directly. This enables farmers to establish long-term relationships with roasters and international traders.

The main export destinations for Tanzanian coffee are Japan, Italy, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and Finland. 

Challenges facing the industry

Alongside the aforementioned issues with coffee wilt disease, there are a number of reasons that Tanzania’s coffee production figures are stalling.

Firstly, Keremba notes that Tanzanian coffee plants are broadly very old. 

“A large number of older coffee trees in Tanzania are not capable of realising their full potential of yields,” he says. “Farmers are paying the price for it. 

“Beyond that, highly volatile coffee prices and other factors cause dramatic fluctuations in Tanzania’s coffee production.”

Infrastructure is also an issue. A lack of access to mechanised irrigation systems is one of the biggest challenges facing smallholder farmers, who often struggle to source water at critical periods during the growing season.

“Tanzania also suffers from poor agricultural practices in many cases because of a lack of extension services and technical support,” Keremba adds. “This hampers production and thereby increases the cost of production.”

He concludes by noting that farmers also struggle to access credit and farming inputs. Generally, he says, fertiliser and pesticide use is low, leading to issues with pests and diseases.

Finally, there is a reputational issue with the country’s coffee in Tanzania itself. Most Tanzanian coffee is exported, and very little remains for the underdeveloped internal market.

As a result, a 2020 report suggested that most Tanzanians consider local coffee to be low in quality, as the best product is exported. Even then, remaining good-quality coffee is generally sold to tourist attractions and does not make its way into the Tanzanian internal market.

While this is still an issue, things are changing, and domestic consumption is an upward trajectory. Around 7% of Tanzanian coffee is now consumed locally, up from 2% a couple of years ago.

Looking ahead

Despite these challenges, Keremba says that the future of the Tanzanian coffee sector looks very bright. Stakeholders across the supply chain are taking the sector seriously, with emphasis on quality, reducing production costs, and improving yields.

He says: “The Tanzania Coffee Board (TCB) is implementing a government sponsored coffee programme that aims to increase production to more than 300,000 tonnes by improving agricultural practices.”

This strategy will focus on seedling production and distributing agricultural inputs across Tanzania. It has already seen some success, with a reported 73,000 tonnes of green coffee produced in the 2020/21 crop year, up from figures of 50,000 tonnes in the past few years.

Farmers are also planting improved varieties, while the private sector is being encouraged to establish new farms entirely. Keremba adds that “high potential” areas are being developed to realise the full output of the sector.

Through a combination of efforts by co-operatives and the government, Tanzania’s national average yield is expected to increase from the current 250kg/ha to 600kg/ha as productivity initiatives take shape.

One of the country’s largest issues remains the lack of a prominent local coffee culture. If this hurdle can be overcome, perhaps the country’s perception of coffee will change, leading to progress throughout the production chain.

Keremba concludes by saying: “Watch out Kenya, watch out Ethiopia, the small brother is ready to step up. We are going straight to the top. In the next five to six years, we aim to be at the top of the production charts.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on tackling the challenges of trading coffee in East Africa.

Photo credits: Peter Gakuo, Unsplash

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