October 5, 2021

Exploring Zambia as a coffee origin

As is common in many producing countries in Africa, coffee was first introduced to Zambia by missionaries. Here, however, it arrived comparatively late, in the 1950s.

Zambian coffee production has risen steadily since then, especially after the country first started exporting internationally in 1985. However, the modern Zambian coffee industry faces many challenges, including many related to a lack of accessible finance and investment.

This, among other issues, is why Zambia produces comparatively small volumes of coffee. At present, it ranks 51st in the world for coffee production, having grown an average of around 1,500 tonnes a year since the turn of the 21st century.

To learn more about the challenges the sector faces, I spoke with a local industry expert. Read on to learn more.

You may also like our article exploring the DRC as a coffee origin.

female barista

Zambian coffee: A profile

Most Zambian coffee comes from the country’s mountainous Northern Province, and is grown at elevations between 1,300 and 1,600 m.a.s.l. Coffee is also grown around the country’s capital, Lusaka. Zambian coffee is generally washed, with a sweet, bright acidity, 

As Zambia is located on the plateau of central Africa, most of the country is 1,000 m.a.s.l. above sea level or higher, meaning that it provides the minimum suitable altitude for growing arabica coffee. This means that it is not just capable of growing high-quality washed arabica, but actually that it exclusively grows arabica – including some specialty-grade plants.

Common varieties include SL-28 from Kenya, as well as some Catimor, which is largely grown because of its disease and pest resistance.

According to the African Fine Coffee Association, Zambian coffees are generally full-bodied with sweet, mild acidity and pleasant flavours. Olam Specialty Coffee’s website describes its Zambian coffee as being “dominated by fruit notes, predominantly citrus fruits with berry and melon accents”.

Some Zambian SL-28 micro lots have scored as high as 89, albeit in small quantities.  These are mainly specially-grown coffees which have been experimentally processed.

ripening coffee cherries

A history of coffee production in Zambia

Before the introduction of coffee to Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia was known until 1964), most of the country’s exports were from its rich copper deposits. In 2020, copper still accounted for 73% of all Zambian exports, showing that it remains a huge part of the country’s economy.

Zambia was also comparatively slow to start cultivating coffee, with missionaries only introducing the crop in the latter half of the 20th century. 

This meant, compared to other African coffee-growing nations, that there was little expertise about coffee production in the country. Most of the knowledge about how to grow the crop came from British colonists.

Once farmers did start growing coffee, however, they encountered a challenge almost immediately: disease

The plants introduced to Zambia struggled in its subtropical climate, despite the fact that it offered relatively good elevations for growing coffee. This meant small yields, and harvests were largely insufficient for any kind of export.

farmer harvesting coffee

The World Bank’s plan to revive Zambian coffee

In its quest to help the Zambian government diversify its economy away from copper exports, the World Bank established a number of coffee projects throughout the country in the 1970s. These all aimed at finding the most suitable and productive varieties for Zambia’s coffee farms.

It was later joined by the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), which worked with the Zambian government and the United Nations Development Programme to assist smallholder farmers across the country.

The project used Kenyan coffee as a framework, as Kenya was already a well-established coffee origin at the time. The country started by adopting the Kenyan green coffee grading and classification system as the first real method of quality assessment.

The project’s aim was to encourage the cultivation of high-quality coffee at the lowest possible costs. The bulk of production was concentrated in large and well-organised coffee estates in the Northern Province. 

However, the project did also seek to encourage smallholder coffee production, helping thousands of Zambians in rural poverty make a living through coffee growing. 

Originally, the World Bank had set out to establish around 600 new smallholder farmers in the Northern Province, providing seedlings and technical support. The project was an overwhelming success: by the mid-80s, this number had nearly doubled.

In the years that followed, total annual production rose from 70 to almost 400 metric tonnes. Zambia was given an annual quota of 350 metric tonnes by the ICO, and started commercially exporting coffee in 1985.

coffee blossoms

The Zambian coffee sector today

The Zambian coffee industry is divided between smallholders growing on fewer than 10ha of land, and five large-scale farming groups.

Four of these five estates are located in Mazabuka (Southern Province), Lusaka (Lusaka Province), Serenje (Central Province), and the city of Kasama. However, the fifth (and largest, responsible for around 97% of all exportable Zambian coffee) is the Northern Coffee Corporation, with three estates in Kasama and two in Mbala.

Two of the Northern Coffee Corporation’s three Kasama estates can actually be traced back to a 1978 project by the World Bank. This then became a government-owned company, known as the Northern Coffee Company.

However, in 2012, the company was acquired by Olam International and renamed. Its five estates presently cultivate slightly over 3,500ha of coffee-growing land. It is the only entity producing coffee in Zambia that is both Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certified.

Teija Lublinkhof is the owner of Peaberry Coffee Roasters and the Chairperson of the Zambia Coffee Growers Association (ZCGA).

“The Coffee Board of Zambia is the highest government policy making body for the Zambian coffee sector,” she explains. “However, on its board there are representatives from the private sector coffee farming and roasting sectors.

“The ZCGA is a wing of the Coffee Board of Zambia. It is wholly run by Zambian coffee growers, providing services on behalf of its members to the government and international organisations. These include marketing, quality assessment, milling, export documentation and shipping.”

Teija says that Zambian coffee exports reached a peak in the 2004/05 crop year, at 6,654 tonnes of green coffee. However, since then, these figures have largely fallen year-on-year.

In 2015, the country reached a low of just 180 metric tonnes; this crash was brought about by a combination of poor weather and a lack of accessible finance for coffee producers.

However, Teija says that in 2019, the country exported almost 2,000 metric tonnes of green coffee, representing a significant recovery.

“For the first time in a very long time, we are producing more [coffee] than Malawi,” she says. “This is a good indicator that we are getting back to our best.” 

Quality control and local stakeholders

In Zambia, Teija says that 90% of all coffee production comes from estates. The ZCGA can facilitate coffee processing for estate farmers, as it has access to all the necessary equipment as well as trained personnel.

The association handles quality control on behalf of the estates, although some opt to do it themselves. It also handles the export process by sending samples around the world, managing documentation, and agreeing sales. The major buyers of Zambian coffee are Europe, South Africa, Asia (specifically Japan), and the US.

“Some farmers leave marketing to the association, while others contact the buyers directly,” Teija explains. “Even in this case, the association will handle the quality control. These farmers determine their own price, however.”

She also notes that the association uses cup quality and the C price to determine pricing. However, according to her, the farmer retains total control of their coffee, and makes the final decision on all sales.

After milling, Zambian coffee is graded and stored in a central warehouse in Lusaka. Large estates may have their own warehouses and use trucks to transport their coffee.

Outside of estates, Teija says that most smallholder farmers grow coffee like they would do maize or other short-term crops. She says that the ZCGA is trying to encourage co-operatives to form, but notes that it is a long-term initiative. 

The goal, she says, is to increase production and raise the number of coffee producers in Zambia. 

washed coffee

Processing facilities and methods

The Zambian coffee harvest runs from May to August. Some farmers have their own wet mills where they manage their own washed processing.

This is the most prominent processing method in the country, but there are also some high-quality naturals, pulped naturals, and anaerobic coffees being processed on some of the farms.

“There are some producers doing pulped naturals, and they tend to produce the best Zambian coffee,” she says. “Usually, it’s the dry season when we do the processing, so the sun tends to provide good conditions for drying. 

“In the north, the farmers actually do some very nice anaerobic processing.”

Teija says that the major reason for the pulped naturals is to add some sweetness to the high acidity of the coffees. This makes them more marketable for espresso. 

“Many of the farms have good quality wet processing equipment,” she adds. “The large estates have fermentation tanks and demucilagers from Tanzania.”

She also notes that the ZCGA owns its own dry mills, as do some farms around Lusaka. The ZCGA mills are open to smallholder farmers, who can take their coffee as parchment directly to the association.

Challenges in Zambian coffee

Although yields are increasing, Zambia’s location is an issue. It’s landlocked, meaning there’s no easy access to ports.

Coffee from the north of the country is shipped via Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, while coffee from the south is shipped through either South Africa or Namibia.

Zambia also faces another unusual problem: a lack of production capacity. Teija says there is no shortage of land or farm owners, but instead says that there is a high cost of coffee production in the company, which is only compounded by a labour shortage. Farmers then turn to “easier” crops, such as maize.

In addition, the project started by the World Bank has not been sustained by the Zambian government. In response, Teija says the industry has come to rely on private companies like Olam Specialty Coffee to step in and support farmers.

Their support has arrived in the form of several initiatives, including a drive for Rainforest Alliance certification and initiatives to build schools.

ripe coffee cherries

Zambia’s coffee sector is indeed a unique one. Its late entry to the international coffee industry means it is only really getting started, and has a long way yet before it will truly compete with major African coffee producers.

However, the sector is on an upward trend, and forecasts show that production is set to increase. Teija concludes by saying that with more investment from multinational companies and the government on the horizon, she thinks the outlook is bright.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring Malawi as a coffee origin.

Photo credits: Pexels

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