At its peak, Angola was the third-largest coffee producer in the world. However, since becoming independent in 1975, the industry has suffered through civil war, other conflicts, and continued political disruption.
In spite of this downturn, the industry remains resilient, and there are signs of recovery on the horizon. In recent years, exports have grown substantially, and the efforts of government institutions and other stakeholders have given hope to the country’s smallholder coffee farmers.
I spoke with a local coffee expert to learn more about the history of Angolan coffee. Read on to find out what he said.
You might also like our article on Mozambique’s coffee industry.
A brief history of Angolan coffee
Coffee was introduced to Angola by Portuguese settlers as early as the 1830s, and it didn’t take long for the crop to make an impact. The first recorded farm was established by a Brazilian farmer in 1837.
In these early days, production grew slowly and steadily, until in the 1970s, until it reached a pre-independence peak around 1975. In 1974, Angolan production figures totalled more than 5.2 million 60kg bags, and the country was becoming known for producing good-quality robusta.
In the 19th and most of the 20th century, Angolan coffee was cultivated on a variety of farms (fazendas) owned and managed by the Portuguese. In the 1970s, it’s reported that there was more than 596,000ha of coffee-growing land, more than half of which was made up of large estates (100ha or greater).
However, after the country became independent from Portugal in 1975, a civil war broke out, which lasted for more than 25 years, which were briefly interspersed by periods of unsteady peace. This led to a mass exodus of Portuguese people in the country. For the coffee sector, this meant a departure of farm owners, managers, and technicians.
Furthermore, at the start of the civil war, most of Angola’s migrant workforce abandoned the coffee estates, which were then nationalised by the new government until the mid-1990s.
During this nationalised period, there were two state-owned companies that managed all coffee marketing and exports: Cafangol and Uigimex.
However, in 1993, in an attempt to revitalise the industry, the coffee sector was liberalised. Despite this, however, a number of government organisations have been involved in the sector in the years since.
Under its privatisation programme, the government sold off all 33 state coffee plantation companies. At the time, most coffee production was concentrated in the five provinces of Uige, Kwanza Norte, Kwanza Sul, Bengo, and Cabinda.
Since liberalisation, the Secretary of State for Coffee through the State Secretariat for Coffee (Secafe) has been responsible for issuing licenses and monitoring and regulating the Angolan coffee industry.
A profile: Angolan coffee today
Angola primarily grows robusta coffee, with some arabica farms that have recently been established at higher altitudes along the country’s Central Plateau.
JC Mainga is a Director at the Angola National Institute of Coffee (INCA). This organisation oversees coffee research and the distribution of seedlings.
He says: “In Angola, robusta coffee is differentiated by types according to the region it is produced. Thus, we do have Amboim robusta, Ambriz robusta, Cazengo robusta, and Cabinda robusta, with the first one being the most valuable both in price and taste.”
JC says that in 2020, coffee exports totalled 27,701 60kg bags, representing a 30% increase on the previous year. While this is the beginning of a recovery, it is still a considerable departure from the figures of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Nowadays, statistics say there are about 40,000ha of coffee farms [in Angola],” JC says. “During the heyday of coffee production in the 1970s, that was closer to 600,000ha.”
Furthermore, he says, around 85% of the coffee produced in Angola is grown by smallholders in areas of up to just 5ha. Many of the large estates which dominated production in the 20th century are now gone.
JC also adds: “There are some co-operatives, but their organisation is poor and does not contribute much to coffee production.”
The Angolan coffee value chain
“The coffee value chain in Angola comprises producers, processors, traders, roasters, and exporters,” JC says. “Here, our processors own hullers and are responsible for coffee processing; they operate their hullers in central production regions.”
The majority of Angolan robusta is natural processed and sun dried, and then hulled later on. The small percentage that is washed is mainly experimental, as there is not a significant market for it. Most hulling is carried out on-farm, with the equipment operated by the farmers themselves.
While most Angolan coffee is robusta, JC also notes that the arabica produced is half washed and half natural.
The export and processing of commercial coffee is conducted in Luanda, where there are three major facilities. These facilities carry out both export processing and grading. One belongs to state-owned Cafangol, while the other two are private and belong to Griangol and FCA. Cafangol also has another functioning facility at Amboim in Kwanza Sul.
However, because of the massive drop in production figures over the last few decades, all processing facilities have been operating below capacity for some time, which has led to intense competition.
As for roasting, JC says that there are roasters who “have plants in big cities like Luanda, Uige, and Sumbe, and purchase coffee directly from traders”.
However, he notes that there is a lack of broader roasting infrastructure, and that there is not a strong demand for locally-grown coffee in Angola proper. As such, most Angolan coffee is shipped to Europe and the Middle East, with common destinations including Portugal, Lebanon, and Spain.
Coffee sales and exports
Most smallholder farmers sell their coffee crop directly to traders or the field agents of export companies. Some producer associations and co-operatives gather coffee from their members and then sell it to exporters, but as mentioned, these are few and far between.
Despite the liberalisation of the sector nearly three decades ago, the government still decides the price to be paid to producers through its research facility, Instituto Nacional de Café (INCA).
In May, at the beginning of the coffee season, INCA announces the minimum price to be paid to all stakeholders. This is determined by the freight-on-board (FOB) price, and is then divided equally into thirds between the producer, trader, and exporter.
“INCA is the entity responsible for running the coffee sector at a policy level in Angola,” JC says. “It has representation across the country at provincial, municipal, and communal level, and deals directly with coffee producers.”
INCA carries out all essential functions on behalf of Secafe. JC says that principally, INCA requires everyone in the market to be licensed, and notes that the procedures can be very bureaucratic.
In particular, the institution sometimes struggles to clearly communicate its export requirements, which creates issues that consequently result in long delays and high costs.
However, these inconveniences are still manageable for farmers and traders, as international prices are almost twice as high as local prices.
INCA is also responsible for R&D across the coffee sector. To this end, it operates four experimental plants in Uige, Amboim, Ganda, and Kilombo.
What challenges does the Angolan coffee sector face?
Most of Angola’s existing coffee trees are several decades old, meaning that yields are low and that farms are desperately in need of regeneration or replanting.
Many co-operatives, processors, and farmers who carry out their own processing also lack the appropriate equipment. This, in turn, can compromise quality when the coffee is delivered to the exporter, damaging trade relationships.
These quality issues include a distinctive old taste, insufficient moisture content, and discoloured or yellow beans.
Another issue is that coffee is significantly more labour-intensive to grow than other popular crops in Angola. This means short-staffed co-operatives and farms often lean towards other, more short-term profitable crops.
The sector also faces challenges with diseases, pests, and a lack of access to agricultural inputs. Small farmers have also suffered from a policy environment that, historically, has not favoured coffee production.
This is one of the reasons that Angola’s facilities for both wet and dry milling are insufficient. As a result, many farmers simply sell their coffee cherries to roaming vendors, who then process, dry, and roast the beans in big cities, adding more value there.
Transport infrastructure is another key issue. Most Angolan coffee farmers are in rural areas, and transporting their crop to processing centres can be complicated and costly. This cost also often falls on the buyer, making it less attractive.
Finally, accessible credit and short-term finance is tough to come by for coffee producers in Angola. The few banks that exist are unwilling to finance most exporters, as they deem the coffee business too risky. Only a few big exporters are financed, and funding is only made available against collateral.
However, there is still hope on the horizon for the Angolan coffee sector. The government is currently committed to reforming the industry, which it views as an opportunity to create employment for many Angolans.
They are looking to focus on the many young demobilised soldiers in the country, as well as rural people who have been displaced by conflict in the country.
To this end, in 2019, the government launched a revitalisation programme for arabica coffee that was marked by the distribution of 15,000 seedlings to 30 families in Beteleme. Over time, the aim is that similar initiatives will provide more than 3,000 people with a source of livelihood.
Another reform plan involved spending some US $8.5 million to cultivate robusta coffee on 17,000ha of farmland in the municipality of Amboim. This is an area that was ravaged by the civil war; in time, the government expects the region will be able to grow some 650,000 60kg bags per annum.
Furthermore, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is currently working with farmers, the government, and other players in the country’s coffee sector to assess how producers and exporters could better position themselves within the global value chain.
In November 2019, UNCTAD held a workshop in Uíge province as part of the national agricultural export review process. Its aim was to train more than 200 farmers and local public officials to map their value chains, assess the opportunities and challenges for agriculture sectors (like coffee), and draft an action plan.
If Angola delivers on these initiatives and improves its infrastructure for coffee production, it could well begin exporting coffee at scale to buyers in North America and Europe.
Angolan robusta still has a reasonable reputation among some coffee importers, though it remains to be seen if the country can restore its once dominant coffee industry to its former glory.
Ultimately, while Angola is still shaking off the aftermath of decades of war and unrest, there is reason to be hopeful. With a young workforce and plenty of arable land, INCA and its associates could soon bring Angolan coffee back onto the global stage.
Enjoyed this? Then you’ll like our article on coffee production in Cameroon.
Photo credits: Peter Gakuo, Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay
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