August 31, 2022

Understanding Tanzania’s generational gap in coffee production


Although coffee was first introduced to Tanzania in the 16th century from nearby Réunion Island (also once referred to as Bourbon), it took around 200 years for the country to start growing it on a commercial scale.

Since then, coffee has been a major cash crop for Tanzania. However, a number of complex issues like climate change, disease, and ageing coffee trees have led to a significant decline in production volumes.

Furthermore, low coffee prices have forced some farmers in the Northern Highlands to uproot their coffee plants and replace them with more profitable cash crops. Alongside this, families and farmers are abandoning coffee production altogether and migrating to urban areas in search of more profitable work.

So, is there a way for Tanzania’s coffee producers to bridge the age gap and encourage younger generations to take up coffee farming?

I spoke with two local coffee experts to learn more about the generational gap in Tanzanian coffee production and what can be done to resolve it. Read on to learn more about what they had to share. 

You may also like our article exploring Tanzanian coffee production.

elderly woman harvesting cherries in Tanzanian coffee production

A brief overview of Tanzanian coffee production

Currently, Tanzania is the fourth-largest producer of coffee in Africa. However, the country’s coffee industry has suffered from a steady decline in yields since the 1990s, aside from a brief resurgence in production during the mid-2000s.

Although there have been several attempts to increase production over the past few decades, volumes have remained relatively low. According to the International Coffee Organisation, the country produced 900,000 60kg bags in 2020.

This is largely the result of a number of deep-rooted problems that Tanzanian farmers have faced since the 1990s, which includes the emergence of coffee wilt disease in 1997. Improving coffee quality has also been a struggle for some farmers, which has further contributed to low farmgate prices – one of the reasons why many farmers still operate and live in rural poverty.

Despite these challenges, coffee still remains the largest export crop in the country. It is one of Tanzania’s top exports, surpassed only by tourism and mining.

It is estimated that more than 320,000 households – with an average of 0.5 to 1ha of coffee-growing land each – are responsible for up to 95% of Tanzanian coffee production. 

elderly man harvesting ripe cherries in Tanzanian coffee production

How big is the generational gap in coffee production?

Alongside old coffee trees, low coffee prices, and coffee wilt disease, one of the biggest challenges Tanzanian coffee faces is the increasing age of producers. Currently, the average age of a coffee producer in Tanzania is around 55.

Considering the level of physical labour required to carry out coffee production profitably, this is a pressing issue for the country – as it is for other coffee-producing countries in East Africa, such as Rwanda and Kenya.

Erica Brenda is a green coffee buyer and roaster for Tanzania Asili Coffee in Tanzania. She also has a background in coffee production, having grown up near farms in the Kilimanjaro region.

Erica says that land ownership is a major reason behind the significant age gap in Tanzanian coffee production.

“Coffee farming has been our grandparents’ main source of income for a long time,” she explains. “Most of the land is not owned by younger people; only by their parents and grandparents.”

She tells me it’s very rare to find young Tanzanians who own coffee farms, which is one of the main factors that discourages them from working on them in the first place.

Bahati Mlwilo is an agronomist who works with Starbucks Farmer Support Centres and operates out of Tanzania. She says that you can only find a few younger producers in the southern regions of the country.

“Generally, the majority of coffee farmers are older,” she explains. “Young people in general don’t want to be associated with coffee farming.”

Traditional Tanzanian culture often dictates that businesses such as coffee farms are owned by the father of the household. While the rest of the family can work on the farm, the patriarch owns the coffee, the farm, and all of the income.

What’s more, on parent-owned farms, children are usually never involved in any decision making – further discouraging them from working in coffee production. 

Bahati explains that it’s even more challenging for women and girls in Tanzania. Generally, only male family members will inherit the farm from their father. However, it is possible for women to inherit land from their husbands. 

Bahati adds that although gender inequity in coffee production is a complex issue, addressing land inheritance laws will be one way to help bridge the age gap in Tanzania.

a group of women grades coffee beans in a production warehouse in Tanzania

Considering the perspective of youth in Tanzania

Some believe that one of the reasons younger people in Tanzania show little interest in coffee production is because of the sector’s associations with colonialism.

When coffee was first commercially grown in Tanzania, different parts of the country were under both German and British colonial rule. At that time, the vast majority of the colonial powers’ wealth was generated by slave labour – including coffee production. 

Since the country became independent in 1961, younger generations have started to migrate away from rural areas to bigger cities. This is largely because they believe there to be more profitable opportunities in urban areas, as is the case in many other countries around the world.

Bahati believes there is a lack of advertising and promotion of the opportunities for youth in the country’s coffee sector.

“Many of the younger generations are not aware of the available opportunities,” she says. “There are no role models to look up to, and the only people youth are exposed to are their elders.”

Naturally, low coffee prices also discourage younger people from becoming involved in coffee production, as Erica explains. 

“Young people are not willing to wait long periods of time for small amounts of money,” she says. “Therefore, they would rather work in more profitable industries.”

Erica adds that even when young people do express interest in becoming coffee producers, start-up costs can be too high and education can be inaccessible.

Furthermore, Bahati explains that bureaucracy means there are even more barriers than ever for young people who want to work in coffee.

“There is so much paperwork and so many delays involved in registering coffee companies,” she says.

people sorting harvested coffee in Tanzania

What are the solutions?

Erica tells me that agricultural marketing co-operative societies (AMCOS) have a huge role to play in addressing the age gap in Tanzanian coffee production. She believes that educating the next generation about the benefits and importance of coffee production is a good place to start.

However, there are very few young people represented in many of these societies, particularly in positions of leadership. Some are even locked out of these roles because of laws concerning farm ownership.

In 2018, new regulations forced many producers to make rapid and drastic changes to their farm operations. According to green coffee trader Atlas Coffee, these changes stipulated that cherries can only be traded through an AMCOS.

Prior to these changes, producers sold coffee as cherry through auctions in Moshi – the capital of the Kilimanjaro region. However, there are now auctions in four different zones that were designed to simplify trade, but some farmers were left economically worse off than before.

“Co-operatives need to find a way to stabilise coffee prices,” Erica explains. “You can educate young people about coffee, but if they find out that it is not a profitable industry, they will be discouraged.”

As it stands, International Coffee Partners is supporting more AMCOS organisations to encourage and involve women and young people all across the Tanzanian coffee sector. We are seeing changes already; some co-operative societies are now led by women, and gender stereotypes are beginning to shift.

Youth education programmes are also essential to bridging the age gap, as Bahati explains.

“Children from coffee-producing families need to receive education because the percentage of those who have received some level of education is low,” she says.

We’re seeing more supply chain actors becoming more involved in supporting youth in coffee production.

Hans R. Neumann Stifung, a non-profit organisation, provides training to young people between the ages of 15 and 35. Programme participants are taught about climate-smart agriculture, pest management, and best practices for harvesting and processing.

Another example is Tanzanian coffee trader Ibero, which recently launched a “Coffee Club”. Here, classes are taught in secondary schools located near some AMCOS organisations, where groups of around 50 students are taught how to manage seedlings.

However, Erica ultimately believes it is the government’s responsibility to encourage young people to work in coffee. One current initiative allows people between the ages of 15 and 35 to apply for low-interest loans from the government so they can establish their own coffee businesses.

However, both Erica and Bahati believe the Tanzanian government is too focused on larger players in the coffee sector.

“The government has to support and encourage smaller entrepreneurs, at least until their businesses become more established,” Bahati says.

a young man pours green coffee beans on a farm in Tanzania

Looking to the future

Thus far, the government has already increased the agricultural budget, with a specific emphasis on coffee. It’s also acquiring parcels of land to encourage block farming, which is an initiative focused on specifically encouraging young people. Furthermore, other extended services have also benefited from the budget increase.

Although the age gap is a major concern for Tanzania’s coffee industry, Erica believes that more young people will continue to inherit farms with their parents, which is a start.

“There are instances where more educated young people are becoming more involved in coffee production,” she says.

Bahati adds that she manages a quality control lab which works with young people to educate them about the opportunities in the coffee sector, as well as providing them with the necessary skills to become coffee professionals. 

At the lab, she says co-operative managers, washing station workers, and other farm workers can also take part in professional training sessions. The aim of these initiatives is to help streamline operations in Tanzanian coffee production and to encourage more AMCOS organisations to adopt modern practices and increase coffee quality.

Ultimately, in many cases, the children of coffee farmers are in good positions to be successful in coffee production. In fact, some coffee professionals in the country are already calling on parents to mentor their children on high-quality coffee farming techniques.

washed green coffee beans

With a number of organisations and other supply chain stakeholders realising just how urgent the problem of a generational gap is becoming for Tanzania’s coffee sector, there is hope that the problem will be addressed. Theoretically, this could reinvigorate coffee production and help the country scale its output.

As it stands, however, the initiatives are still few and far between, meaning they aren’t available to those who need them.

Bahati concludes by saying that if the government can help young people acquire more land for coffee farming, the country’s coffee sector could have a more secure future.

“We can then prioritise younger producers,” she concludes. “If we don’t make a change, the country’s coffee sector could cease to exist.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring land succession in Kenyan coffee production.

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