Malawi and The Story of Coffee

Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa, home to more than 19 million people. Agriculture, which employs 90 percent of the rural population, drives the country’s economy. 

Malawi’s main agricultural exports in 2018 were raw tobacco (valued at US $694 million) and tea (US $89.9 million). And while the country exported approximately 109,000 60kg bags of coffee in 1993, some 28 years on, this figure sits at around 9,000 bags a year.

To learn more about why this has happened and what farmers are doing to rejuvenate the Malawian coffee industry, I spoke to two professionals in the sector. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on the Democratic Republic of Congo as a coffee origin.

A brief history of Malawian coffee

Malawi borders Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. As Tanzania is a major African origin (exporting some 800,000 bags in 2019/20) it often overshadows Malawi’s comparatively small-scale cultivation in the region.

Coffee was introduced to the country in the late 1800s when Dr. John Buchanan brought the Nyasaland variety (a Bourbon/Typica derivative) from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Before Malawi became independent in 1964, many of the large coffee farms in the country were owned by British colonists, and were concentrated in the Thyolo and Mulanje regions. 

Under colonial rule, Malawian coffee farmers were overworked and underpaid. However, in 1971, the newly-independent Malawian government reformed the smallholder coffee sector using an organisational structure known as the Smallholder Coffee Authority (SCA). 

But despite the new structure, through the 1980s and 1990s, coffee wilt disease disrupted the production of Malawian coffee. Alongside widespread organisational mismanagement, the country saw a serious decline in coffee cultivation. 

Coffee farming in Malawi: An overview

Christopher Gondwe is a coffee quality and processing executive based in Malawi. He says: “Currently, most coffee estates are still confined to southern Malawi in the regions of Mangochi, Mulanje, Zomba, and Thyolo.

“However, these estates do not grow coffee as the main cash crop; tobacco, tea and macadamia are viewed as the major earners,” he adds, noting that there are only five active major coffee estates in Malawi.

Christopher adds: “Most of the estates use irrigation to water their coffee. The quality produced by many of the estates is good, but often still [has] a way to go before being specialty-grade.”

Today, there are an estimated 4,000 smallholder farms in northern and central Malawi. It is believed that most of these farmers have fewer than 200 plants apiece.

“The farmers are organised [into] co-operatives,” Christopher explains. ”For example, under the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union (MCPCU), there are six primary co-operative societies that have their headquarters in northern Malawi.” 

Combined, these six co-operative societies produce between 400 and 450 metric tonnes of coffee per annum. The MCPCU then exports its members’ coffee worldwide using fixed contracts. 

This is key, as there is little government guidance for the coffee exporting process. While this means less bureaucracy and red tape, it also makes it difficult for smallholder farmers to export their crop. 

As such, the responsibility generally falls to co-operatives and the MCPCU to support smallholder farmers to export globally.

The main target markets for Malawian coffee are South Africa, Germany, Japan, Holland, the USA, and the UK. Only an estimated 24 tonnes of coffee are consumed domestically.

Varieties and common flavour profiles

Arabica is the only species of coffee grown in Malawi. Coffee from the country is often described as sweet, delicate, and floral, with notes of liquorice and spice.

Until the 2000s, Caturra was the most popular variety in the country. However, between 1999 and 2007, most Caturra plants were replaced with Catimor, a Caturra-Timor hybrid that is resistant to coffee leaf rust.

Other popular varieties include Catuai (a Mundo Novo and Caturra hybrid), K7 (which matures quickly), Ruiru 11 (high resistance to diseases and good cup quality), and SL28 and SL34 (both have high cup quality but are susceptible to disease). Rarer varieties also grown in Malawi include Geisha, Nyika 129, and S. Agaro.

The harvest season in Malawi runs from April to September. “Total production for both smallholder farms and estates is around 2,000 tonnes per annum,” Christopher says. “Both washed and natural processing are used.” 

Most coffee is processed at local washing stations before being transported to secondary processing facilities in Mzuzu, the capital of the country’s Northern Region and the third-largest city in Malawi. 

Coffee plants in Malawi are also grown by farmers to defend against soil erosion. On large farms (often where producers mainly grow macadamia, tobacco, and tea), coffee is sometimes planted in contours to control soil run-off and mitigate erosion. 

Co-ops, the MCPCU, and the Smallholder Coffee Farmer’s Trust

In 1999, the Smallholder Coffee Farmer’s Trust (SCFT) was founded after farmers agreed to abolish the SCA. At the time, farmers were being paid only 20% to 30% of their full sales price, as the SCA retained the majority of the funds. 

The SCFT’s principal aims were to increase coffee quality and add value across the supply chain. The trust processed and sold packaged, branded coffee, and tried to minimise costs for farmers through initiatives like Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which reduced producer dependency on pesticides.

One of the most significant developments the SCFT initiated was a mass Catimor replanting effort through the early and mid-2000s. Its faster growth and higher yields enabled farmers to improve their income quickly.

However, in 2007, the SCFT was converted into the MCPCU, with the major change being that farmers were able to own shares of the union through the co-operative society model. This final reform saw earnings for producers increase up to 70% to 80% of the final sales price.

“Through [the MCPCU], smallholders can certify their coffee as organic and Fairtrade,” Christopher adds. “This is all geared towards higher-quality coffee production and creating a sustainable environment for growing coffee.”

The co-operative structure is also more inclusive and accessible. “Another advantage of belonging to the MCPCU is the non-restriction of coffee sales,” Christopher explains. “Any farmer can sell their beans to anyone. The union is there merely to advocate and ensure the beans fetch fair prices.”

MCPCU co-ops also offer services and training to help smallholder farmers with marketing their coffee and practise sustainable farming techniques. 

For example, Christopher says farmers are “starting to grow their coffee in shaded areas which increases quality and reduces water consumption in the field”.

A challenging landscape for coffee production

Christopher notes that crop health is a major challenge for producers in Malawi. “The coffee trees have high mortality rates,” he explains. “This is because the farmers have little to no access to fertilisers and chemical sprays – both organic and inorganic.”

These agricultural inputs are often costly for smallholder farmers, although cost reduction initiatives like IPM and Integrated Crop Management (ICM) have been implemented to improve soil fertility and plant resilience in a cost-effective way.

“Coffee wilt disease is still a major concern, even though this is being addressed by donors who continually fund and support the sector,” Christopher says. 

Coffee wilt disease causes the leaves to droop and turn yellow, before the tree eventually dies. Once a tree contracts coffee wilt disease, it cannot be saved, and will inevitably die. 

Alongside this, coffee berry disease, coffee leaf rust, and American leaf spot all have an impact on Malawian coffee production. Stem borer beetles and antestia bugs are also a threat. IPM and ICM do help producers defend their plants, but altogether, there are a great many threats for farmers to contend with. 

There are also logistical issues. Malawi is a mountainous country with underdeveloped transport infrastructure. Some farmers are forced to carry their coffee over long distances by foot, which is almost impossible during heavy rainfall.

Finally, while Malawian coffee is broadly of reasonable quality, the higher quality and quantity of coffee neighbouring Tanzania puts the Malawian at a disadvantage.

John Sathya is the Senior Deputy General Manager at Sable Farming, one of the biggest coffee estates in Malawi.

He says that because of these struggles, Malawi’s coffee association, CAMAL, planned to withdraw from the International Coffee Organisation. However, in early 2023, the organisation made the decision to remain a member country of the ICO.

Despite this, John says that most Malawian coffee farmers believe there is no tangible benefit to the membership. “All we do is pay membership fees and have a membership number,” he tells me.

In addition, he notes that a recent increase in the wage structure for Malawian workers has made coffee production more expensive. This makes life more difficult for larger coffee companies trying to produce at scale.

“Production has fallen from 15,000 metric tonnes to [around] 1,000 metric tonnes annually,” he says. “Coffee is losing out to more lucrative plants such as macadamia. If prices don’t increase, we will have no choice but to uproot the coffee and plant more macadamia.”

However, some progress is being made. Firstly, Christopher tells me the government is offering more support to co-operatives, which is then passed on to the individual farmers.

There are even plans to establish more co-operatives in less-established growing regions – including Dedza, Mangochi, Mchinji, Dowa, Ntcheu, and Neno.

Christopher tells me that he has faith in the future of the Malawian coffee industry. “There is a bright future for the Malawi coffee sector,” he says. “Smallholder farmers live in areas which are suitable for coffee growing, and co-operatives are encouraging growers to follow good agriculture practices and make sure their production is sustainable.”

Despite these various challenges, there is hope from some stakeholders like Christopher that the quality and quantity of Malawian coffee can increase in the years to come.

However, challenges with high production costs and more lucrative alternative cash crops such as macadamia, tobacco, and tea are a threat to Malawian coffee. One can only hope the country’s coffee sector manages to overcome these obstacles.

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