Zimbabwe was a well-known coffee producer in the early 1990s. More than 20,000 farmers were supported by the sector, which produced more than 15,000 tonnes of coffee per year.
However, at the turn of the century, a wave of domestic agricultural reforms signalled a shift. Low market prices, extreme weather conditions, and waning buyer interest drove production volumes to historic lows. Many farmers have abandoned coffee in favour of other cash crops.
Zimbabwe’s production volumes are still well below their peak from a few decades ago, at slightly more than 500 tonnes per year. However, thanks to a number of public and private sector initiatives, Zimbabwe’s coffee industry is on the mend. Producers are resuming coffee cultivation, which is becoming a more appealing prospect. I spoke with a Zimbabwean agronomist and a sustainable coffee expert to learn more. Continue reading to find out what they told me.
An overview of Zimbabwean coffee
Zimbabwean coffee is grown near the border with Mozambique in the country’s Eastern Highlands. May to September is the harvest season.
The mountainous Eastern Highlands are ideal for arabica coffee production, with high levels of rainfall, fertile soil, cool temperatures, and altitudes of around 1,000 m.a.s.l.
Catimor is widely used on coffee farms in this region, especially in the Chipinge District, which has high elevation. Zimbabwean coffee farmers typically use washed processing and sun-drying.
While the cup profile of Zimbabwean coffee varies, it is frequently described as well-balanced, medium-bodied, and with a bright berry-like or citric acidity. It has a rich, complex flavour with common tasting notes of chocolate and wine.
The decline of coffee production in Zimbabwe
Admire Chamisa is a Zimbabwean agronomist. “In Africa, Zimbabwe was once the ‘prince of arabica,” he says.
Admire is referring to the early 1990s, when Zimbabwean coffee production was at its peak. Zimbabwean farmers were cultivating 15,000 metric tonnes of coffee per year at the time, placing the country among the top 30 coffee producers by volume in the world.
However, Zimbabwean coffee production fell precipitously in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country’s total coffee crop was lost by an estimated 97 percent, with annual production falling below 400 tonnes.
This downturn has been blamed on a series of government agricultural reforms, the most notable of which was the redistribution of some of the country’s most successful coffee farms.
“The government launched a plan to retake farms from white settlers and redistribute the land to citizens,” Admire says.
“Because these citizens lacked the knowledge required to run a farm, this had a devastating and far-reaching impact on the coffee sector,” he adds. “They had no idea how to prune, and some couldn’t even keep up with the coffee calendar.”
This abrupt change, combined with extreme weather conditions and low market prices, resulted in a drop in production volumes.
More than 100 coffee farms were located in Zimbabwe’s “coffee belt,” which ran along the country’s eastern border with Mozambique in the 1980s. Few remained less than 20 years after the downturn.
Starting again: The work of Nespresso & TechnoServe
Many Zimbabwean coffee farmers were forced to abandon their farms at the turn of the century and focus on other cash crops such as maize and tobacco. Following the implementation of the aforementioned agricultural reforms, coffee prices had plummeted, and overseas buyers had turned elsewhere.
However, in recent years, these farmers have begun to return to coffee production. A programme to revitalise coffee in a number of African countries, including Zimbabwe, was led by investment from Swiss coffee brand Nespresso and TechnoServe, an NGO.
According to Admire, one of the main strategies has been to promote the cooperative model in farmer communities.
“TechnoServe and other non-governmental organisations are instilling the spirit of cooperatives in Zimbabwe,” he says. “They’re teaching farmers the value of working together and assisting them with things like coffee marketing and processing.”
Dr. Nicole Motteux is a sustainable coffee advocate who promotes ethically produced and environmentally friendly coffee.
She also informs me that Nespresso has been paying premiums to Zimbabwean coffee farmers in order to fuel this revival and encourage more farmers to return.
“Nespresso pays roughly two and a half times the current commodity coffee price,” Nicole explains. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of small scale coffee farmers since the launch of Nespresso’s Reviving Origins programme in May 2019.”
The Reviving Origins programme is described by Nespresso as “a long-term commitment to stand alongside farmers from nearly-lost coffee regions and support them in rising back up to what they once were, and beyond.” In 2017, the initiative was launched.
The programme works with farmers in Zimbabwe’s Honde Valley region. These efforts are aimed at increasing productivity and sustainability, with the goal of improving the lives of those in each community.
Nicole is impressed with Zimbabwe’s efforts and mentions how their limited edition Zimbabwean coffee pods have helped promote the country. However, she believes that the initiatives by Nespresso and TechnoServe are more about “remodelling” for a new era of coffee production than about revival.
“Most people in Zimbabwe are just talking about’reviving’ coffee,” she says. “It’s more about remodelling to get ready for a new phase in coffee production.” There is an opportunity to invest in good agricultural practises, produce high-quality coffee, and engage in market interactions to attract higher prices and increase producer income.
“It’s time to rethink the industry, to remodel it so that it can make a genuine difference in people’s lives as well as the environment.”
What lies ahead?
Nespresso and TechnoServe’s efforts are already having a positive impact on Zimbabwe’s coffee industry. According to the NGO, approximately 2,000 smallholder farmers will return to coffee cultivation by 2025.
Admire also points out that the country now has more young coffee growers than ever before. He claims that with the help of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe, they now have the skills to produce high-quality coffee.
This is critical for the future of Zimbabwe’s coffee industry. An ageing workforce and a lack of interest from younger generations are causing a skill gap in many coffee-producing countries around the world.
Farmers, however, are not the only ones driving the transformation of Zimbabwean coffee. Younger generations in Zimbabwe, many of whom have returned from studying abroad, are fueling increased domestic coffee consumption in the country’s cities and towns. A few roasters, such as Mushe Coffee in Marondera, are even bringing higher quality coffee to both locals and tourists.
Admire believes that increased coffee consumption and increased visibility among the country’s younger generations will be critical to the reintroduction of Zimbabwean coffee production.
“Since the new president’s arrival, groups of young people have sprouted up with the goal of reshaping the country’s coffee scene,” he says. “The social media generation is more interested in locally grown coffee; they want cappuccinos and espressos.”
But there is still work to be done. Along with price volatility and political unrest, some stakeholders are concerned that producers are overly reliant on large foreign players such as Nespresso. While their efforts have helped revitalise Zimbabwean coffee production, some are concerned that it will all be gone one day.
“The biggest concern for many people in the coffee industry is what will happen if Nespresso pulls out,” Nicole says. Zimbabwean farmers, in her opinion, should prepare for this possibility by becoming as self-sufficient as possible.
“They must become ‘brand ready,’ as well as learn to engage with markets.” The next step is to transform smallholder farms into more commercially focused operations. They must reinvest in order to increase production and quality.”
Coffee production in Zimbabwe was on the verge of collapse less than a decade ago. Due to drastic land reforms, farms were redistributed among inexperienced coffee producers, making them vulnerable to price fluctuations and adverse weather conditions.
Production is beginning to recover, thanks to the efforts of TechnoServe and Nespresso. Although it is still a long way from its peak of 30 years ago, domestic interest, foreign investment, and ongoing technical assistance programmes all point to a positive reshaping of the coffee sector for Zimbabwean producers.