A trip to visit our suppliers in Tanzania and Uganda was long overdue (this would also be my first trip to East Africa!), so I packed my bag and set off with the intention to build upon our established relationships with our in-country partners. We also wanted to explore what potential lay untapped and renew our focus in these regions.
During my time in Tanzania, I travelled between the regions of Kilimanjaro and Arusha; visiting Mwika North East AMCOS, Mondul Estate, Karatu Estate, Nitin Estate and Blackburn Estate.
There are two main formats for coffee production in the region; large Estates and smallholder farms supported by an AMCOS (Agricultural Marketing Co-operative Societies).
The Tanzanian Coffee Board is based out of the town of Moshi in the Kilimanjaro region. This is also the historical home of the auction, although recently the auction has started to travel throughout the different growing regions (although nobody I spoke with was quite sure what the benefit of this is).
From 2012 to 2021 it’s the coffee board and association of Tanzania’s goal to double production from 50,000 MT to 100,000 MT. As of 2018, they’re up to 70,500 MT, so they’re likely to fall 20,000 MT shy of that target. This goes hand in hand with the aim for 70% to reach premium coffee prices, compared to 35% in 2012.
It’s worth mentioning that each part of the supply chain at origin must be owned separately. A farmer can’t own a mill or export coffee and a mill can’t own a farm or exporter etc. This has simply caused exporters to register their mills under a different name and manage them as a single separate entity. However, I haven’t heard of any exporters doing imaginative paperwork to own a farm.
The north of Tanzania, around Kilimanjaro and Arusha, is where you will find the largest concentration of estates. With histories dating back nearly 100 years, many are now owned by investors from places such as India. It’s not uncommon for estates here to be cultivating over 300 hectares of coffee and it’s also not uncommon for estates to be surrounded by 4,000-volt electric fences! In recent years, these have been put up to protect the coffee from roaming baboons, buffalo and elephants: although with each new fence, it channels the animals with greater intensity to those without.
As I travelled round, I noticed a pattern; the estates were not replanting trees, instead they were simply stumping very old trees, some much older than me. When I inquired why they said there were three main reasons:
- To regain the vigour and yield of a younger tree
- To maintain the deep roots which help with survival during periods of drought
- It was also less expensive
Challenges for Estates
Water: There is a real shortage of water here. Many larger farms rely on irrigation and have moved over to ecopulpers which use a fraction of the water to remove the mucilage from the seed.
Staff: There are labour shortages on the larger estates. In some instances pickers also raise cattle and have their own small farms, roaming where there is grass to be eaten, so perhaps, due to the climate crisis, they are not found in the areas they once were at harvest time. Trucks are now sent out for miles from camp to find workers in local villages, but then a spot of rain mid-harvest and pickers will up sticks to go look after their own farms of maize, coffee etc.
Another competing factor is the rise of tourism. Locals simply prefer to work in safari lodges rather than in the coffee fields.
Smallholders & AMCOS
The other common type of farmer found in this part of the north is the smallholder farmer, Centred on an AMCOS. Some AMCOS’s will only buy parchment; others also buy cherry, but they are the only organisations allowed to buy either from farmers. Mills and exporters are not permitted due to the changes that happened not that long ago which really threw the system into chaos. Smallholder farms are around 0.8 hectare in size, although some have as much as 5.
Quality and profitability comes when there is knowledge and capacity. Some AMCOS’s process just 100 kg cherry per day; whilst others process 5 MT. Our supplier told me they buy 75% from smallholders. To give you a clearer perspective of the landscape.
Weather: In recent times, weather in the region has become irregular and more intense due to the climate crisis. Whilst I was visiting, heavy rains unexpectedly washed away the bridge to a farm we intended to visit. This provides additional challenges when drying coffee, or bringing it down from your farm to the CPU.
Scale: Average smallholder production is 450 kg green coffee per hectare and most farmers own 0.8 hectare or less. Yield and scale really holds back earning potential.
Young Farmers: A reason suggested to me why young people don’t take an active interest in coffee, is because of taxes and other deductions. This was interesting, as originally deductions used to sit at around 10-20%. I believe in more recent years, they have decreased to around 5-10%. In the north, it seems this has not been enough to incentivise young people to get involved in farming; however, in the south, I understand they are much more engaged.
After 3 days in Tanzania, I flew over to Uganda: this year will be our fourth working with this country. Ugandans coffee production has remained pretty consistent in recent years. Although still 4x that of Tanzania, 70% of Tanzania’s production is the Arabica we all love, versus Uganda, where it only accounts for 20%: although amusingly, this equates to roughly the same amount of Arabica grown in each country.
I was interested to draw comparisons between the two countries since one is a highly regulated market and the other a free market. For example, in Uganda, nothing is stopping a company owning a wet mill, dry mill and exporters. This is how our partner here is structured. The coffee cherry is collected directly from the farmers at local collection points near the farms, only ripe cherries are accepted, they are paid in full before it’s brought down to the wet mill and processed. After the season is over, there is a premium paid equally to all farmers based on sales prices earnt for the coffee accounting for how many kg you delivered.
From what I gather, farmers seem to prefer this setup; having had a cooperative system previously in the region which has since closed down due to corruption. Once cherries reach the wet mill, they are separated into a wide range of processes. These include the traditional washed, the familiar natural; to the more exotic anaerobic method. Within each broad category, the processes are tweaked resulting in roughly 8 processes; each amplifying and subduing characteristics to fulfil any customer preferences. This is all handled by Deos, described to me as the guy who makes the magic happen.
They are also open to experimenting with your own processing ideas (providing you commit to buy it no matter how it turns out; with a minimum batch size 20 bags) – I wasn’t ready to start playing farmer.
Farm sizes here are very small, on average 4x smaller than Tanzania. Often farms are discussed using tree count, not area; for example, 0.30 ha is about 500 trees. Exportable green coffee per tree sits between 0.31 kg to 1kg. Farms used to be larger, but with each passing generation, the inheritance is split between all the children. Not everyone stays to farm and land changes hands regularly. I was speaking to a farmer named Patrick who after being taught stumping techniques to improve yield, has become enthused in working in coffee and showed me around his newly purchased 1-hectare plot; which came with old trees which he immediately pruned to the stump to increase yields.
Farmers are taught how to raise cows since they provide both manure for the coffee fields and milk for the family. They also grow bananas. Both offer small extra revenue streams. Amusingly I heard that cows raised in the highlands are happy eating banana leaf but those in the lowlands turn their noses up at the idea.
In the peak of the season, the wet mill is fed into by over 15,000 farmers, receiving 150 MT of cherry a day which equates to over 1 container of exportable coffee. Things don’t always run smoothly. Coffee once picked needs to be processed fresh or quickly deteriorates in quality. Unexpected heavy rains like those experienced whilst I was visiting held back deliveries for 2 days spoiling perfectly good ripe red cherries because the roads were too slippery and unsafe to use.
Once the coffee is ready, it’s taken down to the capital city but only milled when ready for export. The process is relatively quick, certainly compared to transport. It can take 2 weeks for containers to travel by truck from Kampala to Mombasa in Kenya where it is shipped to us. Our partners had only just opened their new dry mil facility which is capable of processing 5x as much coffee as their old one so times are good.
All in all, I travelled for 8 days; a large percentage of that time was spent on the road with Harriet and Emmanuel. I can’t thank them enough for taking the time to travel with me and for their top-notch hospitality. Travelling back from Uganda to Glasgow I lost 3 hours and 20 Celsius, but I’m glad to be home.