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Zimbabwe: Revival of the fittest

At the receiving end of economic, political and environmental turmoil, Zimbabwe’s coffee industry is on the brink of extinction. But can support from Nespresso and a new government bring it back to life?

In 2017, 92-year-old Zimbabwean coffee farmer Samuel Nyakuchena was considering retirement – but not because of his age. He had been farming coffee since 1981, but the economic downturn hit his farm hard. Nyakuchena was struggling to bring in enough income to cover production costs, a common challenge for the country’s coffee farmers, so he began preparing to retire. However, through work Nespresso was doing with other local farmers, Nyakuchena saw that he could get higher prices, technical support and a long-term buying commitment for high-quality coffee. So, he halted his retirement plans, says Midway Bhunu, Coffee Program Manager in Zimbabwe with TechnoServe, Nespresso’s on-the-ground partner carrying out the AAA Sustainable Quality Program.

Today, Nyakuchena is one of many coffee farmers who have decided to stay in the industry, despite the odds stacked against them. In fact, thanks in large part to Nespresso’s project in Zimbabwe, and in small part to recent efforts by the local government, some coffee farmers are even returning to the industry.

“Many of the farmers we work with have fond memories of growing coffee alongside their parents years ago, but they had to abandon it after the economic downturn,” he tells Global Coffee Report. “Now they tell us how excited they are to share the coffee again with the outside world.”

During the past couple decades, the number of local coffee farmers has dropped drastically, first due to massive government land reform in 2000 that forcibly transferred land ownership from white farmers to indigenous Zimbabweans and, second, due to coffee’s low earnings amid local inflation that have pushed farmers to switch to more economical crops.

“A combination of volatile [and low] prices on the global markets and high local production costs has led to a decline in the industry,” explains Dumisani Kutywayo, Director of Crops Research at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Research and Specialist Services. “Farmers have diversified into macadamia nuts and avocado pears, which are seemingly easier to manage compared to coffee.”

Conditions for some farmers have been exacerbated by the country’s worst drought in 40 years and the repercussions of intense tropical Cyclone Idai in March 2019. Agriculture aside, Zimbabwe is also in the midst of an economic crisis, with inflation and poverty climbing in tandem. According to World Bank, annual inflation reached 230 per cent last July, with food prices hit the hardest, and extreme poverty was estimated at 34 per cent in 2019, up from 29 per cent in 2018.

Even still, Nyakuchena has chosen to remain in the coffee industry, specifically focusing on the premium tiers. By doing so, “he got almost the equivalent of the average income in Zimbabwe by selling his coffee to Nespresso”, Bhunu says. “Farmers are now doubling and even tripling their incomes from coffee. They have used the money to send their children to school, improve their homes, and buy household goods, farm supplies, and equipment.” Nespresso pays farmers substantially above market rate for their high-quality coffee.

“What else does one need on earth? We have bought 15 bags of fertiliser, some food to celebrate our hard work, and of course a special wardrobe for my wife,” says Nyakuchena.

Nespresso officially announced its investment in Zimbabwe in September 2018, teaming up with international nonprofit TechnoServe. This particular project is part of the AAA Sustainable Quality Program’s Reviving Origins efforts, which are designed to revive coffee farming in regions throughout the world where the industry is on the verge of extinction as a result of conflict, economic hardship, or environmental disasters.

For the aforementioned reasons, Zimbabwe was a strong candidate for Reviving Origins. “When we went to Zimbabwe, we discovered that it was a big producing country 20 years ago but because of climatic and political issues, there has been a significant production decrease,” says Yann De Pietro, Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program Manager overseeing Zimbabwe. “Due to these issues, there was no market for the coffee anymore and so there was no interest in coffee. And as prices and production went down, the quality went down. We saw this as a good challenge, because there is a strong history of coffee in Zimbabwe and there were still skilled coffee growers there we could work with.”

Nespresso and TechnoServe have worked together on various projects in other countries, including work specifically related to Reviving Origins. As part of the efforts in Zimbabwe, they rolled out the program’s AAA Academy, a two-year training program for smallholder farmers that is used across other AAA program countries. “They learn the basics of coffee, one topic per month following the coffee calendar,” Pietro tells GCR. “Every month, depending on the season, they learn topics that they can practice in the field, not only in the demo farm, but also in their own farms.”

Topics include shade, pest, and disease management, coffee harvesting and processing, pruning and rejuvenation, and sustainable practices that help protect against climate threats, such as improving soil health through erosion control and the application of compost and mulch.

In the preliminary stages, which occurred in 2017, Nespresso identified two larger estates, which were producing most of the coffee exported out of Zimbabwe, and about 450 smallholder farmers, who were together producing less than 10 per cent of total output. With these producers, the project’s objectives were twofold, says De Pietro: increase the quality and sustainability of the estates while keeping volumes strong, and improve quality and productivity with the smallholders in hopes of bringing more farmers back into the industry.

For more than a year, TechnoServe agronomists and locally trained AAA agronomists have been teaching “farmers everything they need to know about coffee farming and processing through the AAA Academy”, Bhunu says. “Farmers come together once a month on a coffee farm in small, village-based groups for hands-on training so that farmers learn by seeing and doing. We also teach farmers important business skills, such as recordkeeping, that helps them manage their farms and improve their incomes.”

Although it’s still early days, both reception and results of the project have been positive. In addition to slowing the trend of farmers leaving the industry – and even encouraging some to return – production volumes and quality have increased. Bhunu estimates that the area under cultivation has expanded more than 30 per cent since the project began. De Pietro says the share of high-quality coffee that specifically meets Nespresso’s quality standards has increased by nearly 50 per cent.

Though small in scale, these achievements represent a glimmer of hope for a country that used to be famous for its high-quality Arabicas and high volumes relative to the country’s small size.

“It was known for very high-profile coffee of a quality that was not very common in Africa, or really anywhere in the world,” describes De Pietro, noting its high acidity and unique fruitiness. This extraordinary profile and high quality are thanks to Zimbabwe’s ideal coffee growing conditions: high altitude, cool climate, steady rainfall, and rich soil.
The Zimbabwean coffee industry hit its stride in the 1980s and 1990s, peaking in 1991 with 252,000 60-kilogram bags, according to the International Coffee Organization. But since 2004, production has been on a strong downward trend, falling to its lowest point in 2017 at only 6000 bags. Harvest year 2018 saw a very small increase to 8000 60-kilogram bags, and the same is anticipated for 2019.

Aside from Nespresso and TechnoServe, Ministry of Agriculture’s Kutywayo says there aren’t any other organisations currently leading efforts in Zimbabwe’s coffee industry. Previous quality and capacity building initiatives through organisations like World Vision and the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation ended or fizzled out long ago. The government, however, “is finalising a coffee strategy that will be used to develop the sector as a key foreign exchange generating commodity”, he tells GCR. “The government recognises the importance of coffee as a key commodity, hence, the development of a strategy to revitalise the sector.”

He says the strategy will be submitted for approval early this year and set into motion in the following months.

Additionally, the new Zimbabwean government has pledged to revive the economy and specifically the agriculture sector. To start, it promises to restore property rights and has set aside millions of dollars in funding to compensate thousands of white farmers who were evicted from their properties during Mugabe’s land reform.

TechnoServe has been working closely with the Zimbabwean government on the national coffee strategy, including helping develop it, participating in the National Coffee Working Group, and training Agritex government extension officers in coffee agronomy.

“Our vision is for coffee to be an engine of sustainable development in Zimbabwe, enabling people in the country’s hard-hit rural areas to improve their incomes and their lives,” Bhunu says. “We believe that if this progress continues in the next few years, Zimbabwe could eventually double its coffee production.”

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