by Pilirani Semu-Banda
LILONGWE, Nov 21 (IPS) - Malawi’s coffee producers have come up with innovative plans to kick start the country’s sluggish coffee industry, including the marketing of specialty blends which are uniquely Malawian.
Despite the boom in coffee consumption in many markets, Malawi has in recent years been struggling to find buyers for its locally produced coffee. Out of a total volume of 2,500 metric tons produced last year for the international market, local farmers only managed to export 1,307 metric tons.
There has been a downward trend in Malawi’s coffee bean production every year since 1991, when the country reached a peak of 7,720 metric tons of coffee beans. Coffee growers only produced 3,703 metric tons in 2001, dropping to 2,500 metric tons in 2006.
The Coffee Association of Malawi (CAMAL), an organisation representing cooperatives and large and small commercial farmers, attributes the progressive decline in production to the departure of growers from the industry and the reduction in hectares under the crop.
‘‘Coffee used to be one of the major contributors of foreign exchange earnings but this is no longer the case,’’ says CAMAL’s technical and marketing executive, Peter Njikho. Currently, Malawi’s major foreign exchange earners include tobacco, cotton and sugar.
CAMAL wants to reverse the downward trend by pursuing higher value markets for its coffee. ‘‘Malawi has to search for buyers beyond its traditional reliance on the one or two commodity buyers that have regularly bought from here,’’ says Njikho.
The country’s traditional buyers have been the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and South Africa. But this year, Malawi coffee has the potential of reaching other markets in Switzerland, the U.S., Canada and Japan.
CAMAL has managed to attract buyers from these countries. One of the selling points is that Malawian coffee tends to be softer on the palate and have lower acidity than its African counterparts.
To push for an increased market awareness of the quality of Malawi’s coffee, CAMAL has joined forces with the Malawi Investment Promotion Agency (MIPA), the United Nations Development Programme’s Growing Sustainable Business (GSB) programme and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
GSB broker Jan Willem van den Broek says Malawian coffee producers have become increasingly aware of the high quality of their coffee beans and the potential to sell in coffee specialty markets.
‘‘Since last year, measures have been taken by CAMAL to transform the country into one of the world’s premium specialty coffee producing nations,’’ says van den Broek.
He explains that Malawi has both the climate and altitude to produce high-quality coffee but that most of the country’s coffee is being exported as ungraded green beans.
Through the new initiative, CAMAL has embarked on processing its own local blends and brands. One such brand is the Mzuzu Coffee being produced in the northern region of Malawi by the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union.
The union, which comprises of 3,200 smallholder farmers, produces some of the highest-quality coffee in Malawi.
‘‘The cooperative not only exports green beans, but also roasts and brands its specialty coffee under the name ‘Malawi’s Mzuzu Coffee’. In 2005, roasted Mzuzu coffee won the country’s first coffee cupping competition, and since then it has been showcased at numerous international cupping competitions,’’ says van den Broek.
The increased market awareness by CAMAL has also managed to attract international coffee experts and buyers such as David Roche from the Coffee Quality Institute in the U.S. and Craig Holt from Atlas Coffee Importers. The Coffee Quality Institute is a non-profit organization that works to improve coffee quality worldwide.
Roche and Holt recently met with Malawian coffee producers and made a presentation on improving the quality of the coffee.
The initiative by CAMAL is aimed at improving exports and thereby foreign exchange while boosting coffee producers’ profits.
Producers are worried that they, like producers in other African countries, are facing potentially harmful non-tariff barriers from the European Union (EU).
Some European conservationists are saying that transporting products by air to sell in other countries increases pollution and is therefore bad for the environment. This could frustrate Malawi’s efforts in opening new markets for its produce.
CAMAL is therefore also working hand-in-hand with nine other countries (Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) to render their coffee globally marketable despite the barriers they may be facing from the EU.
The African countries are fighting the challenges as one front under an umbrella body called the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA). During a recent visit, EAFCA’s executive director, Philip Gitao, commended local coffee producers for their efforts to work together.
He was attending the ‘‘Test of Harvest’’ competition aimed at encouraging growers to come up with coffee that could compete on the international market. The winner of the competition received a full sponsorship to utilise laboratories in Geneva, Switzerland. The Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union scooped up the first two positions. (END/2007)