Agric, Environment & Innovation Editor
Government recently approved the Horticulture Recovery and Growth Plan to promote the intensive growing of fruits, vegetables and other horticultural products to spearhead the country’s agricultural recovery through competitive exports and increased productivity. In this report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST), our Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor speaks to Caleb Mahoya (CM) head of the Coffee Research Institute about the tremendous potential of coffee in the development of the horticulture sector.
ST: What is the role of Coffee Research Institute in reviving coffee farming and production which has been declining over the years in Zimbabwe?
CM: The Coffee Research Institute is playing a pivotal role in reviving coffee production in Zimbabwe through, first of all, the development and dissemination of sustainable production technologies to boost productivity and secondly, through the production of seedlings for the farmers. This year alone, we produced over 80 000 coffee seedlings for distribution to the farmers at a small fee. Thirdly, we acquire, evaluate and recommend for production best performing coffee varieties from all over the world. Between 2016 and 2020 Coffee Research Institute managed to bring into the country 31 of the world’s best performing coffee varieties through a collaborative research project with World Coffee Research based in Texas in the US. The varieties are currently being evaluated in the field at the Coffee Research Institute here in Chipinge, for performance under local conditions before recommending for production by the farmers. We also train farmers on sustainable farming practices and recruit new farmers into coffee production through publicity activities such as shows, field days, demonstration plots and information materials.
ST: What is the current coffee production output in Zimbabwe? Before the slump, what was the production level over the past 10 years?
CM: Coffee production is important to the Zimbabwean economy. At its peak in the late 1980s, the coffee sector employed over 20 000 people and contributed an estimated 2.1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and earned about US$54 million in foreign currency. At its peak, the country produced about 14 664 metric tonnes (MT) of the best quality coffee (Coffee arabica) alongside Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mexico and Kenya. During the early 1990s, coffee production in Zimbabwe was ranked fourth after Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. Production was mostly concentrated in the eastern districts (Chimanimani, Chipinge, Mutare, Mutasa) but coffee was also produced in Karoi, Makonde, Goromonzi, Guruve and Bikita districts. Coffee production declined to its lowest of 206 metric tonnes in 2010 due to a number of reasons, including the fact that some farmers abandoned coffee in preference for other crops such as macadamia nuts, bananas and avocado that they considered more lucrative with low production costs.
In part, this decline in coffee production is also attributed to volatility in world coffee prices, lack of appropriate financial support to the farmers, natural disasters such as cyclones, droughts, increasing incidences of diseases and pests due to climate change, change of the production and support structures, and the policies that mainly supported cereal production in the country.
Through public and private partnerships, coffee production has been on an upward trajectory up to the current production of around 354 metric tonnes since 2010. International markets include USA, Canada, Germany, UK, South Africa, Japan, Netherlands and others.
From 2010 to 2020 production has been slowly picking up from 206 metric tonnes in 2010 to the current approximately 354 metric tonnes through support from development partners such as FAO, World Vision and DFID.
ST: Can you tell us briefly about coffee production in Africa and the emerging global trends.
CM: Globally and on the African continent, coffee production has gone down due to low world market prices, competition from other land use activities such as real estate and other lucrative crops, natural disasters such as frost, droughts, heat stress and outbreaks of pests and diseases, aged plantations, poor soil fertility and climate change.
Currently, world Arabica coffee production stands at 95.99 million bags representing a five percent decrease from last season. In Africa, Arabica coffee production decreased by 24 percent whilst Robusta coffee decreased by 16 percent compared to last season.
ST: Zimbabwe still remains an agro-based economy. What do you think is the role of the smallholder coffee producers in the country? What are some of the constraints do you think need to be addressed to improve productivity?
CM: Given the fact that most of the farmers doing coffee in Zimbabwe are now smallholder farmers and that Zimbabwe exports more than 90 percent of its coffee produce, if well supported financially and technically smallholder coffee producers can earn the country the much needed foreign currency and improve their food and nutrition security.
Given that Zimbabwe has a milling capacity of 50 000 metric tonnes boosting smallholder coffee production will help create jobs for farm workers and supporting industries. Some of the constraints that need to be addressed to improve production include availing medium to long term financing for the farmers, availing production and processing equipment and materials such as knapsack sprayers, fertilizers and chemicals, hand pulpers and well-funded vibrant research.
ST: Does the Coffee Research Institute have adequate funding to help it develop drought-resistance varieties, build value addition techniques and ways of attracting the youth into coffee farming? How much does the institute need to play its mandate effectively?
CM: The development of the coffee sector requires well-resourced research. This is what helped Zimbabwe reach its peak in 1989. Currently, there is very little funding for research in this very lucrative crop that can easily help the country earn the much needed foreign currency given that it’s a crop that has very high returns on a small manageable piece of land even on steep slopes where very few other crops can thrive.
There is need for adequate research funding accompanied by medium to long term financing for the farmers. Historically, the Coffee Research Institute did not have a coffee breeding programme, but is currently exploring other modern methods of producing elite planting materials such as tissue culture techniques and venturing into molecular characterisation of coffee varieties as a starting point into coffee breeding. To carry out its mandate effectively, Coffee Research requires adequate funding.
ST: Global coffee brand Nespresso partnered with TechnoServe, an international non-profit organisation, to help revitalise the sector and support and encourage coffee farmers in the country’s Eastern Highlands. What role have you played in this partnership? How many farmers have been supported so far?
CM: As part of the efforts to revitalise the coffee industry in Zimbabwe, Nespresso through Technoserve are working with farmers to improve productivity and quality of coffee. We have agreed to partner with Technoserve in training the farmers and evaluating technologies. We are in the process of acquiring coffee seed to produce coffee seedlings for distribution to the farmers at a small fee.
Training efforts and most of the field work that had been scheduled for this season have been affected by COVID-19 lockdown. Currently, the Coffee Research Institute is testing Technoserve seed samples for viability and diseases before the seed is distributed to the farmers for planting.
ST: The Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe is quite suitable for growing arabica coffee due to good rainfall levels, rich soils and cool temperatures. What varieties have you developed that could help adapt to natural challenges such as drought, occasional cyclones and outbreaks of pests?
CM: Coffee Research Institute is currently evaluating the performance of 31 of the best performing coffee varieties in the world under local conditions and against natural challenges such as drought, cyclones and outbreaks of insect pests and diseases. The 31 best performing varieties in the world were acquired through a collaborative project with the World Coffee Research of the US.
ST: Post-harvest losses are still a major problem in this coffee growing region of Zimbabwe. What is the Coffee Research Institute and the private sector partners – Nespresso doing to help farmers reduce post – harvest losses?
CM: To reduce post-harvest losses the Coffee Research Institute and Nespresso through Technoserve are helping farmers through training on sustainable processing, packaging, storage and transporting practices.
ST: Finding reliable buyers for coffee is still a major problem for smallholder farmers. Nespresso is now a major buyer and supporter of Zimbabwe coffee. To what extent is its presence going to offer a market and promote the growth of the country’s coffee sector?
CM: The coming of Nespresso has come as a very big boost for the revitalisation of the coffee sector in Zimbabwe. By offering very good prices and training farmers on sustainable farming practices the intervention has seen a renewed interest to grow new or expand existing coffee plantations by both new smallholder and large – scale farmers. Demand for planting material has sky-rocketed.
ST: What are your hopes for coffee farming in Zimbabwe? How do you see smallholder coffee growers playing a role in the attainment of the country’s Vision 2030?
CM: Given the current impetus, coffee farming has a bright future in Zimbabwe if it is continuously well supported. Government input and equipment support schemes can go a long way in helping revitalize the lucrative smallholder coffee sector. With over 90 percent of the coffee produced in Zimbabwe being exported and the good prices and support being offered by Nespresso and Coffee Research Institute the smallholder farmers are set to play a very big role in the attainment of vision 2030 by earning the country the much needed foreign currency and improving their livelihoods and that of their communities as the forex they earn circulates.