Premium coffee plant prices attract small Zim farmers back to resurgent crop

David Muganyura, 70, examines coffee plants on his farm in Honde Valley, Zimbabwe
David Muganyura, 70, examines coffee plants on his farm in Honde Valley, Zimbabwe

David Muganyura smells the coffee cherries on the slopes of his plot and breaks into a smile, as he chats to workers harvesting a crop he expects to be his biggest to date.

A long-time Zimbabwean coffee grower, Muganyura almost gave up on the crop when prices slumped to as low as US20 cents a pound (about R2.80 per 500g) at the turn of the millennium, and foreign buyers took flight after land seizures drove out more than 120 white commercial coffee farmers under the banner of post-colonial reform.

But with companies like Nestle’s Nespresso arm now willing to pay a premium for Zimbabwe’s beans, small-scale farmers like Muganyura are returning to a sector that was all but destroyed under former president Robert Mugabe.

Coffee output in Zimbabwe was 430 tons in 2018, a 10% increase over the previous year.

In 2019, production is set at 500 tons, industry officials say.

Zimbabwe was never among the world’s top producers – output peaked at around 15,000 tons in the late 1990s.

But its Arabica coffee is prized for its zesty and fruity tones, and the sector once provided a livelihood for more than 20,000 poor farmers.

Nespresso, which started buying Zimbabwean coffee in 2018 at a 30%-40% premium on global prices and pays farmers in US dollars, is helping to drive the modest revival.

It bought 200 tons from 450 small farmers and two large estates in 2018 and wants to attract more growers, Nespresso’s corporate affairs division head Daniel Weston said.

Its limited-edition “Tamuka muZimbabwe” (“We Have Awakened in Zimbabwe”) coffee, launched in 16 countries in May, sold out in three weeks.

“What we are hoping to achieve over time is to increase the volume of coffee coming initially from the smallholder farmers we are working with and to encourage other smallholder farmers to join the programme,” Weston said.

Nespresso has teamed up with international nonprofit TechnoServe to offer training to small farmers in the growing techniques needed to achieve the high quality it demands.

“The market has a huge appetite for Zimbabwean coffee,” TechnoServe farmer trainer Midway Bhunu said.

“The world was about to lose one of its best coffees.”

Muganyura, a father of eight, received the training in 2018 and managed to more than triple output from his 2ha plot to 700kg. In 2019, he expects to harvest 1.5 tons, a personal best that will earn him more than $10,000 (R140,000).

“This is only introductory to a stage where we will get real money,” Muganyura said during a visit to his plot in the Honde Valley, about 360km from Harare.

The payments have enabled Muganyura to hire labour, instal solar power at his homestead, buy farming inputs, pay school fees for some of his grand children and medicine for his diabetic wife – which he struggled to do in the past.

In 2019, he aims to buy a car, a lifelong dream.

Because of his success, he said, neighbours are inquiring about growing coffee.

He plans to add another half a hectare of coffee trees.

Zimbabwe outlawed the use of dollars and other foreign currencies in June.

Nespresso said it was assessing what that would mean for its payments to farmers.

The Honde Valley is one of four districts that together had about 2,000 small coffee farmers in 2000, but most quit and started growing bananas.

Just two white-owned commercial coffee farms remain.

Robert Boswell, 50, owns one. His family lost two other farms to land seizures and cut the area under coffee production by 46%. –