Market Reports

Africa’s peacetime coffee comeback

At the height of Africa’s coffee production glory, the West African nation of Angola produced more than 5 million 60-kilogram bags a year. The country was a source of some of the world’s unique high-quality Robusta beans, and a pillar of stability in the global market. Up until the mid 1960s, Angola was one of the biggest growers in Africa, an example to follow for regional nations. That situation changed dramatically in 1961, when civil strife broke out. For the next 40 years, the nation would see one conflict replaced by another. In April 2002, Angola’s fighting parties finally put an end to the conflict, which is believed to have killed up to 1.5 million people. The country was left in a state of complete devastation, and the formerly rich coffee farms were infested with land mines. “Angola is one example of the fate that so many African coffee producing countries have gone through,” says Fred Kawuma, a Ugandan national who in January 2013 took over as the new Secretary General of The Inter-African Coffee Organisation (IACO). The IACO groups 25 African coffee nations, and is based out of the Ivorian capital of Abidjan. “Not just coffee production, but agriculture in general has more or the less collapsed in Africa during the past few decades of war and conflict, so this has to be addressed in a very holistic matter on the international agenda,” Kawuma tells Global Coffee Review. He says the reconstruction of coffee economies in Africa is at the heart of IACO’s mission, and the target is to see Africa as a region regain a share in world production of between 15 and 20 per cent. “In countries where production has gone significantly down, IACO wants to help try to find a way to re-build that coffee industry. Right now we are starting to see a rebound in production which is having a very positive effect on the continent as a whole,” says Kawuma. At the end of the Angolan civil war, national production was registered at around 10,000 bags. However, Angolan coffee lands have slowly started re-entering production. While bad weather in the last 2012-13 crop cut production short to just 29,000 bags, the new 2013-14 harvest is expected to come close to 40,000 bags, according to Angola’s National Coffee Institute (INC). Local industry sources, however, say the real production figure has already reached between 60,000 and 70,000 bags, but half of this is sold internally in the local market and not registered in official figures. The US Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, pegs Angola’s output at about 30,000 bags. Regardless of the official production figure, the more important message is that Angola is starting to come back. “The official government goal is for Angola’s coffee industry to see production recover to about 1 million bags within the next decade. Our initial target is to reach between 250,000 and 583,000 bags by 2015,” INC’s General Manager Joao Ferreira da Costa Neto tells Global Coffee Review. An agreement signed earlier this year with long-term political allies Vietnam and Brazil is further bound to speed up development in Angola. The Angolan government for the Vietnamese state-coffee company Thai Hoa Vietnam Group, in a joint-venture with Brazil’s JN Brazil Angola consultancy, made a deal to start growing coffee on a 6000-hectare estate under the management of Angola’s N’Gola M’zamba coffee estate company. The agreement calls for an initial investment of US$15 million and plans to gradually expand the investment to a total of $225 million in order to plant coffee over 100,000 hectares by 2022. “Africa has lost a lot of production because of civil strife. Production has been lost in Angola, production has gone down in Burundi and Rwanda, and Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast have experienced significant declines in coffee production in the last 11 years because of civil strife,” says Robert Waggwa Nsibirwa, President of the Coffee Academy and a member of the board of the Africa Fine Coffee Association. “Government policies are still a challenge in most of the countries and the biggest challenge in coffee is without doubt productivity. But we are seeing production starting to come back and I do believe Africa is the new frontier in coffee because of the low productivity which leaves an untapped potential of being able to double production with very little effort,” Nsibirwa tells Global Coffee Review. Prior to the 2001 – 2003 coffee crisis, when global oversupply resulted in prices crashing to historic lows, the Ivory Coast had firmly consolidated its position as Africa’s biggest coffee producer with annual output between 4 and 5 million 60-kilogram bags. But as many growers switched to cocoa, which was fetching higher prices, and civil war went on to intensify in 2006, and coffee production fell to an all-time low of 999,000 bagsin the 2010-11 cycle. In the past three years, coffee cultivation has recovered significantly. In part, this has been thanks to the higher prices in 2011 that encouraged growers to tend to their farms, but more importantly much of this recovery can be attributed to growing political stability. Production in the new 2013-14 harvest is forecast to reach between 2.2 and 2.3 million bags, according to officials in Abidjan. Tiny growers Sierra Leone and Liberia are also starting to make progress in bringing coffee production back on track. Better known for being at the centre of the “blood diamond” conflicts in West Africa, coffee production dates back over 100 years, with Robusta seedlings introduced in the late 1880s. Before the two diamond-rich countries plunged into brutal civil war in 1991, local farmers produced between 100,000 and 200,000 bags in Sierra Leone, while output in Liberia had reached between 50,000 – 100,000 bags. Today, both countries are seeing production rise again. Sierra Leone’s total annual production is now back to between 80,000 – 90,000 bags. Liberia is making just enough to earn a mention in international figures. After years of production being officially registered at less than 1000 bags, in March 2007 a little piece of encouraging news took place in the port of Monrovia when the first container of coffee was loaded for export in a decade. While tiny lots of Liberian coffee were unofficially exported through neighbouring countries during the conflict, the container load leaving the port of Monrovia that day marked the official return of Liberia as a coffee exporting nation. Today, output is approaching 10,000 bags. Other African countries that are making a notable recovery are Burundi and Rwanda. The two tiny East African countries both suffered from varying degrees of genocide in the mid-1990s, and in both cases disputes were largely over lands mostly cultivated with coffee. Prior to the conflicts, production was between 500,000 and 600,000 bags. The road back to these figures has been coming along slowly. As the new 2013-14 harvest season is coming to an end, the two countries are eying production of about 300,000 bags. Although still far from a full recovery, a new level of political stability and new marketing models should help these two countries back to their former levels of glory. “Rwanda has, since the genocide, improved its production volumes a lot and there has been tremendous progress on quality as well,” says Kawuma. “Burundi has always been very enthusiastic about coffee and they have strived hard to come back since the conflict. So we really want to see them supported in their effort,” he adds. Many industry officials say the fact that African countries still produce the lowest average yields in the world of coffee also holds the biggest promise for the years ahead. Simply by doubling yields, the AFCA’s Nsibirwa says African production should, without too much effort, be able to retake a 20 per cent share of the market. Many smallholder farmers yield only between two or three bags of coffee per hectare and the average for the continent is about five bags per hectare, according to official coffee statistics from key African countries.  “I sincerely believe that Africa is the continent that holds the greatest potential for increasing production in the years ahead, because our yields are so low that it’s practically impossible not to be able to increase from this level,” he says. Among other countries that have witnessed important recovery efforts in Africa are Congo and Uganda. For years, much of the coffee land  in northern Uganda was under the control of the radical guerilla movement the Lord’s Resistance Army. Much of that land has now started to re-enter the production cycle. But it’s not only African countries that are embracing newfound political stability in order to advance coffee renovation. There have been a number of similarly important developments in the Latin American and South-East Asian continents. In 1992 and 1996, respectively, civil wars ended in Nicaragua and Guatemala. These were the last in Central America, after more than two decades of bloody civil war. While coffee production had continued throughout the years of conflict, it was not until the end of the civil wars and, in the case of Nicaragua, the restoration to the original owners of most of the land seized by the revolutionary government, that renovation efforts and replanting started in earnest. As a result, Nicaragua today has one of the world’s youngest coffee parks with the majority of the land under production completely replanted between 1996 and 2004 and with an average tree age of 10 to 14 years. Elsewhere in the world, following the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the armed conflict in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra came to an end after more than 30 years of bloodshed. Lands that were abandoned as growers fled the conflict started to return to production as growers returned, first to evaluate the conditions and then to prune and re-activate production.
The results are notable in international figures for Arabica production out of Indonesia, which in the last 10 years have gone from about 1.2 million bags to 1.6 million bags. This is likely to be the continuing trend in countries that have left conflict behind in favour of using coffee as a “transformation commodity” that can be applied to the socio-economic improvements of the countries where it is grown, say industry officials. “If appropriate development strategies and investments are made, extension services are effectively provided and best practices are employed, there is no reason why African coffee cannot play a better role than it plays today in significantly promoting the economic transformation of this continent. We have started to see this happening in some countries and we have all reasons to believe this is a trend that will continue in the years that come,” says Kawuma. 

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