Olam Food Ingredients (ofi) explains how it’s working to unleash Zambia’s potential as a coffee producing country, with a focus on product innovation, sustainability impact, and a high-quality product.
Zambia is not a traditional coffee producing country, but over the years, coffee and ingredients expert, ofi, has worked hard to help establish the southern African country as a dominant market player.
Coffee was introduced to Zambia in the 1980s thanks to a crop diversification initiative with the World Bank. It started commercially exporting Arabica in the late 80s, however, its varietals were susceptible to disease and yield subsequently declined. Seeing the potential however, ofi bought its own Zambian estate in 2012, in addition to already-established farms in Laos and Tanzania, becoming one of the largest owners of private coffee estates in Africa.
“Owning our own coffee farms through our subsidiary, the Northern Coffee Corporation Limited, has created incredible opportunities and challenges, including volatile coffee and fertiliser prices, and climate change, which has required ofi to evolve and keep pace with changing demands that are necessary to keep at the leading edge of coffee production,” says ofi SBU Head of Coffee Estates, Aranyak Sanyal.
“Ofi was sitting on a basket of unexplored opportunities centred around innovation and farming, be it in terms of carbon reduced coffees or process innovation. Our estates gave us the opportunity to trial different post-harvest practices, from wastewater treatment to extended fermentation techniques,” Sanyal says. “At the time we took over the Zambia estates, the crop needed reviving. We now have more than five-and-a-half million trees producing certified, specialty-grade coffees across five estates located in Ngoli, Isanya, Kateshi, Luombe and Nsunzu.”
Ofi has grown to be the largest employer in the northern province of Zambia, engaging about 3000 people year-round to grow its coffee, which can rise to more than 15,000 people during the harvesting period.
“There are a couple of things that East Africa is known for in terms of coffee. One, is the ability to produce extremely sharp floral and citrous cupping notes in washed coffees. The other, is fruity, well rounded, heavy naturals,” Sanyal says. “We are able to product both broad categories of specialty coffees across the various farms.”
Zambia ticks all the right boxes for producing coffee. It’s blessed with plenty of ground water and high altitude. Sanyal says it’s very rare to find coffee growing conditions at an altitude of 1400 to 1700 metres on flat land. This allows ofi to apply precision irrigation to improve water efficiency.
“All ofi coffee is 100 per cent irrigated, which makes us a little bit more resilient to drought risk and able to achieve more uniform production year-on-year. That’s what is most attractive about Zambia, and in hindsight, it’s paid off,” he says.
More and more, he says customers had been requesting access to a long-term reliable supply of specialty coffee in a volatile coffee market. With ofi’s year-round, on-the-ground presence and integrated primary processing, Sanyal says this is a niche that ofi’s Zambia estates can fulfil.
To maintain a high standard of quality control, ofi has developed and progressed the skills of hand-picking with on-site researchers. Cherry is handpicked based on the degree of sugar content, cherry maturity, and its placement on the tree canopy.
“Not all red cherry is created equal. We can layer art and science, so the art is being able to spot the ripe cherry and the science is the ability to measure the how good or bad are we at spotting it, which is by looking at the biology and agro- chemistry of the cherry,” Sanyal says.
Harvested red ripe cherries are then allocated to different post-harvest processing methods to generate specific cup profiles and sensory attributes, depending on consumer preferences.
Sanyal says ofi’s fully washed Zambian coffees, which account for the majority of coffee produced on ofi’s estates, are the most popular specialty- grade requests. This process uses less than one litre of water per kilogram, making ofi “among the cutting-edge of water stewardship”.
Sanyal says ofi’s European buyers mostly prefer coffee with a bolder body and mouthfeel, while United States and other markets prefer brighter, floral coffees. For this reason, ofi applies different harvesting and processing methods to customise and fine-tune the cup profile depending on customer preferences.
Ofi’s Zambia estate provides a valuable “sandpit for innovation” with the ability to control cherry flow and uniformity in ripeness grown on the same terroir. The infrastructure allows ofi to experiment with multiple processing methods including naturals, honeys and washed, where both indigenous microbiome as well as specific starter cultures can be introduced to modify the microbial ecology during fermentation.
Over the last few years, ofi has custom-designed infrastructure, processing methods and produced natural and washed coffees at scale, using modified fermentation techniques to modulate aroma volatiles. Ofi’s on-site dry mill also helps to ensure it meets stringent customer specifications of density, colour, and defect level.
The exporter has also hosted several co-creation initiatives with customers, and collaborated with World Coffee Research’s International Multilocation Variety Trial to identify new varietals that can withstand pests and disease with minimal chemical intervention. It has also researched biological control agents through natural predators to replace agrochemicals. The results are already being disseminated across ofi’s farmer sourcing network.
“Zambia is the ideal testbed for this pioneering research because its agro-climatic conditions are fairly similar to corresponding coffee growing regions, such as Honduras, Guatemala, Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon and parts of Ethiopia, and Kenya,” Sanyal says. “We have also been working on making coffee production resilient. Some of the drought trials and research we have done on varietal and fertiliser planning is what makes Zambia a trailblazer within the ofi agronomy ecosystem.”
Ofi is also passionate about restoring natural biodiversity. In the past six years, it has reforested about 650 hectares of degraded land around its estates with new non-coffee trees. Over the past seven years, ofi has hosted teams of university researchers doing in-depth studies on greenhouse gas emissions from processing, with a view to offer customers options for climate-smart, low-carbon coffee products. Already, Sanyal says the results have helped ofi model tools for more effective carbon and water footprints, which can be accessed by customrs on ofi’s sustainability management system AtSource.
“We are applying the learnings from these trials on our estates to our sourcing origins, to make smallholder supply chains more climate resilient, as well as more cost effective,” Sanyal says. “Because every farm is different – different production constraints, topography, soils – we are using the coffee growing intelligence gathered through research in Zambia, together with AtSource data, to input farm level parameters and generate tailored agronomy advice. This means optimising available resources to deliver interventions that make the most meaningful impact for individual farmers.”
Ofi’s sustainability focus extends beyond its estates to the local communities where many of its workers and their families live. It includes supporting over five primary and secondary schools, several conservation projects, and the promotion of beekeeping as an added source of income to disincentivise illegal deforestation for producing charcoal.
A primary healthcare facility has also been developed for community members, with nursery and maternal facilities to help reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.
“In the last seven or eight years, our clinic in Kateshi, which serves more than 8000 members from surrounding villages, is proud to have contributed to saving the lives of people who might otherwise not have been able to receive treatment. This is the most powerful statement of service to the community, representing people who may have otherwise perished in the absence of emergency medical care, hospitalisation and maternity wards hosted by ofi,” Sanyal says.
Notably, the clinic is open to the general public. Among all facts and figures in the world of coffee trading from Zambia to the world, Sanyal says that being able to save lives is something he’s personally proud of.
“For us, community is everything. We have rebuilt the Zambian estate projects from scratch, and for many farm workers, it is their only source of formal income. Therefore, the community takes a lot of pride in their coffee, and we do too,” Sanyal says.
For more information, visit www.ofi.com
This article was first published in the July/August 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.