Third time’s a charm for Cameroon

Since German colonists introduced coffee to Cameroon in 1884, it has played an important role in the country’s development and economy, particularly since 1960 when Cameroon gained independence from Europe. But not unlike many other coffee-producing countries – where farmers live in poverty as coffee prices hit all-time lows, where climate change and plant disease are slashing production, and where crops and farmers are ageing while youth move to the city – Cameroon has a lot stacked against it. It’s also one of many African coffee-producing countries where political turmoil, such as land ownership changes, government intervention (or lack of), and armed conflict, particularly the current Anglophone Crisis, has affected the local coffee industry over the decades.

Coffee growing expanded in the 1920s, particularly in 1929 with the arrival of Frenchman René Coste, an agricultural engineer who ran the agricultural station in Dschang, Cameroon. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), he gave impetus to the rapid growth of this cash crop, helping form the country’s first coffee co-op and build its first mill.

“At the economic level, coffee was one of the main sources of the foreign currencies required to equip the country with productive investment, while in social terms it was virtually the only source of monetary income of rural populations,” reported Michael Ndoping, General Manager of the National Cocoa & Coffee Board (NCCB), in the ICO’s latest country profile on Cameroon. “To some extent, coffee governed the life of these communities. Coffee was, therefore, of particular interest to the state, which ensured its operation by means of input distribution, price support, and various forms of participation.”

From independence through the early 1990s, Cameroon saw production skyrocket and became the 12th largest producer globally. But since a record high of 2.2 million 60-kilogram bags in the 1986-87 harvest season, production has been on a steady decline.

“Unfortunately, low coffee prices and the withdrawal of the state during the past three decades have deprived farmers of all the advantages that made the sector so attractive, bringing about a gradual decline in activity,” reported Ndoping for ICO. “This situation gradually undermined interest in this crop that provided work for the populations of whole regions, causing a virtually irreversible loss of dynamism.”

In 1991, liberalisation of the coffee sector began, causing the state to withdraw from the sector as well as the creation of NCCB. Liberalisation was completed by the 1994-95 harvest season, leaving producer prices susceptible to the global market and causing marked reductions in purchase prices to growers and the quality of products for exports, according to the ICO.

“Sector stakeholders agree that the withdrawal of the state during the liberalisation of the sector is at the origin of several of the problems that exist today,” according to the Cameroon Coffee Sector Development Strategy, developed by the International Trade Centre in collaboration with NCCB and the Inter-Professional Cocoa & Coffee Council.

“State withdrawal from the marketing [in particular] placed the producers in front of a plethora of buyers who are not very professional.”

“Without the protection of the marketing board, farmers and their cooperative groups were exposed to the price fluctuations of the commodity markets, which were trending toward historically low levels,” says Matti Foncha, Founder of Cameroon Boyo Coffee. “Farmers have been growing coffee in this region for close to 100 years, during which time it provided for the economic well-being of the producing families. But following the decline of coffee market prices in the 1990s, many farmers replaced coffee with other crops.”

In the 1992-93 harvest season, the year after liberalisation commenced, coffee production plummeted 85 per cent to an all-time low of 260,000 60-kilogram bags. Although it rebounded somewhat in the latter part of the decade, production volumes have been on a steady downward trend since.

Over the decades, a number of initiatives have been launched, but many, unfortunately, have not been fruitful. When production dropped and quality deteriorated following liberalisation, the European Union and International Trade Center, with others, developed the Coffee Sector Development Strategy (2010-2015) in hopes of rebuilding the sector.

“It was designed to create a synergy among operators in the private sector, government establishment and key ministries involved in coffee,” Ndoping tells Global Coffee Report. “Its main objectives were to move from a subsistent to a more professional and sustainable coffee economy for all key stakeholders, and to reposition the Cameroon origin in the international market.”

Unfortunately implementation of the Coffee Sector Development Strategy faced numerous challenges, says Ndoping, so the Cameroon government developed a follow-on initiative, the Cocoa & Coffee Sector Revitalisation & Development Plan (2014-2020), that would focus on all facets of the sector: production, quality, trade, promotion, research, and local consumption. Adopted in September 2014, the plan had lofty goals of producing 125 million kilograms of robusta and 35 million kilograms of arabica by 2020.

But once again, the well-intentioned initiative has fallen short. In the 2018-19 harvest year, Cameroon recorded only 270,000 60-kilogram bags. Similar to those encountered with the first initiative, challenges included lack of interest due to coffee’s low profitability, unavailability of seeds, high cost of inputs and aging plants and farms. The ongoing civil war also continues to impact farmers and production.

Ndoping also blames a lack of financing: “We didn’t succeed in raising sufficient funds to fuel the plan and so this had a negative impact on the plan’s execution.” He says an internal evaluation of the plan’s performance has been carried out and most of the challenges raised will be addressed this year.

Operating on the receiving end of initiatives like these, Foncha sees the efforts being made but admits that they rarely make it to the coffee farmer masses. “The government support structure for agriculture in general is quite extensive. However, in practice, very little meaningful support gets to the farmer,” he tells GCR. “This is a major limitation of the ‘top down’ system of support. Supplies such as fertilisers and pest control products meant for farmers are shared or distributed among a minority of farmers, at best.”

This reality is what motivated Foncha to take matters into his own hands and launch Cameroon Boyo Coffee in 1996. “The project came to life when I offered to take Cameroon coffee to quality markets in North America on behalf of farmers willing to entrust their coffee to me for export,” he explains, noting that Cameroon Boyo Coffee is exclusively Arabica with quality commitments from contributing farmers.

Though Foncha knew superior-quality coffee would bring farmers the greatest value, resources remained limited and third-party certifications were too expensive. So through Cameroon Boyo Coffee he established the Circle of Excellence (CoE), whereby small groups of farmers follow common standards, peer review each other, and then combine each season’s production.

“The CoE groups idea evolved from the accumulation of efforts we were making to improve quality and transparency,” he says. “We recognised from the start that micro-producers needed to organise into groups in order to achieve production volumes that could be taken cost effectively to markets. So with a good understanding of the quality parameters our market partners sought, we adopted [a] systematic approach toward developing and sustaining our market segments.

“Because quality at the point of sale is an important factor in the pricing of our coffee, the farmer-owners have a strong incentive to respect desired quality standards,” Foncha adds. “The CoE program encourages collective work and knowledge and resource sharing, and ensures that the farmer-owners get the best out of the market and the market partners get the best out of the farmers.”

With the focus on quality and, thus, higher earnings for farmers, Cameroon Boyo coffee is exclusively produced for the specialty market, which is still only a minor category within Cameroon’s coffee industry. Foncha estimates arabica represents only 10 per cent of the country’s total production, robusta makes up the rest.

The 475,442-square-kilometre West African nation is unique in that it is home to vast climates and vegetation, ranging from mountains and desert to rain forest and savanna grassland to ocean coastland. Its highlands, however, are where its high-quality arabicas grow in the rich volcanic soils with ample rainfall. These conditions contribute to the coffee’s full-bodied, well-rounded, sweet profile with notes of chocolate.

“Because we produce some of the best arabica and robusta coffees in the market, we are in the process of developing the specialty coffee segment in Cameroon,” Ndoping tells GCR. “This, of course, is a niche that offers better remuneration to farmers, so measures are ongoing to explore this untapped potential.”

As part of this move, Cameroon participated for the first time at the African Fine Coffees Association Specialty Coffee Expo in Zanzibar in October, where some of its coffees were ranked among specialty coffees.

Meanwhile, this year will be the eighth annual Festicoffee expo, held in capital city Yaoundé in April. The annual event launched in 2012 by Inter-Professional Cocoa & Coffee Council as part of a big push for domestic coffee consumption. In hopes of ultimately boosting local coffee production, Festicoffee aims to increase awareness of Cameroon coffee and convert some of its 24 million people into coffee drinkers.

While coffee consumption in Cameroon is not yet widespread, the domestic market is slowly expanding. There are about 30 local brands of roasted or ground coffee in the market that some public offices, private companies, and households are buying on a regular basis, according to the ICO, and domestic coffee consumption is up about 11.4 per cent since Festicoffee started.

Although Cameroon still exports the majority of its green coffee, largely to Italy, Belgium, and Germany, Ndoping sees this as another promising avenue for the struggling industry. “It was clear that local consumption was very low, so [boosting it] was one of the corrective measures envisaged,” he explains. “Roasting at source is relatively feasible, and if this is accompanied by a robust promotional strategy, local consumption can pick up.” Currently, most coffee processed in Cameroon is exported to Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and other North African countries.

Despite the opportunities in the specialty market and domestic consumption, Ndoping remains wary of coffee’s fate in Cameroon. Aside from the aforementioned funding issues, he stresses that a shift needs to happen among farmers, which is related to one of the main objectives of the original Coffee Sector Development Strategy.

“Coffee is a colonial crop and, as such, there is a need to change the perception of Cameroonian farmers into viewing coffee as a lucrative business venture,” he says.

On a smaller scale, Foncha already sees this happening among Cameroon Boyo’s farmers and others in the region. An increasing number of farmers not currently registered in the CoE program have seen the potential among their peers and have expressed interest in participating. This means that this group’s outlook is much brighter than the greater industry in Cameroon. “We continue to project strong growth of our CoE program,” Foncha says, “and, therefore, strong growth in the amount of specialty coffee available [under] the Cameroon Boyo brand.”

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