Coffee’s roots in Tanzania can be traced via oral history back to the Haya tribe of Northwest Tanzania in the 16th century. Following German and then British colonial rule, the Tanzanian coffee industry has undergone many transformations and adjustments in an effort to create the most equal, profitable and high-quality coffee possible. Today, our in-country partner, Sucafina Tanzania, is invested in improving the coffee and the lives of smallholder farmers through a variety of initiatives.
Smallholders Fuel Coffee
Coffee has been a central part of the Tanzanian culture and economy since the 16th century. Though its role has changed over the last four centuries, coffee today generates approximately 5% (about $100 million) of the country’s export revenue and employs—directly and indirectly—6% of the population (about 2.4 million people).
Of those employed in coffee, approximately 450,000 people are smallholders who produce more than 90% of Tanzania’s 30,000-40,000 metric tons of coffee grown annually. Smallholder farmers cultivate plots that are typically between 0.5 and 3 hectares in size. The remaining 10% of total production is grown by larger estates that are located predominantly in the Arusha, Kilimanjaro and Mbeya regions.
The harvest season in Tanzania usually lasts from July to December. Green coffee is typically sold either through an auction or directly to buyers. Most coffees ship from two major ports, one in Dar es Salaam and the other in Tanga. The large distances between rural farmers—who are often at high altitudes—and the two ports on the eastern edge of Tanzania makes for a complex coffee supply chain.
History of Coffee
Coffee Comes to Tanzania
The arrival of coffee in Tanzania is documented in oral history. The Haya tribe in Northwest Tanzania reportedly brought coffee back from Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) in the 16th century. This “Haya coffee”, or amwani, was a Robusta variety. Early Tanzanians prepared amwani by boiling unripe cherries with herbs and then smoking the mixture for several days. The resulting cherry mixture could be chewed whole.
The role of coffee in Haya culture was more for cultural functions than daily consumption. Amwani was included in formal greetings, tributes to royals and religious rituals. Coffee use was so carefully restricted that, in order to grow coffee, people needed authorization from the royals. This strict control on coffee growing also increased its value and status by restricting supply and making coffee rarer.
Germans Take Control of Tanzania and Its Coffee Industry
When Germany took control of East Africa in the late 19th century, the colonial government quickly instituted laws that spread coffee planting throughout the region. These laws were intended to force the Haya to enter the cash economy and, in turn, become less independent and more governable. When coffee became ubiquitous, the Haya lost the wealth that came with having a monopoly. These laws also meant that the Germans could export the high-value, high-demand coffee for generous profits.
Similar to Rwanda, Tanzania has only recently become recognized for its specialty coffees. With increasingly better infrastructure, access to washing stations and farmer organization, Tanzania is now consistently producing high-quality specialty-grade coffees.
Tanzanian Coffee Today
The North Leads Coffee Production
Coffee in Tanzania was grown almost exclusively in the North for a long time. The Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Tarime, Kagera, Kigoma and Karatu/Ngorongoro regions were prized for their ideal Arabica growing conditions. At the time, coffee production was so concentrated in the north that Moshi, a northern municipality, was the only hub for all coffee milling and sales.
Operations in Moshi grew to truly massive proportions in the 1950s and early-1960s. Since both Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi were under British rule in the post-war decades, Moshi was the second milling and sales hub (after Nairobi, Kenya) for British coffee production.
Even though transportation from the few farms in Southern Tanzania to Moshi could take nearly a week, there just wasn’t enough production to make it economical for the government or private companies to construct mills in the South until the 1970s and 1980s.
Coffee in Tanzania Today
Coffee cultivation has extended southwards in recent years. In addition to the historical powerhouse regions in the north, coffee is now also grown in the southern regions of Ruvuma and Mbeya/Mbozi. Most Southern expansion of coffee growing occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and was encouraged by two projects supported by European backers. In an ironic twist, today 75 to 85% of total coffee production in Tanzania today comes from farms in the south.
The Tanzanian Auction
The Roots of the Modern Auctions
The modern auction system plays a significant role in the coffee supply chain in Tanzania. The auction, which is similar to the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE), can trace its beginnings to the early twentieth century when both countries were governed by British colonial governments.
Today’s auction in Tanzania entered its modern incarnation in the 1980s, when a number of factors, including the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) and the end of the Cold War, caused a global reduction in coffee sales and prices.
At the time the auction system became popular, the government was also trying to increase sales with European importers and roasters. Slower communication networks at the time, combined with changing supply chains, meant that most European importers did not have direct connections to coffee suppliers in Tanzania. The government stepped in to make the Tanzanian coffee market more accessible to European buyers. Since other coffee-producing countries in East Africa were also trying to court European coffee buyers in the same period, it was believed that the auction system would increase the competitiveness and attractiveness of the country’s coffee industry.
A government system also meant that coffee moving through the auctions was, to some extent, backed by the reputation of the government. Governments are generally understood to be more trustworthy trade partners than single people or private businesses. The government-owned auction system was, in effect, certified by the government as a valid way to buy good coffee in Tanzania.
Liberalization Reforms Change the Auction System
In 1994, the Tanzanian government introduced the first trading reforms. These reforms allowed private traders to buy cherry directly from farmers and to process that cherry in their own factories. This was the first time that private traders could purchase or process cherry since before independence, in 1961.
Following the introduction of these reforms, the industry witnessed an increase in processing capacity, marketing efficiency and more investment in farm maintenance. While the reforms benefited producers by creating more competition for their cherry, potential issues also arose. With private companies buying directly from farmers, cooperative unions needed to offer more competitive pricing to keep up with private traders. Paying higher prices for cherry often translated into decreased profit margins for cooperative unions. Many of these unions have prevailed by focusing on quality and by forging direct connections with roasters and importers whilst also opting for the auction system when appropriate.
The main goals of today’s auction are to increase transparency and garner higher prices for farmers
At the same time, many importers prefer to work directly with farmers or cooperative societies to focus on improving coffee quality closer to the source. Such projects can often mean benefits for both importers and farmers. Importers often get higher quality coffee that’s more traceable. In turn, importers can provide farmers with financing, access to inputs and additional knowledge that helps them to later sell their coffee for larger profits.
Sucafina in Tanzania
Purchasing and Trade Laws in Tanzania
In recent years, it’s been difficult to gauge the political climate in Tanzania. Changes to purchasing guidelines and restrictions can lead to uncertainty that can make the benefits of investing in farmers and cooperative societies more unpredictable.
These conditions are common for our in-country partner, Sucafina Tanzania. As we continue our involvement in Tanzania, the changing political climate can make it more difficult to invest long-term in farmers and cooperatives. But it’s not impossible. Like many other exporters, Sucafina Tanzania has chosen to work more indirectly by partnering with other in-country organizations, such as cooperatives, farmer groups and dry mills, who may not face the same restrictions in working directly with farmers.
Our Current Projects
Certification – Our sister company, Cotacof/Sucafina Tanzania, helped around 800 farmers in Southern Tanzania obtain Rain Forest Alliance (RFA) certification. This will be scaled up to around 1,200 farmers by the end of 2020. Sucafina Tanzania managed and paid for the certification training and compliance internally. Around 350 metric tons of certified coffee was purchased directly by Cotacof/Sucafina Tanzania at prices significantly higher than auction.
Naturals – In 2020, Sucafina Tanzania will work with two cooperatives in Southern Tanzania to help them begin and maintain production of specialty naturals. The conditions for high quality natural processing are ideal in many places in Southern Tanzania. When done well, quality can be outstanding. In addition to great quality, water scarcity is a pressing issue in many regions of Southern Tanzania. Natural processing makes a lot of sense compared to the Fully washed process, which is very water intensive. For this project, Sucafina Tanzania will provide the resources for raised bed construction and working capital to get the project off the ground.
Direct Buying – In 2019/20, Sucafina Tanzania was one of the largest direct buyers of Arabica coffee in Tanzania. Most of the coffee Sucafina Tanzania purchased was premium or specialty quality. Overall, they paid prices well above auction differentials. Sucafina Tanzania is a big believer in the potential of quality washed Arabica from Southern Tanzania and remains committed to supporting and showcasing producers who are focused on quality.