In February I was lucky to have the chance to attend the annual East African Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA) conference, close to Arusha in northern Tanzania. This was my first trip to origin for Mercanta so I was very excited to get going – if a little unsure of what to expect. Needless to say, it was an extremely interesting and useful trip, and I met a huge variety of fascinating coffee people. One of the highlights was a visit to Blackburn Estate before the conference, where I spent a fantastic few days with Michael and Tina Gehrken.
Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa, though much of its vast interior plateau is dry and infertile. It is Africa’s fourth-largest coffee producer (behind Ethiopia, Uganda and Ivory Coast) and coffee is grown in practically all of its highland regions – mostly concentrated in the far south, west and north of the country. It was first introduced as a commercial crop in around 1900 on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro – which towers 5,895 metres above sea level east of Arusha and above the town of Moshi (where Blackburn’s coffee is dry-milled).
Coffee is now one of Tanzania’s main cash crops (in 2009, it accounted for 24% of total cash crop exports), along with tobacco (29%), cotton (27%), cashew nuts (10%) and tea (7%). Average production is around 50,000 metric tones, though in the 2009/10 season a prolonged drought cut output to 35,000. It is expected to recover to around 52,000 in the 2010/11 season. Of this around 70% is Arabica and only 30% Robusta. (Nb Tanzania’s marketing season runs from July through to June, while harvesting begins in April).
Estates such as Blackburn are rare – 90% of production comes from smallholder farmers, with an estimated 400,000 households directly dependent on coffee. The Tanzania Coffee Board operates an auction system, but it is not compulsory to sell through it – in the 2010/11 season 47% of Tanzania’s coffee sales were direct exports, versus 53% through the auction system.
The EAFCA conference
The three day EAFCA conference attracts a huge variety of delegates and speakers – from commodities analysts to smallholder farmers, industrial roasters to specialty coffee buyers, and everybody in between. The association represents coffee sectors in 11 member countries – Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
A highlight of the speakers programme was a discussion of the world market outlook – focusing on whether the steep upward price trend will continue. The panel contrasted current conditions with similar ‘bull markets’ since 1973 – the difference this time is that, rather than being caused by a single event such as a frost in Brazil, the price increases are underpinned by a general tightness of global stocks. Opening stocks in exporting countries are at their lowest in history, meanwhile consumption in several of these countries is climbing – most notably Brazil, where domestic consumption is increasing at around 5% a year. Put simply, production simply has not been able to keep up with the pace of consumption – now prices must go up to ration demand, and go high enough to encourage increased production. Judith Ganes-Chase, an NY-based analyst who spoke on day one, reckoned that there will be no real relief to the current supply tightness until the next ‘on year’ Brazil crop in 2012/13. She predicted that commodity Arabica could possibly reach US$4/lb – 12 months ago the Cup of Excellence entry price was $2.50!
Of course the specialty market is by no means wedded to the commodity index, but the current situation will certainly have repercussions for specialty coffee. I found when talking to people – such as a manager from Buf Café in Rwanda – that a common theme was their fears about the quantity and availability of good quality coffee this year, as at the moment farmers can get a (comparatively) good price for coffee of pretty much any quality. The general conclusion: expect there to be less top quality coffee in the market, and expect it to be a lot more expensive.
Another highlight of the conference was a Women in Coffee panel discussion. I was very impressed by a women’s health programme called Grounds for Health, which works with women in coffee growing communities to address the unacceptably high rate of cervical cancer among women in developing countries. I had no idea that cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women in developing countries – and almost all of these deaths are preventable. Grounds for Health trains local doctors and nurse to screen and treat cervical cancer in coffee growing communities – amazingly, the treatment costs only US 25 cents a woman and is 90% effective in curing the disease! I met the organisation’s Director, August Burns, and was hugely impressed by her passion and knowledge. Mercanta hopes to become a sponsor of the programme very soon.
What I most enjoyed at EAFCA was having the chance to meet many of Mercanta’s partners in East Africa with whom I have been exchanging emails in the past months. It was also a great opportunity to make new links. I picked up several samples from producers in Malawi and Burundi (new origins for us) – some of which we were impressed by when we cupped them back in our lab in London. Some more samples are on their way to us from Mount Elgon in Uganda.
On the side of the conference I also managed to fit in a trip to Moshi, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, where Blackburn’s coffee is milled and prepared for export. I met the manager of the mill and had a look round this busy, modern facility, which is a major source of employment locally.
All in all it was a hugely interesting and valuable trip. Tanzania is a beautiful country with huge potential – as well as challenges – for the specialty market. There are murmourings of launching a Tanzania Cup of Excellence in the next few years. I very much hope that this is able to go ahead as I don’t doubt that there are many, many incredible coffees as yet to be discovered.