Coffee growers from the mountains of Northern Malawi have built up a strong structure to support them in the production, processing and marketing of their cash crops. The result is a lucrative business that is taking their households out of poverty and encouraging farmers to stay on their land.
10 / 2006
A commercial crop for the small farmers in the mountains
Malawi’s economy is based largely on agriculture, which accounts for more than 90% of its export earnings, contributes 45% of gross domestic product (GDP), and supports 90% of the population. Agricultural products for export come from both, commercial estates and smallholder farmers, with tobacco, tea, macadamia, cotton, coffee and sugar being the major exports. In particular, coffee production is dominated by smallholder farmers from the Northern Region of the country.
The three quarters of Malawi consist of plateaux (750 to 1300 metres), and the Northern Region is divided into extensive highlands, including Viphya and Nyika Plateaux, and lowlands by the lake shore. Smallholder farming predominates on the highlands, besides the vast area protected by Nyika National Park, approximately 3,200 km2. Some farmers in these mountains, in the sight of the difficulties and limitations that they face for the fact of living in remote areas, have engaged in the production of coffee, taking advantage of the good conditions for this crop in the mountains. This cash crop has been grown there for some decades now, and the organization of coffee growers has evolved since then. Today, the small producers own their own business at association level, through the Smallholder Coffee Farmers Trust (SCFT), which processes the coffee and packs the product. The SCFT has taken them to be Malawian leaders in coffee exports and national market in Malawi.
Haswell Zimba has worked for the Trust since 1982, and today holds the position of Coffee Association Adviser. He shares the ethos of his organization of empowering mountain people through their economic development, and explains the historical evolution and activity of the Coffee Trust. This is a singular initiative in the mountains of Malawi that is bringing tangible benefits for small farmers and encouraging them to remain in their territory.
Lack of opportunities for income in the mountains
Life in the highlands of Northern Malawi is definitely influenced by the lack of communication infrastructures and remoteness. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with 65% of the population living below the poverty line, and mountain communities face even more constraints than the ones in the lowlands.
Practically all the transport in Malawi is done by road, but roads in the highlands, which are often not asphalted, are in poor conditions and state of repair. Moreover, landslides are quite common in the Northern Region’s mountains, given the fragile environment and the degraded soil due to inappropriate land management. This leads to humanitarian catastrophes, but also many bridges are washed away, cutting off any means of transport for the communities. The result is the difficulty for farmers to reach markets outside their villages. They often have to carry their goods on their heads for long distances (sometimes 10 km). In addition, high transport expenses are incurred for their products to reach markets and their inputs to arrive to their farms. This makes subsistence farming non-profitable and extremely difficult for farmers to raise any income.
A profitable crop for the mountains
Coffee in Malawi grows in high areas, with elevations starting from 1,000 metres above sea level. It is mainly cultivated in the mountains of the Northern Region, where climate conditions are particularly good for the crop. Planting coffee is also a soil conservation measure in these areas, where erosion is a widespread problem, as the bushes are planted in contour lines therefore controlling run-off and reducing soil loss. Coffee is mainly planted by smallholders, so it is often inter-cropped with other species in order to supply food to the household; recently some farmers have started to plant macadamia trees, which can constitute another lucrative income source.
This cash crop was introduced by the colonials more than forty years ago, and since then, small scale farmers have adopted it in search for income to their subsistence economy. After Independence, the government recognised the role that coffee was playing in raising incomes in the remote highland, and came up with the Special Crops Act, in combination with the Government Parastatal Smallholder Coffee Authority. The latter was in charge of marketing the coffee beans from farmers without processing them. But the Authority became heavily indebted, despite only paying growers 20-30% of the selling price, and in 1999 it was sold to the approximately 4,000 smallholder producers, who converted themselves into the Smallholder Coffee Farmers Trust.
The remarkable management of the coffee business
Since then, the strategy of the Trust has been to concentrate on increasing the quality of the coffee and to add value to the product, by processing part of the beans and selling a quality, packed and branded coffee; always trying to minimize costs, like reducing the dependence on expensive pesticides and introducing integrated pest management systems. This was achieved thanks to the team effort of the farmers, the Trust’s management and some international donors. The result has been a turn-around of the business, which managed to clear its debt in 2003, while farmers get 70 to 80% of the revenue from their production. This success is even more remarkable as it happened during a period of low international coffee prices.
The priority of the Trust and its employees has been to strengthen the farmers through their economic development, by improving the yields and quality of their coffee, organizing the grower members into local associations and increasing the financial returns going directly to the Trust members. The local associations are a particular characteristic of the Trust that give farmers a sense of ownership on the business, but also decentralizes part of the process and brings it closer to the farms. The primary processing of the crop is done at the local associations, where there are “pulperies” that are the machines that separate coffee pulps from beans. Beans are then transported to the processing facilities (secondary processing) in the town of Mzuzu, that are also own by the Trust. There is a project at the moment of establishing shops for inputs at the association level, which would solve the problem of transport so farmers would not need to carry inputs for long distances anymore.
Towards a Fair Trade certification
Today, the processed and packed “Mzuzu Coffee” is the leader in the national market, and the Coffee Trust’s exports dominate the commodity’s international trade from Malawi. In the near future, the Trust is planning to become a farmers’ cooperative which will complete the transfer of power to the farmers, making them stronger and able to manage the business. Besides, the organization is about to obtain Fair Trade certification, which will ensure a fair price for their coffee going directly to the growers, and without being affected by the fluctuations of the international prices.
The case of the Smallholder Coffee Farmers Trust is a clear example of how a sector in mountain communities, with serious physical and economical constraints, can be developed successfully, bringing income to least favoured areas in developing countries. The key: to have a well organized strong bottom-up structure to empower the grassroots, combined with a committed management team, and to orientate activities in a way that the producers maximize their benefits while being respectful to their environment and their territory. Moreover, any action to be taken has to be done through consultation, addressing problems together and not imposing solutions to the communities.
The future of the smallholder coffee sector in Malawi, led by producers from the Northern Region looks very promising. This cash crop is gaining importance in terms of export revenues for the country, and therefore, the government is turning to be more interested on it. This means more power for the sector, which is gaining more and more access to decision-making grounds and influence. And, as smallholders’ coffee is always grown in the highlands, this could bring a promising future for the mountains.
This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.
Interview to Haswell B.K. ZIMBA, Coffee Association Adviser in the Smallholder Coffee Farmers Trust, P.O. Box 20133, Luwinga, Muzuzu, MALAWI - Phone: (+265) 86 45 692/94 76 520/13 32 899
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