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Malawi coffee: The ups, the downs, the future

Malawi is home to some stunning landscapes, dominated by highs and lows: the Great Rift Valley and the vast Lake Malawi, the ninth largest lake in the world, running dramatically alongside the mountainous highlands, where peaks reach 10,000ft in places.

These highs and lows are analogous for the region as a whole. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest nations – an estimated 65% of its population lives below the poverty line – but its coffee industry, a legitimate cash crop in a significantly cash-strapped country, boasts thousands of smallholder farms scattered throughout its incredible altitudes, particularly in the likes of Viphya and the Nyika Plateaux to the North.

Standing between 1,700 and 2,000 metres above sea level, close to Malawi’s Tanzanian border and the Songwe River, the Misuku coffee region grows naturally-canopied Arabica (largely Agaro and Geisha) that commands premium prices. It is Malawi’s principal coffee growing region, housing 48% of its farmers, and coffee from this area can be described as sweet, delicate, floral, with hints of liquorice and spice.  

As is commonplace for Malawi, the Misuku region’s coffees are represented by their own cooperative, named after their home state. Herein lies the chief element in understanding Malawian coffee: in 1999 the Misuku Cooperative helped form the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union along with five further regional cooperatives across Malawi. And it is the Mzuzu Cooperative Union that makes the difference.

Co-op for growth

Mzuzu represents the clearest picture of Malawi’s coffee industry. It covers the breadth of the country, providing infrastructure to farms through their own regional cooperatives, and it has watched the Malawian coffee industry grow from strength to strength. 

The main bulk of the 200 plus tonnes annually exported by the union goes to Germany and South Africa. Some also goes to Switzerland, Holland, USA and Japan plus, of course, the UK which accounts for around 10% of the country’s production. The union also sells approximately 24 tonnes annually into the domestic market.

One explanation for its success is the freedom it allows its farmers; it is described by First Source International as “completely liberalized”. Though unionised through the cooperative and through the Mzuzu organisation, individual farmers are permitted to sell their beans to anyone. The cooperative’s role is merely to ascertain and command a fair price, not to make demands on the coffee’s destinations. 

In other words, the farmers are empowered. As is the case with all strong and solid coffee cooperatives, through trust and respect, control is placed strongly in the farmer’s own hands. Mzuzu explain that they don’t impose solutions onto the farmers when problems arise, but encourage and facilitate diplomatic discussion.

Green coffee

As one would expect, Mzuzu is keen to maintain environmental protection on the land. With environmental diversity and sustainability in mind, their work extends into guidance and advice for biological consideration. Much of the coffee produced through Mzuzu uses organic fertilizer, for example. Likewise, pest control is carefully managed through sanctioned, integrated systems, without the use of chemicals except in severe outbreaks.

Similarly, in the same cyclical process of improvement, characteristic of cooperative support, Mzuzu can also claim great new successes in improved transportation. Traditionally, Malawi’s transport system has required not only to negotiate the country’s towering mountainsides, but also to withstand the common landslides that plague mountainous regions. Roads are, likewise, not often asphalted or in serviceable states. The DPH Journal writes that farmers have had to carry their goods on their heads over great distances to reach their markets. Because of this it has been, DPH concludes, “extremely difficult for farmers to raise any income.”

Mzuzu’s strategy in response has been to concurrently raise the yield and quality, and decrease the costs of coffee farming, even in remote and high-altitude regions of Malawi. Through education, trade negotiation and representation, coffee sales and profits have increased and expenditure has lowered, and thus those hurdles are becoming easier to overcome. DHP suggests that the Malawian government is beginning to see the bigger picture and offering more help to the cooperatives, which can then be passed down to the individual farmers.

To read more on DR Wakefield’s range of Malawian coffees and their individual profiles, head here.

Image credit:

Carlos Sillero, via Free Images