Malawi, a small country in Southeast Africa, is gaining recognition as an emerging player in the global coffee industry. Blessed with fertile soil, favorable climatic conditions and a rich agricultural heritage, Malawi has steadily established itself as a producer of high-quality coffee beans. Today the coffee industry plays a crucial role in the country’s economy, providing employment opportunities for thousands of farmers and contributing to foreign exchange earnings.
A bit of history
Coffee production in Malawi has a long history, dating back to the late 19th century, when it was introduced by missionaries.
From that moment on, for almost 200 years, coffee production spread across the country. The 1980s and 1990s, however, saw a big drop in production due to wilt disease. As a result, partly due to the close proximity of Tanzania, also a major coffee producer, Malawian coffee struggled to be a cash crop for producers (common national cash crops are tobacco, tea, and macadamia nuts)1.
The Nyasaland variety, traditional in East Africa
Nyasaland, as Malawi was known under the British Empire, played an important role in the history of African coffee cultivation. The Nyasaland variety of Arabica, derived from the Typica strain introduced from Jamaica in 1870s, is considered to be one of the oldest Arabicas in Africa. Although it flourished initially in Nyasaland, it faced challenges when transplanted to Uganda in 1910, on account of the different climatic conditions. This setback led to the widespread cultivation of Robusta in Uganda. More recently, however, there has been a resurgence of Arabica production on the slopes of Mount Elgon (Uganda), where the Nyasaland variety, locally known as Bugisu, is highly valued by smallholders.
This new trend is epitomized by the “Mount Elgon Nyasaland Coffee Community,” based round a former Slow Food Presidium and recognized as a Slow Food Coffee Coalition Community.
Malawian coffee today
Today, the main coffee-growing regions in Malawi are located on the slopes of the country’s highlands, which offer ideal growing conditions. Here the combination of altitudes ranging from 900 to 1,800 meters above sea level and volcanic soil contributes to the unique flavor profile of Malawian coffee.
The coffee varieties cultivated in Malawi are predominantly Arabicas, known for their delicate flavor and aroma. Among the most commonly grown Arabica varieties are Catimor, Geisha, SL28, Agaro, Nyika and Bourbon. To ensure a high-quality product, these beans are handpicked by local farmers and only the ripest cherries are selected for processing. Here the washed coffee processing method predominates: it consists of the pulping of the cherries, fermentation and thorough washing to remove any mucilage before drying.
The Malawi government, along with various agricultural organizations, has actively supported the development of the coffee industry. Initiatives to improve infrastructure, provide technical assistance and promote sustainable farming practices have helped to enhance productivity and increase the overall competitiveness of Malawian coffee on the global market.
Slow Food Communities
With its commitment to quality, unique flavor profiles and the dedication of its coffee farmers, Malawi is establishing itself as a promising source of high-quality coffee.
Today, producers are mostly organized into cooperatives. One such is the Phoka Cooperative, located in Northern Malawi on the edge of the Nyika National Park: in 2021 it adhered to the Slow Food movement and split into several Slow Food Communities within the Slow Food Coffee Coalition. Currently, there are seven Slow Food Communities of coffee farmers, and neighboring farmers have also expressed their desire to be part of the network and set up more Slow Food Communities in the future.
The existing Communities are all to be found in the Rumphi district in the north of the country, where the cooperative headquarters are situated. They are:
- Chakaka Coffee Growers;
- Kajoni Coffee Growers;
- Mantchewe-Nkhota-Mbulamaji Youth Coffee Growers;
- Vungu Vungu Coffee Growers;
- Nkhonthwa Coffee Growers;
- Junju Coffee Growers;
- Mphachi Coffee Growers.
They all grow Arabica coffee–especially the Geisha, Catimor and Nyika 129 varieties–which has been proven to be more resistant to diseases and does well at the higher altitudes of the Phoka area.
It is thanks to the work of these Communities and the strength of the network itself that the Coalition has been able to recognize the quality of Malawi’s unique coffee varieties and the importance of protecting them from the threats of industrialization and monocultures. By promoting agrobiodiversity and encouraging farmers to cultivate coffee in accordance with agroeconomic principles, the Slow Food Coffee Coalition is seeking to preserve the Malawian environment and safeguard the livelihoods of the farmers.
To achieve this, all the Communities took part in the FAO-sponsored project “Enhancing community resilience to climate change in mountain watersheds” under the Coffee Coalition umbrella, implementing agroforestry practices to increase resilience to climate change and natural disasters with improved land and forest management. Agroforestry and, in general, improved farm management are especially important in Malawi for solving problems such as water consumption in the fields.
One coffee, many challenges
Aside from coffee not being one of the country’s main cash crops, coffee growers in Malawi are still struggling to tackle a number of challenges, the first of which is the spread of pests and diseases.
We were told by Lowani Mfundawanga, Coffee field technical expert of the Phoka Cooperative that, “Farmers were using uncertified seeds gathered from under coffee trees already contaminated with CBD (coffee berry disease). For a long time, there were no certified seed producers and growers would re-use their seeds, even if they had been attacked by diseases. This led to the proliferation of unhealthy plants and consequently reduced yield.
To solve these problems, we are planning to train coffee seed producers in possession of disease-resistant seeds to sell them as certified seeds. The disease-resistant seeds are those of the Nyika129 and Gesha coffee varieties.”
The second most common challenge is that of agricultural practices. “Agroforestry practices promise a bright future for our farmers since they will help reduce climate change,” says Lowani, implying that cultivating coffee in an agroforestry system (intercropping coffee plants, shade trees, fruit trees and bushes) also contributes to pest control, land management and food security. And he adds that farmers are happy to perform such practices. At this point, producers are training each other on the basis of what they have learned implementing the agroforestry management project.
The various challenges also include logistical issues connected with the transport of coffee from production centers to major cities. On top of that, the machinery used in processing centers is outdated and inefficient, which translates into tiresome labor and lower quality. It is crucial for cooperatives to replace this old machinery with modern processing equipment to enhance the quality of their coffee. The main obstacle, however, is financial constraints. The price of coffee is subject to stock market fluctuations, making for inconsistent trading over time. This unpredictability poses significant challenges for cooperatives and producers alike, making it difficult to allocate resources effectively and maintain a consistent level of quality in coffee production.
“Participation in the Slow Food Coffee Coalition was very important for the Communities,” says Manvester Ackson, Slow Food Coordinator in Malawi, “because it helped create a direct link with buyers. This way, producers are able to set prices directly, without having to succumb to the stock market. Producers don’t have a stable market for their coffee, so insofar as it allows them to forge direct links, for them the Coffee Coalition is a very important marketing opportunity.”
The Communities embraced the Slow Food Coffee Coalition and are now taking the actions necessary to implement the Participatory Guarantee System, designed to certify that their coffee is good, clean and fair, and give them added value in the eyes of potential buyers.
Being part of the Slow Food Coffee Coalition brings the Communities into a network in which knowledge, expertise and experiences are shared, and collaboration among the parties enhanced.
In Malawi, the coffee season has only just begun. So let’s look forward to drinking the Communities’ excellent coffee, thereby supporting farmers as they create more climate-resistant landscapes.