My last blog post on Malawi was fairly specific to our coffee from the Mzuzu Cooperative. This time round, I did want to go into coffee production in Malawi generally, as I feel it is important. But, first, for those who didn’t read the last one, here’s a little paragraph about the…
…‘WARM HEART OF AFRICA’
Described as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ this fairly small landlocked country has so much wildlife, culture and apart from its friendly smiling people, Malawi is also known for its extraordinary saltwater lake, which also boasts being the third largest lake in Africa.
Lake Malawi was once called by Dr Livingstone himself ‘The Lake of Stars’. If like me, you took the romantic notion of being able to see the starry night whilst perhaps laying on the banks of the Lake, you are, like me mistaken. Dr Livingstone gave the lake its nickname after he had observed, not the stars, but the lights from the lanterns of the fishermen on their boats, resembling, from a distance, stars in the sky! Of course!
So, I think for the romantics out there that was a good intro! Now, on to the slightly more technical stuff 😊
MALAWI’S COFFEE PRODUCTION
Coffee in Malawi was introduced in the 1800s when Dr. John Buchanan brought with him the Nyasa or Nyasaland coffee variety from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. During the British colonial rule, when large coffee plantations were owned by the British, conditions for the locals were harsh and challenging and they received little to no pay. Most of these large estates were concentrated in the regions of southern Malawi.
Malawi gained independence from the British in 1964 and in 1971 the newly independent government of Malawi concentrated on changing the structure of the country’s coffee industry. This was done by specifically restoring the smallholder coffee sector through an organisation knows as SCA (Smallholder Coffee Authority) giving it some structure at the same time to benefit the farmers. All sounds good and well, however the 1980s and 1990s unfortunately saw disease struck the coffee plants and caused major disruption in coffee production. Along with poor and mismanagement of the SCA Malawi’s coffee cultivation lost momentum and was in serious decline.
The government once again took hold of the situation and in the mid-1990s it actively privatised state owned organisations with the goal of empowering the smallholder farmers to manage their own businesses. This paid off, as today, there are still a few coffee estates left in southern Malawi. The difference now, however, is that the coffee in these estates is now cultivated and managed by 3000-4000 smallholder farmers, most with fewer than 200 coffee trees each and many operating within cooperative structures for the benefit of their own farms and the community alike.
THE COFFEE – Pamwamba, Thyolo region
Malawi is one of the smallest producers of coffee, taking up less than 1% of the world market and it only grows Arabica coffee, often described as sweet and delicate with floral notes.
Our coffee comes from the southern Thyolo region of Malawi where coffee was first planted in 1979. The altitude varies and the terrain is made up of rolling valleys with steepish slopes and patches of ancient forests between the coffee trees. The soil is very fertile and runs into well-drained sandy loam and clay – which is good!
Our coffee comes from the Pamwamba cooperative:
THE PAMWAMBA COOPERATIVE AND ITS ENVIRONMENTAL PROCESSES
This cooperative is formed by the growers of two estates the Mpanga and Ngapani estates. These were established in 1988 after, as I mentioned earlier, the transfer of land from a government company back into private smallholder hands and both estates now hold a Rainforest Alliance certification.
The estates sit at the border of Malawi with Mozambique near the foothills of the 1730 metre Msondole Mountain. There are three rivers that run through the estates’ properties – the Mpeni, Ngapani and Nsondole rivers. The Mpeni has since been dammed and supports the farms’ drip irrigation systems.
This means that the coffees grown here are fully washed. The harvested cherries are pulped at the estates’ wet mills and naturally sun-dried on the estates until they reach the optimum moisture content. The dry parchment is then stored and conditioned for approximately 6 weeks before being sent for dry milling and grading.
Environmentally friendly and sustainable practices
Apart from the pulpery recycling the water during the primary pulping process and the wastewater being processed through filtration tanks before being released, the cooperative has a couple more interesting techniques to keep the coffee sustainable and planet friendly.
- it has introduced a rotational programme that uproots and re-plants each field every seven to eight years. This means that they are always harvesting from young coffee trees which are largely disease free
- This in turn means that spraying is not required much. Spraying for bugs is done here on an as-needed basis and it is always environmentally friendly and in targeted ways which means there is very little run off
- A mature tree pruning programme every few years stumps plants and ensures the plants are increasingly productive
- An in-field trenching programme turns leaf litter and pruning matter into composts that contributes to the soils nutrition and helps prevent soil runoff
- A tree planting programme continues to add more indigenous trees including African red mahogany, known also as the Khyana Nyasica. These are planted between the coffee plots. The estates also benefit from 500 hectares of Macadamia trees
So, the coffee history, the environmental credentials are all there, and we can definitely vouch for the taste credentials: