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Cameroon Coffee: A Cooperative History

Cameroon sits on the Atlantic coast at the bend where Western and Central Africa meet. Often referred to as "Africa in miniature" for its geographic and cultural diversity, the country was once the continent’s second largest coffee producer. However, many farmers have now moved away from coffee, and production has fallen significantly in recent decades despite various initiatives which were launched to promote the sector’s growth.



Cameroon Coffee Growing History


Coffee is first thought to have been introduced to Cameroon in the 1880s. In the following decades, German settlers established several test gardens around the country where they studied the success of several coffee varieties. Cultivation expanded significantly in around 1925, when it was extended to forest areas in Eastern Cameroon. Coffee growing in Cameroon really took off in the late 1920s with the arrival of a French agricultural engineer named René Coste, who ran the Dschang Agricultural Station in the West of the country. By 1928, 200,000 coffee seedlings had been planted in that area. Between 1936 and 1939, there was a seven-fold increase in coffee exports from Cameroon.


Coffee in Cameroon quickly became a major source of foreign currency, and the state was actively involved in the industry’s running. The state distributed inputs, negotiated export contracts and also operated a price stabilisation fund which determined producer prices. However, the Cameroonian economy experienced a major financial crisis in the late 1980s. In a story similar to that of many developing countries at the time, Cameroon was forced to implement new economic policies in exchange for loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.


In the early 1990s, the coffee sector in Cameroon underwent liberalisation, a process which was finalised in 1994 when producer prices began to be determined by the market. Consequently, there was a significant decrease in production and a general deterioration in coffee quality. Many farmers have since switched to alternative crops, and whilst a number of initiatives have been launched in recent years in an attempt to revive the sector, most have unfortunately not been particularly fruitful. For example, The Coffee Sector Development Strategy was created to run between 2010 and 2015. Unfortunately, implementation of the Strategy faced many challenges, leading the government to develop a follow-on initiative, the Cocoa and Coffee Sector Revitalisation and Development Plan. Adopted in September 2014, the plan had ambitious goals of producing around 2.6 million bags of coffee by 2020. Unfortunately, the initiative once again fell far short of its targets.


Common challenges for the Cameroonian coffee industry include general disinterest due to low profitability, lack of access to seeds, poor transport infrastructure, high cost of inputs, and ageing plants and farms. The ongoing civil war also continues to impact farmers and coffee production in Cameroon.



Coffee Farming in Cameroon


Agriculture plays a major role in the Cameroon economy. It is Cameroon’s principal source of revenue and provides jobs for more than half the population. According to the Global Coffee Platform, there are an estimated 73,000 coffee farmers in Cameroon with around 110,000 acres under coffee production. The average farm size is around 1.9 hectares, which is significantly larger than the average of other major African Robusta producers, such as Uganda. Coffee is usually the primary source of income for those who produce it, as many farmers with alternative options have appeared to abandon coffee production in favour of alternative cash crops such as cocoa and palm oil.



Cameroon Coffee Production Regions


Coffee is cultivated in seven of Cameroon’s ten regions; Centre, East, Littoral, North-West, West, South and South-West. More than 75% of total production comes from just two regions, Littoral and West, whilst the South-West produces around 15% of total production. The remainder of production is split between the Centre, East, South and North-West.


Arabica production is concentrated primarily in the North-West region with a few scattered plantations in the West region. Also known as the Western Highlands or the Bamenda Grassfields, the North-West lies along the Cameroon Line, a chain of offshore and mainland volcanoes and mountain ranges. Temperatures are cool, rainfall is abundant, altitude is high, and soils are rich and fertile, making the conditions perfect for quality coffee. In the North-West, coffee grows at altitudes between 1200 and 2200 metres above sea level. With over 35,000 members, The North West Cooperative Association is the main organisation through which the region’s coffee is produced, collected, processed and marketed.


Sadly, the North-West region is also majorly affected by conflict. Rooted in Cameroon’s colonial legacy, the North-West is one of Cameroon’s two predominantly English-speaking regions, but Anglophone Cameroonians face widespread discrimination and are treated like second-class citizens. Following the brutal government repression of peaceful protests in 2016, Anglophone separatist groups and Cameroonian security forces have been engaged in violent conflict. Fighting has provoked a major humanitarian crisis with those fighting responsible for burning villages, kidnapping, looting and burning schools, blocking roads and attacking buses. Thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands are internally displaced. Naturally, the agricultural industry has been affected here.


Robusta production is concentrated in the South-West, East and Littoral regions. It also grows on a smaller scale in the West, South, North-West and Centre.



Coffee Producers in Cameroon


There have been many cooperatives in the Western Highlands of Cameroon, the first being created in 1932 under colonial rule. Eventually, in 1948, native Cameroonian Mathias Djoumessi formed the ‘Cooperative for the Production, Collection, and Sales of Coffee’ in Dschang. This was the first indigenous cooperative in Cameroon.


Currently, the two major cooperatives in Cameroon that support arabica coffee cultivation are The North West Cooperative Association (NWCA), and the Central Union of West region Agricultural Cooperatives (UCCAO).


The NWCA, created in 1950, is based in the North West region of Cameroon, and is responsible for marketing, sourcing buyers for their coffee, and preparing lots for delivery. Coffee processing takes place at Secondary Cooperative Unions (SCU), which, for the NWCA, act in the regions of Boyo, Nso, Bamenda, Donga Mantung, Oku, Momo, and Santa. Meanwhile, Cooperative Producer Marketing Societies (CPMS) are the ones to actually interact with farmers. They purchase coffee from Cameroonian farmers in the North West, and deliver it to SCUs for processing.


One notable producer operating in the NWCA is Cameroon Boyo Coffee, a group of small holders based in the Boyo division of the North-West provenance. Cameroon Boyo coffee was created by Matti Foncha, who convinced the farmers of Boyo to pool their coffee together, coordinate processing, and export directly to roasters around the world.


Over in the West Region of Cameroon is the UCCAO, which was formed in 1958 from the fusion of several older cooperatives in the region. Much like the NWCA, the UCCAO is the major overseer of six Secondary Cooperative Unions in the regions of Menoua, Mifi, Nde, Noun, Bamboutos, and Haut-Nkam. These SCUs are again composed of smaller groupings found within different areas and villages within these regions.


A notable SCU of UCCAO is Caplami, which is based in the Mifi department of West Cameroon, cultivating coffee on the slopes of Mount Oku. Caplami has around 2500 members, and creates lots by combining the coffee grown on small holder plots of land. The coffee varietal produced by Caplami is usually java, and farms in this cooperative can be found at altitudes exceeding 1400 m.a.s.l.



Cameroon Coffee Types and Varietals


Cameroon’s geographic and climatic diversity allows for the production of both Arabica and Robusta. Robusta dominates production and represents around 90% of overall coffee production in Cameroon, although the share of Arabica produced historically has been as high as 35%. In comparison, during the 2015/2016 crop year, Arabica represented 18% of total coffee production.


Two Arabica varietals are cultivated in Cameroon; Typica and Java. Typica, reportedly brought over from Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region, was first introduced in the early 1900s, while Java was introduced much later. At one point believed to be a Typica selection, Java is in fact a selection from an Ethiopian landrace population called Abyssinia. Java was introduced to the island of Java directly from Ethiopia in the early 19th century. It was brought to Cameroon in the mid-20th century by a local farmer via the Vilmorin seed company, which had acquired seeds from a plant breeder in Java. In Cameroon, the breeder Pierre Bouharmont observed that Java plants were partially tolerant to coffee berry disease and leaf rust, and were well adapted for smallholder growers using few inputs. Java was released for cultivation in Cameroon between 1980-90.



Cameroon Coffee Flavour Profile


Although the profile of Cameroonian Arabica is varied, commonalities include mellow acidity, a fruity aroma, a full body and a rich taste with hints of chocolate, red berries, caramel and stone fruits. Cameroonian Robusta is rich and full-bodied with nutty and earthy tasting notes.



Cameroon Coffee Harvest Date


Coffee in Cameroon is harvested from September to December.



Cameroon Coffee Annual Production


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cameroon was the African continent's second largest coffee producer, and the twelfth largest producer in the world. Production reached a peak in 1986/1987 when 132,000 tonnes, or 2.2 million bags were produced. Since then, there has been a steady decline in production and Cameroon now sits at around thirtieth place in the list of global coffee producing countries.


Between 2000 and 2010, coffee production in Cameroon fell by 50%. Production dropped from 66,000 tonnes in 2000/01 to around 31,500 tonnes in 2010/2011. Production in Cameroon has continued to decline since then. According to the International Coffee Organisation, production has averaged around 285,000 bags, or around 17,000 tonnes, in the past three years. Between 2020 and 2021, 280,000 bags were produced. This is just under 17,000 tonnes.



Cameroon Coffee Annual Export Volume


Domestic consumption of coffee in Cameroon is low and most of Cameroon’s coffee is destined for export. In recent years, there has been a gap between registered coffee exports and production minus domestic consumption. It is believed that this is due to export tax evasion by a small number of companies.


The International Coffee Organisation reports Cameroon exported 192,000 bags, or around 11,500 tonnes, in the 2020/2021 season. In 2021/2022, just over 183,500 bags, or about 11,000 tonnes, were exported. Germany, Belgium and Russia are popular destinations for Arabica whilst Italy, France and Portugal are popular destinations for Robusta.


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