Malawi Coffee Production and Sourcing Guide
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Does Malawi grow coffee?
Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Zambia borders it to the north, Tanzania to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, and Zimbabwe to the west. This places Malawi in the heart of the speciality coffee-growing regions of eastern Africa. Like many other Eastern African countries, Malawi is quite poor and stands. It has a high population density for an African country. Its population is estimated at 18 million people.
The main exports of Malawi are maize, rice, and tobacco, with other crops including a variety of nuts, tea, and sugar cane.
Malawi has a lot of potential in producing quality coffee due to its subtropical climate, soil, and altitude. There are of course challenges in the region, but Malawian perseverance is surely at play within the burgeoning coffee economy that the country is building.
Malawi Coffee Growing History
The first-ever coffee trees in Malawi came in the late 1800s, by way of Dr. John Kirk and John Buchanan from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. The particular tree, the Nyasa coffee varietal, soon spread across the country and into neighbouring regions. Locals would use coffee as a stimulant by chewing on the cherry right off the tree. Obviously, it has now become renowned for its distinct taste as a hot drink.
In 1971, The Smallholder Coffee Authority was formed as a means to provide farmers with loans and marketing. Due to mismanagement and a build-up of debt, however, it was decided that the organisation would be replaced by the Smallholder Coffee Farmer’s Trust in 1999. This was a step toward better cooperation, as farmers were now involved in management and operations. The Trust still offers needed support to coffee farmers today, helping with access to credit, training, and advice.
In 1999 the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union was also formed and now has over 3000 members (25% of whom are women). Much is accomplished by them and similar organisations to promote the economy and sustainability of coffee farming in Malawi.
Coffee wilt disease was a massive issue for Malawian Coffee growers in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a brutal coffee disease that threatened even the healthiest coffee trees. In response, large-scale international aid for this crisis had to be deployed. Aid that included help from the International Coffee Organisation, and the Association of International Coffee Trade Organisations. Together they helped Malawi fight back against coffee wilt, and progress towards bolstering the coffee industry is ongoing to this day.
Currently, the coffee industry in Malawi is experiencing a period of moderate growth. Coffee is a minor export for the country but does offer a way for Malawians to generate income. Farmers are exporting higher quality products, earning more revenue from the sale of their crops and with the help of new promotion/distributive strategies by co-operatives, many farmers are able to make sustainable improvements to their farms.
Malawi Coffee Farming & Production
As with many other coffee-producing countries, smaller farms in Malawi often organise into co-operatives in order to pool resources and information, alongside providing assistance with processing. The Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union, for example, exports coffee on behalf of its members. This is a job usually filled by the government, as is the case with some of Malawi’s neighbours, however, the Malawian government does not provide such support.
As with many other parts of Eastern Africa, erosion from rain is a severe threat to the feasibility of the entire agricultural industry. Coffee trees have served as an interesting deterrent to unwanted soil erosion in some areas of Malawi. The trees’ root system serves as a natural defence mechanism, preventing soil from being washed away in the rainy seasons. The roots of the plants grow deep into the ground, so they can hold onto dirt loosened by running surface water, and the thick layer of leaves on top also deflects rainwater as it falls.
Malawi Coffee Production Regions; where is coffee grown in Malawi?
Malawi is a small player in worldwide coffee exports, but a major producer of speciality coffee coming out of Eastern African coffee-growing regions. The country’s coffee production has been shifting from low-quality coffee trees to higher yield and better-tasting trees over the past few decades.
The bulk of coffee in Malawi is grown in southern regions such as Mangochi, Mulanje, Zomba, and Thyolo, where there are higher altitudes and warmer temperatures. There are however around 4000 smallholder farms (less than 200 plants per grower) in northern and central Malawi.
What type of coffee is grown in Malawi?
Pretty much all coffee grown in Malawi is Arabica. The cheaper Robusta would need to be grown in much greater quantities to be profitable for coffee farmers, which is why smallholders and larger estates both choose the higher quality Arabica trees. Additionally, the country’s smaller production demands that they grow speciality coffees rather than bulk Robusta.
For much of Malawi’s coffee-growing history, Caturra was the most reigning varietal. But after the devastation of coffee crops after 1999, many farmers uprooted their Caturra and planted with Catimor hybrids because of their remarkable resistance to coffee leaf ‘rust’.
Many of the other types of coffee grown in Malawi are either known for their durability or their premium taste profile. Ruiru 11 and Catuai fit the bill of a more durable coffee tree, while the likes of K7, SL28, and SL34 have other benefits. K7, for example, matures at a much faster pace than the average Arabica tree. Innovations such as these increase profitability and sustainability for the Malawian coffee industry.
Malawi Coffee Flavour Profile
Malawian coffee has medium acidity and body, leading to a rich and flavourful drink: sweet with hints of flora, spices like liquorice, and dried fruits mixed with chocolate.
Malawi Coffee Harvest Date
Malawi has one long, and one short rainy season, which determines available times for harvest. These seasons last from October through November and May through June. Coffee trees are harvested from September through December or from February through May.
Depending on both the specifics of the general region and climate, the peak harvesting period is liable to change from year to year.
After harvest, coffee is sent to be processed as soon as possible at local washing stations, before going through secondary processing facilities where they are prepared for general export.
Malawi Coffee Annual Production
Production in Malawi is lower when compared to other neighbouring coffee-growing countries, currently only producing 1,500 metric tons of coffee per year. However, this is due to change now that there is a concerted effort to improve crop quality, increase profitability for growers, and expand to new growing regions within the country.
Malawi Coffee Annual Export Volume
The total exports of coffee for Malawi have steadily increased over the last few decades. “In 2018, coffee exports for Malawi was $2,722,000 (USD). Though Malawi coffee exports fluctuated substantially in recent years, they tended to increase through 1969 - 2018”.
Is coffee the major cash crop of Malawi?
Coffee is not yet considered a cash crop for Malawi. Tea, tobacco, and macadamia are the country’s main exports, however, tobacco is being exported less and less to developed countries and is sure to play less of a part in the country’s economy, making room for less explored produce, like coffee.
To realise this potential, Malawi coffee farmers will need to continue organising themselves into cooperatives. These tend to promote better crops, better market exposure, and higher prices for the coffee produced by smallholders. Continued advancements in crop technology, erosion mitigation, and farming best practices can converge to create a sustainable coffee export in Malawi.
What is Mzuzu coffee?
Mzuzu is the capital of Malawi’s Northern Region. It is home to the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union, which helps local growers through the betterment of infrastructure, market exposure, and farming help. Coffee labelled as Mzuzu simply comes from this strategic union, which tends to have better quality coffee than non-cooperative support coffee in the region. It also carries with it international brand recognition which has helped growers in the co-op realise profits from exposure and higher prices for their goods.
Mzuzu is consolidated in about 4000 smallholder
farmers, mainly based in the North: Chitipa, Rumphi, Mzimba and Nkhata-Bay. There are current plans to establish more co-operatives in up and coming growing regions – including Dedza, Mangochi, Mchinji, Dowa, Ntcheu, and Neno.