As climate change brings about rising temperatures, the regions traditionally suited for coffee cultivation are likely to expand beyond the traditional coffee belt. Situated just outside this belt is South Africa, where coffee is already being cultivated, albeit on a very small scale. What’s produced within the country is usually bought and consumed within the country, meaning that South African coffee is a rarity in the international coffee market. However, increased demand and interest in the region’s coffee have caused several commercial farmers to diversify into coffee production.
South Africa Coffee Growing History
Originally brought in from the island of Bourbon, British and European settlers started cultivating coffee in the coastal region of Natal in 1854. The area’s fertile soils, pleasant climate and average rainfall were all suitable for the cultivation of various agricultural cash crops. British settlers spent several years experimenting with numerous agricultural products including tea, coffee, arrowroot and sugarcane. Coffee production was initially successful, eventually growing to take up 2000 hectares of land by the 1870s.
However, the 1870s was also when a global outbreak of coffee leaf rust occurred, and soon coffee cultivation was overshadowed by the success of sugarcane. In fact, by the end of the decade, many estates had been destroyed completely, due to a multitude of reasons including pests, diseases, limited knowledge, poor farming practices of farmers and unsuitable soil.
Coffee production resurfaced in the mid-1900s, albeit on a much smaller scale. Several plantations were known to exist, mostly in the Northern province of Limpopo. When the country’s sugarcane quotas were reduced in the 1960s, a researcher recommended that coffee be produced as an alternative. Following his report, two Kenyan varieties, SL28 and SL34, were imported into South Africa in addition to small quantities of other varieties for experiments.
At its peak, South Africa was producing between 1500 and 2000 tons annually. Around the 1970s, world coffee prices were high and the political situation in South Africa made the government seriously consider coffee production. A decade later, 1525 hectares of arabica had been planted, and other areas had been approved for cultivation. In 1987, South Africa produced 1800 tons of coffee and was projected to produce more than 6600 tons by 2000. Unfortunately, high labour costs, pests, diseases, and decreasing international prices meant that very few farms ever became profitable and many estates gradually closed down.
At present, there is estimated to be just 200 hectares of land used for coffee cultivation across the entire country of South Africa. However, there has been increased interest in coffee production in recent years; some regions of the country are believed to possess the ideal conditions for growing coffee and there is a high domestic demand for the drink. Several farms have now started growing coffee alongside existing crops.
South African Coffee Farming
Coffee cultivation and production in South Africa is limited to a few commercial farms, the majority of which also rely on sales from on-site coffee shops, tours and gift shops in order to remain profitable. Many farms and coffee shops will also import and roast green coffee from other countries. Beaver Creek Coffee Estate in KwaZulu-Natal and Sabie Valley Coffee Farm in Mpumalanga were both established during South African coffee’s more successful decades around the 1980s. They are considered to be the oldest coffee farms in the country. Another long-established farm, Assagay Coffee Farm has been around since 1991. Most other farms have been established in more recent years following an upsurge in interest in coffee farming.
South African Coffee Production Regions
Where is coffee grown in South Africa?
Coffee is currently grown in several regions across the country, with the regions of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal being the most well-known. KwaZulu-Natal has rich, slightly acidic soil, high humidity, good drainage and coastal winds, making it well-suited to coffee cultivation. The Northern province of Limpopo is also suitable, and its population has gained an interest in coffee production over the past five to ten years. Allesbeste Boerdery, one of South Africa’s leaders in the avocado industry, recently branched out into coffee production in Limpopo in 2016.
Coffee production depends on a fine balance between altitude and latitude and many South African coffee farmers state the importance of the latter. Outside the coffee belt, the terroir suitable for the production of quality coffee tends to be found at lower altitudes. Coffee in South Africa is therefore grown at low elevations. Beaver Creek Coffee Farm grows some coffee at just 100 metres above sea level and the highest elevations at which coffee is currently grown in South Africa are between 950 and 1250 metres. Most commonly though, coffee is grown at elevations between 200 and 800 metres above sea level.
What types of coffee are grown in South Africa?
Types and varietals
The coffee grown in South Africa is primarily Arabica, with varietals including SL-28, Catuai and Catimor F6. SL-28 is an Arabica varietal commonly grown in Kenya, known for its exceptional quality and high yields. However, it is also particularly susceptible to coffee berry disease (CBD) and coffee leaf rust (CLR). Catuai, a popular varietal in Brazil, is a cross between the compact Caturra and the highly productive Mundo Novo. Being a smaller plant, it can be planted closer together, creating a higher planting density and allowing easier access to cherries during harvesting. However, Catuai is also susceptible to coffee leaf rust and pests. Catimor F6 is a dwarf variety that also stems from the crossing of the Caturra and the Timor Hybrid varietals. Its small stature makes it easier to harvest and the varietal was bred to be rust-resistant.
South Africa is also home to coffea Racemosa, one of the 130 wild coffee species. Indigenous to Southern Africa grows wild in the coastal forests north of Lake St. Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal and up the eastern coastal belt into Mozambique. Racemosa is ideally suited to its local climate. It is hardy, resistant to drought and diseases, and is also naturally caffeine free. Racemosa has received increased attention over the last few years as coffee researchers have begun examining the potential for commercialising hardier coffee varietals to combat the difficulties of climate change. At present, there is just one known small plantation of around 2000 trees in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
South Africa Coffee Flavour Profile
Due to its tiny production quantities, relatively little information is on hand to detail the traditional flavour profile of South African coffee. However, the country’s indigenous coffee species, Racemosa, has a rather mixed reputation. Some of its flavours are considered favourable whilst others… not so much. It is said to have a light to medium body and a slightly smoky and naturally bitter flavour with notes of spice, blackcurrant and liquorice.
South Africa Coffee Harvest Dates
The coffee harvest season in South Africa commences early on in the first half of the year, usually around February or March. The season is rather drawn out and ripe cherries are harvested at regular intervals over a period of six to seven months until around September.
How much coffee does South Africa Produce?
South Africa is barely recognised as a coffee producer on the international market, and just 200 hectares of land are estimated to be used for coffee across the entire country these days. Concrete figures are hard to come by, but it is believed that the country produces around 120 tonnes, or 2000 60kg bags.
South Africa has instead traditionally been a nation of tea drinkers. However, domestic coffee consumption is on the rise and there has also been a gradual shift from instant coffee to increased demand for speciality coffee in recent years. According to the International Coffee Organisation, domestic coffee consumption in South Africa has hovered between 640,000 and 670,000 60kg bags, or around 40,000 tonnes, since 2017. In 2012, domestic consumption was significantly lower at around 500,000 bags or 30,000 tonnes.
South African Coffee Annual Export Volume
Coffee is imported far more than it is exported in South Africa, as local demand far outweighs the small amounts produced in-country. Alongside North African countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, South Africa is one of the continent’s biggest importers of green coffee, receiving the crop from other African countries and beyond. Over the last decade, there has been a huge increase in the number of roasteries across the country, many of which are small, independent businesses.
Another reason for South Africa’s limited exports is that coffee is rather expensive to produce in the country. Labour wages are high meaning that producers are unable to compete with other countries with significantly lower production costs.