Updated: Apr 11
Zambia’s emergence onto the coffee production scene came comparatively late in the game compared to other parts of Africa. The country watched its neighbours become established coffee producing countries and drew inspiration, spurred on by various government led initiatives in the 1970s. This caused the industry to grow exponentially, and Zambia became an exclusive exporter of their own produce by 1985.
Zambia’s Growing History
Rich copper deposits have always featured as Zambia’s major export, however, in an effort to introduce an additional revenue stream, the World Bank, along with the Zambian Government and later the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), established a number of coffee projects across the country in the 1970s. The overall aim of these projects was to encourage cultivation of high-quality coffee at the lowest cost possible while encouraging smallholder coffee production to tackle unemployment and rural poverty crises.
These projects strived to establish around 600 new smallholder farmers by providing suitable seedlings for the region and development support through the adoption of Kenyan coffee frameworks for green coffee grading and classification systems. These projects saw overwhelming success, and by the mid-1980’s the number of smallholders had almost doubled. As the years went by, total annual production rose from 70 to almost 400 metric tonnes, and in 1985, Zambia was given an annual quota of 350 metric tonnes by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) to commence the commercial exportation of coffee.
Where is Coffee Grown in Zambia?
Divided between smallholders and five large-scale estates, the majority of Zambia’s coffee growing sector is concentrated in the Muchinga Mountains of Northern Province, with other large estates established in Serenje and around the capital city of Lusaka within the Southern Province.
Proximity to the equator as well as possession of the highest point in the country (the Mafinga Hills sitting at 2,300 m.a.s.l) the Northern Province is certainly equipped with the best conditions for growing arabica coffee. Generally grown between 1,300-1,600 m.a.s.l, coffee production is considered one of the major commercial crops to dominate this region's market, with around 97% of Zambia’s exportable coffee crops originating from this area. There are three major sectors within the province that house multiple large-scale coffee-growing estates - namely Kasama, Nokonde and Isoka.
With an average elevation of around 1,420 m.a.s.l and rainfall of 1200 mm per annum, coffee grown in the region of Serenje is uniquely known for being intercropped with macadamias. Estates such as Kachipapa actively mulch their coffee plants by using natural grasses or macadamia tree off-cuttings to assist in the retention of moisture in the soil, slowing the process of evaporation and ultimately growing a bean that will later reflect juicy, acidic berry notes.
Famous for housing one of Zambia’s most famous tourist attractions – Mosi-oa-Tunya, or more internationally known as Victoria Falls – the Southern Province features a few smaller coffee growing estates alongside the majority of Zambia’s commercial farmland and maize producers.
What Coffee is Grown in Zambia?
Because of its location on the plateau of central Africa, most of Zambia lies at 1,000 m.a.s.l. This means that the majority of the country meets the minimum suitable altitude for growing arabica coffee, a characteristic that leaves Zambia with no restrictions on the location of coffee farms. The most common varietals are SL-28 from Kenya and Catimor.
When is Coffee Harvested in Zambia?
Zambia’s arabica harvest runs May through to August/September, with a shipment period ranging from September through to April. Speciality lots tend to be shipped within a smaller time frame from June to August.
How Much Coffee Does Zambia Produce?
When compared to more seasoned participants in the African coffee trade, Zambia produces relatively small volumes of coffee, with an average of 1,500 tonnes per annum since the turn of the 21st century.
The years 2004-2005 saw Zambia amass a crop of 6,654 tonnes of green coffee, followed by a steady decrease in production since; the country only reaching a total of 180 tonnes in 2015 due to unseasonable weather and lack of accessible funds. More recent figures have however shown a promising recovery for the local industry, with a rise in production to a total 2,000 tonnes in 2019.
How Much Does Coffee From Zambia Cost?
Major purchasers of Zambian coffee include Europe, South Africa, Asia and the US. Where pricing is concerned, the Zambia Coffee Growers Association (ZCGA) uses cup quality and C price to determine pricing, but ultimately the final decision on price is retained by the farmers.
In 2022, wholesale Zambian coffee has an approximated price range between $2.75 and $4.21 per kilogram. The Zambian coffee market was equated to 21.10 million USD in 2015 and is predicted to reach 83.92 million USD by 2025.
What Does Zambian Coffee Taste Like?
Described as full-bodied with sweet, mild acidity and moderate complexity, the perfect cup of Zambian coffee features a predominantly fruity palate with emphasis on citrus notes and berry accents.
Challenges in the Zambian Coffee Industry Today
While crop yields may be increasing, and the knowledge of coffee growing becoming more commonly shared, there are a few things that challenge Zambia and its future in the industry.
First and foremost is Zambia’s location. Being a land-locked country means Zambia must rely solely on its neighbours for access points to shipping routes. This can mean extended delays, increased shipping periods, and other unforeseen issues that could result in high-quality beans sitting in a port for far too long.
There is also the lack of production capacity, which is due to high production costs on top of labour shortages. Support from initiatives such as the World Bank's projects from the 1970s have not been renewed, resulting in a reliance on private companies to maintain current processes for the local industry.
There is a beacon of hope, however, as support has been culminating in the form of outreach programs, which focus on driving Rainforest Alliance certifications and local initiatives to support schools, increase employment and uplift rural communities.