Within the landlocked country of Zimbabwe, coffee is the second most lucrative cash crop, with the first being tobacco. Highlands located on its eastern border provide a perfect climate for high-quality coffee farming, producing beans that offer complex tastes of sweet fruits and full-bodied chocolate.
While Zimbabwe is known to produce some beautiful coffee, it has a turbulent history of crop failures, political disputes, and land reforms that have resulted in massive drawbacks for the local agricultural industry over the last century. Only recently, with the help of international investment, has the coffee sector been able to rebuild itself.
Zimbabwe Coffee Growing History
Formally known as Rhodesia, Zimbabwe gained independence from the British colonies during the 20th century. It was these colonies that introduced the coffee tree to the nation during the mid to late 19th century. Coffee may have existed in the region prior to this, but it was only from this date that it began to be farmed. From then on, the crop slowly began to take hold in Zimbabwean culture, until disease hit in the 1920s and eradicated a significant amount of coffee trees in the country, stunting the plant’s popularity in the nation for 40 years.
By the 1960s, the coffee-growing industry was starting to make a comeback. Quality standards were introduced, resulting in a production boom for the country that saw its beans revered in cities such as New York and London.
Zimbabwean coffee exports peaked in the 1980s when over 15,000 tonnes of coffee were being produced annually. This was not to last, however, as President Robert Mugabe gained power in the country, setting about the massive political upheaval that resulted in economic, social, and natural crises. By the end of the decade, conceived a sharp decline in the coffee industry. Loyalists to Mugabe, fuelled by Zimbabwe’s ongoing call for independence, began attacking white-owned farms and burning the crops. Because coffee trees take around three to five years to grow and harvest, production of the crop was abandoned in favour of more short-term investments, such as marijuana plants and wild vegetables.
In its prime, Zimbabwe used to be among the top 30 coffee producers (by volume) in the world, but this conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s caused an estimated 97% of the crop to be lost. Naturally, this caused the country to fall significantly down the charts, and it is only within the last decade that Zimbabwe has slowly begun to take up production again, with the majority of coffee being farmed on small estates.
Zimbabwe Coffee Farming
Zimbabwe is located on the coffee belt, a strip that runs horizontally along the equator and is known to provide the most ideal circumstances for growing coffee. Only a small portion of the eastern highlands is suitable for its production. This is known as the Highveld: an area of a plateau with an elevation of between 1200 to 1500 m.a.s.l. Over 800mm of rain per year provides ample moisture to aid in the crop’s growth.
With a temperate climate that remains warm all year round, Zimbabwe provides ideal Arabica growing conditions. Local land reforms mean that small-scale farming is the dominant method of growing coffee here. This involves hand-picking cherries during the harvesting period, and often processing them manually. While there are some climatic challenges such as long dry seasons, occasional cyclones, and pest outbreaks, these can be overcome through knowledge and experience. What's more, the small size of the farms means that on average, each coffee cherry gets far more attention than it would on a larger estate.
Farms such as the Pezuru Estate have small streams that act as a general catchment area from the surrounding hills, providing support for irrigation during the local dry season, which typically lasts between May to October. This also creates opportunities for bass and bream fishing within the local community. In fact, the quality of farm management at Pezuru has led to meticulous standards for coffee and demonstrates great potential for other farms in the country.
Zimbabwe Coffee Production Regions
Coffee production occurs along the eastern border of Zimbabwe, in an area known as the Honde Valley. The Honde Valley is made up of the Manicaland and Mashonaland provinces and runs along the border of Mozambique. Within these regions, Vumba and Chipinge are the areas where the most Arabica is grown and traded, producing 75% of the country’s speciality coffee. The area is collectively known as.
Chipinge coffee is generally regarded as the highest quality Zimbabwean coffee, followed by Chimanimani, Mutasa, and Mutare, the smallest of the four.
Zimbabwe Coffee Types and Varietals
The dominant varietal in Zimbabwe is the Catimor Arabica bean, a mix of Catarrh and Timor introduced in the 1950s that has its origin in Portugal. It is preferred in Zimbabwe due to its short maturity period, disease-resistant nature, and small size, which allows for more produce per average. Catimor is grown on more than 90% of farms in Chipinge, and more than 70% in Chimanimani and Mutare.
Other popular varieties in the country include SL-14, SL-28, SL-34, and Caturra.
Zimbabwe Coffee Flavour Profile
African coffee is often noted for its fruit and berry tastes, and the Zimbabwean brew is no exception, adding its own rich body and satisfying balance to the mix. Some of these coffees are known to have an acidity akin to a Kenyan coffee but without the sweeter berry notes. They generally have a sweet, fruity taste, and a powerful scent, leaving an aftertaste of wine-acidity on the palate.
Interestingly, the terroir of the region (meaning the flavour profiles that come from the soil), results in earthy, chocolatey, and leathery, flavours which are pleasant in moderation.
Zimbabwe Coffee Harvest Date
Harvesting is often done between May to September, but in some cases can begin as early as March.
The best time to buy the beans is between October and March.
Zimbabwe Coffee Annual Production
In the 1980s, Zimbabwe was producing over 15,000 tonnes of coffee. After its decline, however, it was seeing an average of only 500 tonnes being produced per year by the early 2000s. Nowadays production is so small that only an approximate total of 300 families and small communities are dedicated to the industry.
Recently, farmers in Zimbabwe have been receiving training and materials from Swiss-owned company Nespresso. This is in partnership with the international nonprofit organisation TechnoServe. Their aim is to take a business approach to fight poverty and supporting smallholder farms, which has allowed farmers to improve their crop quality and quantity, accumulating a boost from 10 to 30 tonnes of coffee per year. These training programmes have helped farmers introduce more efficient methods of farming. For example, they are replacing insecticide sprays with more environmentally-friendly insect trappers.
Overall, these initiatives are seen to be less about revival and more about remodelling a new era of coffee production. This is still a budding new phase in Zimbabwe’s coffee industry but offers a very exciting prospect for the next few years.
Zimbabwe Coffee Annual Export Volume
Due to the conflicted past of Zimbabwe’s coffee industry, only around 500 tonnes of coffee have been produced in the country in total, and the exported volume can only be lower.
Despite the low tally, recent years have shown some promising signs for the industry. In 2020, Zimbabwe exported over 2.03 million euros worth of coffee, making it the 102nd largest exporter of coffee in the world. The fastest growing export markets for Zimbabwean coffee have been Mozambique, Switzerland, and Australia.
Future of Zimbabwean Coffee
While Zimbabwe has seen dramatic fluctuations within the industry, in the last few years it is demonstrating a steady and healthy rise in the amount of coffee produced. Foreign companies are beginning to invest and pay above-market prices for their coffee, which has seen more farmers adopt the crop. In particular, the international non-profit organisation TechnoServe has been helping the country resurrect and remodel its industry.
While these investments are helping Zimbabwe, there are worries that the country will be over-reliant on this support. To prevent this, they will need to develop firmer infrastructure and a wider knowledge base that will lend itself toward self-sufficiency. This is an operation that will take time and further support from international organisations.
Encouragingly, investment and innovation are projected to contribute massively to the export earnings of Zimbabwe in the coming years. TechnoServe predicts that around 2000 smallholder farms will return to cultivating coffee by 2025. This entails a new, younger generation of coffee growers and an increase in the quality and quantity of the country’s coffee.