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East Africa... Good Coffee, Bad Times


The coffees of Malawi, particularly its “estate” coffees, have established an excellent reputation for flavor and consistency. These coffees are not available in the quantities necessary to satisfy the demand of large roasters, but nor are they of the stature to be a true substitute for the Kenyan coffees that many in the trade yearn for, but nonetheless, they are worthy of consideration.

Bauer noted that, “Malawi has a few plantations and they are producing a very bold, very soft coffee. If you’re looking for a nice, mild East African coffee, Malawi would be the way to go right now.”

When asked why, Bauer was quick to reply that it was “the bold beans. That’s what makes the Malawi coffee so attractive.” Many would add that the cupping characteristics of these coffees can also be exceptional.


Speaking of bold beans, Rwandan coffee, Bauer stated, was anything but, “Essentially, what we’re seeing in Rwanda is a very commercial grade coffee. Not much specialty grade...not much to offer, ith most of the Rwandan coffee going to Europe.” This is a pity, however, as this nation is also capable of producing a very fine Arabica coffee. The problems of the country dwarf whatever concerns a few coffee farmers may have in particular and, in fact, coffee seems to be getting lost in the shuffle.


Tanzania is often considered a close runner-up to Kenya in the East African quality derby and with the current situation, many roasters are looking to the coffees of this nation as a straight substitute for Kenyan coffees.

Bauer reserved some of his most positive comments for the coffee coming out of Tanzania, “Very nice...the best it’s been in years.” When asked what events contributed to this upswing in quality, Bauer replied that it had everything to do with the resurgence of many of Tanzania’s rehabilitated estates. “The return of so many of the nationalized farms to the private sector is having a huge effect on the quality of the coffee coming out of Tanzania right now. It’s just improved so much.”

Of Tanzania, Cameron Woods had a slightly different spin on the Tanzanian situation, “They’ve also been affected by the drought and they’ve had a diminished crop as well, they’ve had a lot of flowering but the cyclones, while providing some rain also aborted this flowering. Tanzania should have a decent crop coming up but this is predominantly in the northern areas. Almost 90% of the southern coffees go to one dealer and access is very limited.”

Hayes offered a few more details on Tanzania’s upcoming crop, “This year’s crop should be 12,000 tons in the north and 21,000 tons in the south with 3,700 tons unwashed Arabica and 15,000 tons Robusta. The crop is coming to an end with most coffee sold and exported. The next crop, July onwards, is expected to be similar in most regions with a likely decline of approximately 4,000 tons in the south for cyclical reasons following what was last year a bumper harvest. Sadly, Tanzania’s northern coffee is no longer achieving the large premiums of the past and this is mainly due to a reduction in demand from Japan due to persistent decline in production and quality from the region over several years. The problem is being tackled and many coffee estates that were until recently mismanaged have been leased to private investors for rehabilitation.”

Regarding Tanzania’s Robustas, Hayes continued, “this year private buyers were not granted licenses to purchase from the farmer and it appears that the exclusion of privates has led to dissatisfaction on behalf of the grower and around 5,000 tons of the crop remain unsold.”

Hayes concluded, “It is my opinion that the Tanzania authorities must seek a faster way of auctioning the harvest as Tanzania quality is being affected (oldish cups) by the slow rate at which the crop is sold. Please note that the majority of Tanzania coffee is bought by traders and exporters directly from the farmer but still has to be sent through the auction. This system is acceptable in order to monitor exports and also for the Tanzanian authorities to correctly deduct the correct taxes and levies in order to sustain, amongst other things, the research institution and the coffee board. However, a faster and more efficient modification of this present system is required.”


The crowded field in Uganda has deterred some traders from venturing there. Further, its reputation for producing low quality coffees (some however of good value) has also deterred roasters and traders alike from finding uses for this coffee. Finally, it is not consistently available, particularly in the U.S.

Relative to other origins, “Uganda on the other hand is another story altogether. For while they have had some success producing organic coffees lately,” Bauer indicated that, “most of the coffee coming out of Uganda is of a very poor quality.”

Bauer continued on to say that “at the moment, the coffee in Uganda is only attractive to the U.S. market when the differentials are good. So, basically, the Robustas in Uganda get most of their attention in Spain and Italy.”

Hayes offered this assessment, “This seasons crop approximately 2.7 million bags of which 90% will be Robusta and 10% Arabica. Again, the potential is closer to 4 million bags. The biggest threat to Uganda now is coffee wilt disease.”


Zambia has the potential to be another “sleeper” origin, capable of delivering excellent quality at sometimes exceptional differentials. Overall, Bauer felt that “the estate sector is still doing very well in Zambia. But, they’re just not having the high differentials that they used to.”

Bauer also offered that “they seem to be competing a lot with Zimbabwe right now.”


It is unclear what sort of competition Zimbabwe can offer at this point as the situation there is even more complicated than in most East African countries and, mind boggling as it may seem, even more tragic. The coffee farmers are being made the scapegoats in an ongoing effort by Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, to retain office by catering to a group of “war veterans” who bear, for the most part, a remarkable resemblance to a ragtag band of armed thugs. With the political infighting heating up, Bauer noted, “the strain is beginning to show in the coffee produced.”

With many of the farmers afraid of being taken over by the “war veterans” things in Zimbabwe are, Bauer said, “very political right now...very tense.” Perhaps the saddest offshoot of this political tension, Bauer observed, is the harsh reality that “it’s somewhat dicey to rely on Zimbabwe as an origin at the moment. This is by no means a situation, however, like when Idi Amin threw all the Indians out of Uganda. The quality of the Zimbabwean coffees, finally, has still been very good.”


Coffee, unfortunately, cannot save the world, but roasters and dealers can send a signal to stricken areas like East Africa that as long as the quality is there, they will be there with a fair differential for good coffee. It’s not much, but it’s something and it’s better than yielding to the temptation that many in the trade are feeling to write this origin off - off the menu boards of small specialty roasters and out of the blends that large roasters need to offer as consistent in taste. It is harder to find the right East African coffee these days, but, as conditions throughout Africa so poignantly demonstrate, difficulty is a relative thing.

Tea & Coffee - June/July 2001
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