On a road trip in Tanzania, Phil Clisby turned off the main drag between Arusha and Moshi and headed into the foothills of Kilimanjaro to check out a family-run coffee farm… It was to be one of the highlights of his journey
urning off the main road we head up a windy incline into the foothills of Kilimanjaro towards Kahawa Shamba, a family run coffee farm (literally meaning ‘coffee farm’ in Swahili). We bump along a narrow track to the farm gate, where we are greeted by our beaming host Josephat August Minde, resplendent in an Argentina football shirt.
“My dad was a coffee farmer and his grandfather before that,” he tells us. In fact, Josephat is a fourth-generation coffee farmer.
Traditionally, farms were passed down to the children, the land being split between them, he explains. As a result, the farms got smaller and less cost-effective. But this splitting process has since stopped and the farms have become family – rather than individually – run.
There are close to 70,000 coffee growers in the Kili region, each farming between a quarter and two acres. Josephat’s plot measures half an acre. In his village, Msuni, there are around 800 small-scale coffee growers. The crop is far and away the main source of income here, but beans, maize, bananas, avocado and other vegetables are also grown.
The majority of Tanzanian growers belong to a co-operative, which works on the farmers’ behalf to ensure they get a fair price for their coffee. Kahawa Shamba is a member of the Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union, which helps guarantee the growers a minimum price of US$1/kg (as weighed before the husk is removed).
Despite the fact coffee has been grown in the country since 1898, Tanzanians are renowned as tea drinkers, the country exporting around 95 per cent of its coffee, compared with Ethiopia where the split is pretty much 50:50.
“The young have started drinking coffee,” says Josephat, himself an avid fan of the drink. “It would help growers if [more] Tanzanians drank coffee as it helps the price,” he muses.
There are two types of coffee grown in Tanzania – Arabica and Robusta. High altitude growing, such as in the foothills of Kili and Meru, is best-suited to Arabica; 15 out of 16 Tanzanian regions grow Arabica, which flourishes in the wet soil, while the larger Robusta bushes prefer a flatter terrain.
Robusta requires less work – you just pick and dry, explains Josephat. There’s no need to remove the skin, with the beans being dried in their shell, a process that takes about 15 days. The easier process is reflected in the price, however, as it yields just 50c/kg.
While Arabica is fruity and delicate, Robusta is more heavy-bodied – and the caffeine levels vary starkly as well. In every 4-7g of coffee beans, which make a normal-sized cup of coffee, there is 100mg of caffeine in Arabica, compared with a whopping 200mg in Robusta.
“Coffee from Arabica makes you awake,” grins Josephat. “You sit at your keyboard and everything is working well. With Robusta, the caffeine goes [straight] to your heart – and makes it pumping!”
His introduction over, Josephat leads us into the ‘forest’. “Now it is time for you to work,” he says.
From tree to mug
It takes five years for coffee trees to start producing beans, and Josephat has a host of thriving specimens. There are not the long lines of bushes that I envisaged, instead they are scattered about, interspersed with avocado, mango, maize, orange and banana trees as part of what is called an intercropping system. Bees cross-pollinate the plants, giving Arabica its fruitier taste. The volcanic, acidic soil also contributes to the flavour.
Small-scale growers operate an organic system, using cow dung for fertiliser. They don’t spray the trees with pesticides, either. There was a problem with beetles eating the flowers, but growers introduced chameleons to prey on the insects.
Animals don’t eat the beans or the leaves, either – the plant causing havoc with their digestive systems. In fact, coffee was discovered, Josephat says, when goats used to eat the beans and “they had runny poo”.
Josephat points out the vibrant white flowers and the fruit, which contains the beans, that are in various stages of ripening. He passes us each a bucket and instructs us to pick only the red-coloured fruit – these are the ripe ones. The green fruit are to be left well alone.
The picking season lasts from July to December, with each tree producing around 5kg of coffee per year. The tree itself lasts about 45 years. Coffee farming at this level is very labour-intensive, with the picking, and even the pruning, done by hand.
“It’s hard work and difficult for the price you get,” Josephat says. But when it comes to picking, it is very much a woman’s game “because they are so fast and the men are pole pole”, he laughs. “Women can pick 20kg in five minutes.”
Next, we transfer our freshly-picked crop into a hand-operated press, which peels the fruit, removing the flesh to reveal a white bean, which drops into a pot of water that sits below the press’s shute.
Known as the ‘fermentation stage’, the beans are left in water for around three days to break up the sugar. As this point the bean has no smell and is slimy to the touch – a sensation caused by seeping sugar. The water is changed every morning. The dirty water is nicknamed ‘Coca-Cola water’, due to its brown colouring.
The beans are then drained and shovelled onto large trays, where they are left out in the sun to dry for around seven days. Great care is taken over hygiene during this stage because dirty hands could contaminate a batch.
Luckily, Josephat has some dried beans he’d prepared earlier and he soon has me operating a man-sized mortar and pestle to break off the shells. Apparently I do a good job, but it’s backbreaking work and I’m glad I’m only having to grind enough so that we can all enjoy a mug of coffee at the end of this.
The crushed beans are then sieved. This is a job for an expert – Josephat flipping the seeds like pancakes to skillfully remove the unwanted shells, which fly out of the sieve while the beans miraculously remain. Ordinarily, at this stage the beans would be packed into sisal bags and shipped off to market. But we want to taste the fruits of our labour…
Josephat roasts a handful of beans over an open fire. The length of time over the flames determines the strength of the roast. Around six–seven minutes gets you a medium-roast bean, but Josephat doesn’t need a watch – he judges by the colour and the cracking sound the beans make as the heat hits. The quality of coffee is the same whatever the size of bean, it is just the roasting time that differs, he explains: the smaller the bean, the quicker the roasting. Once ready, the beans are left for around 12 hours to cool.
The roasted beans are ground – this time with a hand-sized mortar and pestle – into a fine powder.
Our ‘hard’ work is rewarded with a cracking cup of coffee. “To get good coffee always drink it black,” Josephat says, adding: “If you want milk you’ll have to come back in the morning because that is when we milk the cow.”
Phil Clisby travelled with Tanzania Unravelled.For more information or to make a booking, please contact your local tour operator.
Coffee on tour
Africa is awash with coffee-growing countries, with a number of farms and plantations offering tours and lodges to stay in. Here are a few to whet your taste buds, suggested by Sandy Wood of Pulse Africa
Gibb’s Farm, Tanzania
This working farm near the Ngorongoro Crater, which includes 30 acres of coffee fields, offers luxurious accommodation in a magical setting, with the opportunity to see wildlife and experience some unique cultural activities.
Arusha Coffee Lodge, Tanzania
Hidden among one of Tanzania’s largest coffee plantations, the Arusha Coffee Lodge, with its 30 plantation houses designed around the original landowner’s home, provides an ideal stopover before or after a safari.
Kyambura Women’s Coffee Cooperative, Uganda
A community-based initiative that provides a source of income for a group of local women and their families, who tend to more than 1,500 Arabica and Robusta coffee plants in 100 acres of rejuvenated land.
Fairview Coffee Estate, Kenya
Although it doesn’t offer accommodation, this 100-acre coffee estate on the outskirts of Nairobi is well worth a visit. It offers twice-daily tours and the chance to sample some of Fairview’s renowned brands.
Huntingdon House, Malawi
Although primarily a tea estate, Satemwa, on which the five-suite Huntingdon House is located, has grown coffee since the 1970s. As well as guided walks around the estate, activities include mountain biking and day trips to Majete Game Reserve.