The countries of East Africa have produced not only some of the world’s best tasting coffees, but coffees which can immeasurably enhance blends, even when added in small quantities.
The whole continent, however, is under a siege of biblical proportions - disease, drought, war, corruption all threaten the very existence of its inhabitants, all of this making the discussion of coffee production almost moot to the average African. Africa, in fact, has been credited with undergoing its own continent-wide “World War” as the shifting alliances between its various nations give hope to one warlord or megalomaniac and then another.
Coffee production was once on the verge of being one of Africa’s, certainly one of East Africa’s, greatest modern day successes and the marginalization of its coffee industry, under the shadow of Africa’s larger problems is yet another tragedy. Until the bigger problems are dealt with, however, there is little hope that things will get better; until, especially, some slight notion that the rule of law ever makes a stand then it is unlikely that the high quality coffees that East Africa has become known for will be consistently available or that the production of these coffees will be able to contribute measurably to solving the problems of this very troubled continent. Competing with the call for the “rule of law” are those that argue that free enterprise and a certain amount of economic recovery may occur once some nations descend into total anarchy - from such a position, however, anything would seem like an improvement.
While many in the U.S. and Europe fret over the plight of the Central American and Mexican coffee farmer (and conditions there are often less than desirable, to be sure) the plight of the coffee producers in the less-conveniently located continent of Africa seems to have escaped their notice. Or perhaps the plight of the poor souls of Africa is just too daunting.
Part of the global problem is that there is too much coffee in the world and not enough demand for good coffee. In the case of certain East African coffees, however, the coffee was often so good that it created its own demand. It is the return of those coffees for which its producers, and buyers, are fervently hoping.
In surveying the coffee scene in East Africa, country by country, several traders with extensive experience in the area were consulted: Steve Bauer, a trader with Paragon Coffee Trading Co., L.L.C.; Cameron Woods of Caracal Trading East Africa, Ltd.; Jeremy Woods, a trader with Atlantic (USA), Inc.; and Clinton Hayes, managing director of Teo U.K. Their views may seem at times pessimistic when it comes to the outlook for East African Coffee, either in terms of quality or quantity. Nonetheless, in reviewing their specific comments it is possible to catch glimmers of hope and reasons to keep looking for those few fantastic lots of East African coffee that could have become the norm had things gone differently.
Steve Colten, also a trader with Atlantic (USA), Inc. offered this realistic yet hopeful outlook on East African coffees, “Lately you have to work that much harder to find the right quality but to make the blanket statement that quality is down is wrong, it’s just that you have to look harder - someone is always producing good quality.”
What follows are comments on several key origins throughout East Africa, listed alphabetically, including Ethiopia.
As other coffee producing countries in the region falter, Burundi is inching ahead: its consistently good coffees and well respected efforts in the specialty sector give traders reason to rely upon this origin and hope for even better things to come in the future. Clouding this picture are the country’s faltering production numbers and the lack of help that the New York “C” contract is presently offering.
According to Steve Bauer, “As with Tanzania, the private sector is alive and well in Burundi. Their attention to detail has paid off. Traditionally, the coffee in Burundi is best at the beginning of the crop. This year, there has been a much smaller harvest and we’re seeing a lot of fully washed super’s.”
“The thing to remember about Burundian coffee,” Bauer insists, “is that it’s a soft coffee, so it doesn’t hold up well for very long, but when it’s done right it can be an exquisite.”
According to Cameron Woods, the turmoil that’s going on in Burundi’s government has thwarted production efforts. Contrary to Bauer’s comments, Woods asserted that “the government has a lot of controls in Burundi, if they don’t like the price then they can take the coffee back into reserve. On the other hand, certain traders have come in recently and bought lots at lower prices.” While the extent of this problem may not be great the point is that the government has, according to Cameron Woods, hindered the auction system.
Clinton Hayes offered his view on Burundi’s current situation, “Burundi’s coffee is primarily sold through auction with a very small amount sold privately to gourmet markets in the U.S. and Japan. Their crop this year is complete at 18,000 tons (approx. 660,000 60 kg bags). Next year’s crop is projected to be 15,000 tons. The coffee crop in Burundi has been depleted due to a combination of last year’s drought and continuing political upheaval in the region. Potentially Burundi can produce 28,000 tons. Sadly, the future for Burundi coffee remains complicated with ongoing political uncertainty and also the very low world market price.... Fully washed coffees on average trade at small discounts to the New York “C” and better semi washed at 15 under. The problem lies with lack of present availability (roasters cannot confidently write sizeable volumes into blends), political uncertainty and also the regional problem of occasional potato cups.
When asked his opinion of the current crop of Ethiopian coffees, Bauer was enthusiastic. “Ethiopia has some really good quality washed Yirgacheffe and washed Sidamo right now. And they continue to produce some of the finest coffees in the world.” This nation’s bizarre auction system, where exporters must bid on coffees before having had the opportunity to cup them, prevents the best farmers from getting the best prices, thus making any entrepreneurial effort on the part of any one farmer to improve the quality of his or her coffee pointless at best. Exporters, likewise, cannot focus on any particular style or quality, or even establish a reputation for offering even a particular price/value relationship vis-à-vis the coffee they offer. Thus, while the coffees of Ethiopia are generally of good to very good quality, attempting to ferret out the best lots is always pretty much a crap shoot.
Kenya, due to the outstanding coffees it has produced in the past and the commensurately outstanding prices that a few lots of that coffee once fetched, usually gets the most attention when the coffee producers of East Africa are reviewed. Indeed, the country was once considered a model of development and modernization and an example for the rest of Africa to follow. The past quarter century has not been kind to Kenya, however. Deforestation has severely reduced rainfall reducing coffee output to about half of what it once was. All areas of agricultural and industry have fallen victim to rampant government corruption and interference. Richard Leakey, the son of the famous anthropologist and archaeologist, was hired to help cleanse the government of corruption but proved too diligent and has now been fired and is being charged with various crimes. Meanwhile, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) is asking that all sectors of Kenya’s economy be liberalized or funding will not continue. For the coffee sector this means that the government-run coffee auctions must be stopped and that the farmers should be paid directly by the buyers.
One trader noted that the elections scheduled for next year will be “interesting,” if not pivotal. “Arap Moi (Kenya’s president) doesn’t want to leave but the people are fed up - you look at the average people in the street and they’ve got nothing...and although Kenyans are normally very undemanding, they are now under an awful lot of pressure.”
Specifically with regard to this year’s crop, Bauer felt that Kenya coffee, “hasn’t been too bad lately.” But, Bauer cautioned, “The AA coffee is remarkably scarce at the moment.”
“Drought has made the beans smaller, and the scarcity of AA coffee has made the situation even more dire. In fact,” Bauer asserted that “most of the auctions are offering less than 1,000 bags of AA coffee. It’s become very rare and very expensive. Like diamonds.”
Cameron Woods took a somewhat longer view, “The last two years the Kenyans have had significant drought situations. The cyclones that came in off the coast of Madagascar this year helped. The tremendous deforestation throughout the country really hurt. The tree coverage that used to trap the cloud cover isn’t there any more and this has eliminated the long rains that used to fall. The rains this year, however have been a great surprise and very welcome. Tanzania, in fact, may have had too much. The farmers also have been tearing up the SL28 and SL 34 hybrids which were traditionally the trees that produced that famous black currant flavor. Instead they have been planting Ruiru 11 and this has also hurt the flavor.”
Woods also explained that the money that should have been getting to the farmers has not been, “Also, farmers should have been getting 44-64 shillings per kilo for cherry and some of these guys were only getting 4 to 24 shillings for their cherry from the coffee board, based on what was paid at auction. So these farmers have been planting maize and other things. One large scale farmer had around 220 acres and he just quit because he could not afford to maintain his land and he could not sell it, so he’s abandoned it.”
“The trees in many regions look better this year, nonetheless, with the deforestation in many areas, it’s well understood that the rains won’t be coming back on a regular basis. With the deforestation you can’t count on weather patterns. Even this year we’re looking at 34-35,000 tons and counting in the last year’s fly crop your looking at 50,000 tons total. Now this year we’re looking at around 20,000 tons for the fly crop and a bigger main crop.” Regardless of size, however, Woods noted that the quality of the crop is not exciting, “All the coffee this year is at best an FAQ (Fair Average Quality) to FAQ minus, I’ve not cupped any coffee this year with any acidity.”
Hayes, unfortunately, added to the consensus regarding Kenya, “This year’s main crop (January through July) has been a disappointment in both quantity and quality due to drought. The crop is 37,000 tons compared to a usual potential of around 55,000 tons for the same period. Small scale farmers (co-operatives) who generally produce the best Kenya coffees in high grown areas were hardest hit as they had, in the main, very limited access to water through irrigation. Estates fared slightly better as some were able to access reservoirs for a period before they also ran dry. Subsequently, quality is in general poor for Kenya standards and the better cupping qualities have been fiercely competed for in the origin. Selected better AA lots have been achieving prices of between 200 and 300 U.S. cents/pound over NYC. Even slightly better qualities have generally achieved differentials of 70 over and above.”
Hayes offered an analysis of the Kenya situation which was at once more optimistic than that of his colleagues, while still not providing a happy ending for Kenyan farmers, “The problem Kenya will have in the future is that the very high prices puts pressure on the end user to seek alternative origins and it may be that once we return to a normal crop (hopefully next season), roasters will have made changes to the blend to include less Kenya which may lead to a situation where Kenyas will be less desired with the obvious consequences to the price.”