Tanzania is one of the most underrated coffee producing countries in East Africa. Determined producers are striving for better quality while struggling with very limited resources. We believe with some investment we will see even greater coffees from this part of the world.
Tanzania is a large country rich in natural resources, but one of the poorest in the world. The country has experienced economic growth but few citizens have seen the benefits. The Global Hunger Index (GHI), a statistical tool measuring the state of a country’s hunger, ranks Tanzania as the highest in East Africa.
With its relatively close proximity to Ethiopia, and its shared border with Kenya, some of Tanzania’s population has had a long history and culture relationship with coffee, namely the Haya people, for whom the plant was not used so much as a beverage as a chewed fruit. Coffee (probably Robusta) was grown for this domestic purpose until German colonists essentially mandated that farmers grow Arabica coffee as a cash crop, spreading the plants’ reach within the country and developing the industry around Mount Kilimanjaro.
Germany lost control of the colony to the British after the First World War, and the British attempted to develop a more efficient and profitable coffee industry along the lines of Kenya’s. Cooperatives of smallholder farmers started to organize in the 1920s to try to improve market access, but it was many years before Tanzanian coffees really caught on internationally.
In 1964, after both countries achieved independence from Britain, Tanganyika and Zanzibar were combined to establish the Republic of Tanzania—hence the country’s name, Tan/Zania. Growers attempted aggressive growth in the 1970s but had difficulty increasing production. The 1990s saw efforts to reform and privatize coffee exports, allowing growers to sell more directly. Today, in most of the Western world, Tanzanian coffees are famous primarily as separated-out peaberry lots.
Tanzania also suffers with very limited infrastructure; in 2011 only 15% of Tanzanians were recorded to have electricity. Most of the transportation in Tanzania is by road but the roads are in very poor condition. There is quite a distance between the different coffee producing areas, and then the coffee must travel some 820 km from Mbeya to the port in Dar Es Salaam.
Traditionally coffee production has been centred in the North, around Arusha and Kilimanjaro, either through big estates owned by Europeans or through the cooperative structure. It is also in the north that the Tanzania Coffee Board resides and where the weekly auction takes place. Recent years has seen more investment in the production of the Southern Region of Mbeya.
Compared to neighbouring Kenya, you have to dig deep to find the super complex and intense fruit driven coffees in Tanzania. Still, there is great potential and you can find equivalent quality for less than you would pay in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Coffee was brought in to Tanzania by the French Missionaries in the 1890’s and planted in the Kilimanjaro Area. They planted Bourbon varieties that were later introduced to Kenya. The Kent varieties coming from Mysore in India were introduced and planted in the 1920’s. You can also find Nyasa Strain, Menado, Rumi Sudan and some Catimors.
In general there are two traditional varieties that are widely used, Bourbon and Kent. The Bourbon related hybrid N 39 is common, along with the Kent variety KP 432, and traditional Kent varieties K7 and K9.
The Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TACRI) has developed hybrid varieties from the old traditional Bourbon trees to be more disease resistant, specially to CBD. Instead of distributing seedlings to farmers they have several nurseries where they plant cuttings from several trees. They believe planting cuttings, as opposed to having seeds will even out the odds of developing one block full of trees with the same set of bad genes.
TACRI also distribute Catimors and other high yield Arabica/Robusta hybrids but these are not well received by majority of farmers. The trees in Tanzania are generally very old, and the practice of re-planting blocks to encourage better yields are not commonly followed. Farmers are also very sceptical to new varieties.
Peaberries are a naturally occurring mutation of the coffee seed that forms a single, small, rounder unit than the two “flat beans” that typically sit face-to-face inside a coffee cherry. While somewhere between 5–12 percent of any yield can be expected to naturally develop peaberries, some coffee varieties and origins tend to see higher occurrence of them, while in others they are uniformly sorted out of each lot in order to maintain screen-size uniformity.
In the case of Tanzania, the majority of the coffee exported is bought by Japanese roasters, who prize bean-size uniformity and see peaberries as being an undesirable defect. For this reason, the peaberries are often unsold to the Japanese market, and are the majority of what is available to Western buyers. Some swear by peaberries having a degree of flavor potency that normal flat beans lack, and others can’t tell the difference. They do tend to be slightly pricier on account of both their more limited quantity (since peaberries occur in a smaller percentage of coffee overall) and the labor involved in sorting them out.
PLANNING AND PRODUCTION
In general the production of the smallholders is extremely low, about 1kg of cherry per tree. These trees have the potential to produce up to 5kg with the right treatment. Many of the trees are extremely old, and no longer producing high yields, but a lot could be achieved with improved pruning, mulching and inputs.
There is no standard way of processing coffees in Tanzania. Coffee is sometimes pulped by a traditional disc pulpers like Mckinnon and dry fermented before washed. Some estates and CPUs have aquapulpers like Pentagos and use a mucilage remover. Some coffees are soaked in clean water after fermentation or mucilage removal and some are not. This can even vary from batch to batch from one single producer depending on water access and capacity. They traditionally ferment for 30-40 hours. In some cases this seems to be longer than necessary and is done simply because of tradition, but it really depends on the ambient temperature during fermentation. There are some producers conducting experiments in fermenting and drying who understand the impact that processing has on cup quality.
As many of the producers have water capacity issues they are looking at ways to save water during processing. Some convert to demucilagers and some recycle water back into the process. If done well, under strict control, recycling water is ok, but it can also be risky if they process with polluted water.
After washing or soaking the parchment it is spread out on raised tables, drained, and the serious producers will also hand sort for defected parchment. They do have occasional rains during the drying period which makes drying a challenge. It can also be too hot in the middle of the day. If producers are not careful covering the parchment during the hottest hours of the day, the parchment will crack which affects the cup profile and the coffee’s shelf life. The drying time seems to vary from 5-14 days depending on the temperature, rains and micro climate. Moisture metres are rarely used and commercial quality coffee can vary from 9,5 to 13% moisture.
PARCHMENT AND STORAGE
After drying the parchment is stored in local warehouses until they have enough to send to the mill. Normally they will mix the daily lots randomly when finished at the drying tables. The coffee would normally be milled immediately and stored in green beans. When coffee is sold at the auction it’s often moved to warehouses in Dar es Salaam. In general storage conditions both in Moshi and especially Dar es Salaam can be challenging.
The standard grades based on size are more or less the same as in Kenya. In terms of “quality” you have AA (18 up), AB (15, 16, 17) and PB. Then you have C grade, E (misfostered Elephant beans) AF, TT, T and F’s. This are lighter beans from the grades mentioned above.
On top of the quality chain you have the Estates or CPU processed coffees considered as “fully washed”. They can be great but even here you will often find inconsistencies and defects, especially over fermentation.
Then you have the organised coops where the coffee are processed by smallholders, but some of them have a certain extent of quality control at farm level and the coffees can occasionally be clean and transparent.
There are also local parchment buyers. Most of them will buy and blend random smallholder coffees of various qualities from certain areas, mix it and sell it to the mills. Many of the mills work in close relationship with, or have their own parchment buyers to ensure volumes.
THE VALUE CHAIN
The way coffee is traded in Tanzania makes it challenging, but not impossible, to source quality. You are allowed to do direct export (DE) but the specific sale, contract and quality has to be approved by the Tanzanian Coffee Board (TCB). The main focus for the exporters is on volumes of average commercial quality. Most of the coffee goes through the TCB auction. The quality control of coffees going through auction is monitored by the lab of TCB but a high degree of defects is generally accepted. If you look at the coffees, even the supposedly clean AAs, As and Bs, there will often be black and over fermented beans. Strangely enough they still receive good premiums which does nothing to incentivise investment in higher quality. To do direct export you have to get the approval based on sample by the TCB. This is a confusing and often times consuming process and will delay sales and exports. Very often farmers that have direct relations with importers and roasters take the coffees through auction, buy it back and ship it direct to avoid the hassle with the direct export license.
DRY-MILLING AND EXPORTERS
Most producers work in close partnership with dry mills. As soon as they have a decent amount of parchment, sometimes almost straight from the drying tables, it’s trucked to the mill. Very often they mill it immediately to present it in the auction catalogue. Occasionally the coffee is conditioned or stored in parchment in a warehouse, but in general there are few following strict routines as such. The exporters are not allowed to have their own mills and this requires a different licence. Still most exporters divide milling and exports into two separate companies managed as one, to get around the law. Tanzanian coffees are known to fade quickly and I think the reason is a mix of factors. Over/under drying is an issue, no conditioning and storage in higher altitudes, coffees are often polished in the dry mills to look better, and get heated during this process. On top of that the coffee is often stuck in Dar es Salaam with high humidity and temperature. I believe if you work with producers and exporters to control this factors it should improve dramatically.