What Happens When Your Cash Crop Goes Bust: The Fall and Rise of Zimbabwe's Coffee Economy

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Zimbabwe, a tiny country roughly the size of the state of California, is home to some of Africa's richest coffee belts. Here, conditions are perfect for growing coffee beans: high mountain peaks, lush valleys, and a cool climate.

The country used to be famous for its SHQ ("super high-quality") coffee, which was slowly sun-dried and smooth-drinking with deep fruity flavors. In the '90s, Zimbabwean coffee was the darling of coffee bars wherever it was exported: London, New York, Johannesburg, Japan, and Amsterdam. It accounted for two to three percent of the country's GDP, bringing foreign wealth to commercial farms and livelihoods to countless laborers.

But today its coffee industry lies in ruins. Once-bustling mills now lie abandoned and farmers wallow in debt. Last year, Zimbabwe produced about 35,000 tons of coffee, compared to 90,000 in 1988. This is the story of what happens when a cash crop goes bust.

A Commodity Collapse

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[Photograph: Ray Mwareya]

Ben Chada is a farmer in Zimbabwe's "Eastern Highlands" coffee district, a 1,000-kilometer stretch of pristine coffee fields. As he harvests red Arabica coffee beans at dawn, he laments the collapse of Zimbabwe's once-booming coffee industry. "Our government grabbed coffee farms from commercial growers in 2001 and the world punished us," says Chada.

It is a dispute that exploded in 2000. Then, young militants loyal to 92-year-old president Robert Mugabe stormed white-owned coffee farms and seized the fields. Dozens of farmers died and hundreds were chased into exile in South Africa, the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain. The attackers defended their actions by saying they were restoring farms seized from indigenous black Zimbabweans in the colonial years from 1890 to 1979.

At one famous coffee farm called Rosecommons, the terrified owner fled to Australia, abandoning 123 workers and their families to ruin. "From that time up to today, farm schools, clinics, and shops stopped as work and wages dried up," Chada explains, who farmed next to Rosecommons.

At the time of the attack, Chada was known as an "out-grower," a black coffee farmer owning a small plot of land next to huge commercial farms, relying on his white neighbors for resources, expertise, and machinery. "First, the attackers burnt down our coffee beans and burnt acres of trees in a week of rage. Coffee-drying pens were turned into nurseries for marijuana and wild vegetables," says Chada. "The militants craved for quick profits, but a coffee tree, once planted, takes five years to mature. Patience is everything."

Cash crops can burn in an afternoon, but the economic pains last for decades.

Chada continues: "Even today, hundreds of former coffee workers have not received their pensions. Many die in sickness and grim poverty. Their past employers cannot help too much. 30 coffee farmers I know have relocated outside Zimbabwe to start new operations in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Zambia and Malawi. Workers left behind are surviving on as fishermen, gold-diggers, or simply street clothes vendors."

Coffee production plummeted in Zimbabwe as militants vandalised farms they acquired. As a response to the attacks, the United States and European Union imposed financial penalties on the country. In the absence of foreign investment, new farm owners, many of them looters, could not secure bank loans to enrich the soil, buy pesticides, repair farm machinery, or finance coffee exports.

Western buyers, acting in part on bans from their governments, began to shun Zimbabwe's coffee. Furthermore, the quality coffee yield fell as new growers lacked expertise, fertilisers and pest control chemicals. Coffee beans became diseased, their pods rotting and wilting in untreated sheds.

The collapse sent ripple effects through the entire economy. Thousands of laborers who previously worked on coffee farms spent jobless days in newly constructed shanty towns. The national currency ballooned with a record-breaking billion-percent inflation rate, and tourism plummeted.

"Overnight, picturesque rows of coffee farms became unsightly forests of weed," says Arundel Ratic, an economist in the country's capital, Harare. "Coffee tourism dried. Farm schools collapsed into barns, and helicopters that once sprayed neat fields of coffee were vandalised for their metal parts."

"6,540 workers directly related to coffee;farm hands, waiters, chefs, and brewers;were thrown into grim poverty," says Graham Malo, president of the Zimbabwe Coffee Sellers Association.

Cappuccino—an affordable treat in Zimbabwe's urban areas—suddenly became an activity for the elite. "Shop shelves were empty of coffee packets," explains Lorit Jeme, a coffee pub owner and president of the Zimbabwe Coffee Chefs Association. "Imported coffee tins from Ethopia cost $9. Out of the 407 coffee restaurants operating in the country, 296 closed by 2008."

A country that was once one of Africa's most prestigious coffee destinations could not even stock coffee powder on supermarket shelves.

Slow Going Ahead

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

While Zimbabwe's coffee growers continue to struggle today, the industry is blooming around the world. 12 years ago, the average price of a ton of coffee was $1,400. Now it can fetch $4,000, according to figures from the International Coffee Organization."Zimbabwe continues to lose billions of dollars right now," explains Gifford Trevor, president of the Zimbabwe Coffee Growers Union.

This past January, Chada went on a farmers exchange trip sponsored by the Zimbabwe Small Coffee Millers Federation Union to Johannesburg, South Africa, the most glamorous city on the African continent. In a Starbucks café he sipped his first cappuccino. "I thought it was bitter lemon. The flavor was gingerly and bittersweet," he recalls.

"It's your coffee!" the restaurant coffee roaster told him. Chada was astonished to pay $3 for a single cup of cappuccino considering what he gets paid for an entire eight-kilogram bag of coffee back home: $5.20.

Even as Zimbabwe's coffee industry begins to recover, it's woefully behind African countries with better infrastructure like Malawi, Rwanda, and Kenya. Peter Multz, a former consultant for the Dutch charity SNV Netherlands Development Organization, which works with Zimbabwe's coffee farmers to improve their business skills, points out one of the many challenges the industry must overcome. "It's not unusual for coffee bags to be delayed at border crossings and airports for a week. Without proper facilities, the beans gather moisture and go bad. Sometimes buyers in Africa have to pay bribes to let their coffee shipments go through faster."

What Recovery Looks Like

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[Photograph: Ray Mwareya]

But if Zimbabwe's coffee industry could get back on its feet, there's enormous opportunity to tap into the new, high-priced market. "The international price of coffee has increased to $3 per pound up from $1 in the '90s," Trevor continues. "Coffee sales, if properly revived, can bring $200 million a year to Zimbabwe's $4 billion national economy."

Most of the country's black coffee farmers today lack cash reserves to support themselves when the crop fails according to World Vision. This international charity is training coffee farmers in areas of: offering much needed fertilizers, offering legal aid to register their plots, facilitating workshops on how to market their coffee, sourcing material to build metal bins for preserving coffee harvests, laying out irrigation systems, choosing the correct pesticides and introducing book keeping skills to new farmers so they don't waste their incomes. This is helpful. 2015 has seen an uptick in coffee production in Zimbabwe: 35,000 tons according to the Coffee Growers Association.

"5,200 direct jobs were supported in the growing farms," says Britta Wego, a national statistics coordinator for the Coffee Growers Association. A growing domestic market after the country stabilized inflation, renewed coffee exports to Europe, peace in farms and improved coffee milling, packaging and grading technology is reviving the industry. She says about the local coffee industry, "$2 million was earned in wages from farm growers, coffee graders, and packaging laborers. 57 farm schools were revived and 98 farm clinics were stocked with medicines to treat malaria, tuberculosis, or common injuries. This is a relief."

Skanyi Nara, 45, is an example of a happy laborer. He returned to work when a vandalised farm was improved with new tractors, ploughs and fresh water dams. "After sitting at home for nine years, I was employed again in 2015, driving tractors to harvest coffee beans. My wages are helpful. I bought a motorbike and water tank for the first time in my life!"

The country's international reputation is improving, too. U.S. sanctions were lifted off Zimbabwe last year. And in the beginning of 2013, the European Union released $12 million in aid to support new and small scale coffee growers in a bid to revive the industry.

The improved market is making a positive mark. Coffee is an important contributor to cash crops, which together fund 20% of Zimbabwe's tiny $4 billion economy in 2015. Ben Chada's seen the benefits himself: "In my village alone, 200 farm children are back in schools, finding jobs as coffee pickers. On-site clinics are dispensing medicines again. We must never destroy cash crops in the event of disputes. It takes years to plant back trees and benefit from harvests."

"Coffee alone brings millions to our country's budget," explains Ayew Dino, an economist with the Zimbabwe Food Security Network, a local think tank. "[It supports] over 9,000 jobs, as well schools, sports, clinics and community businesses. Its price has gone down and many are happily drinking local coffee in Zimbabwe. This improves the country's import bill."

Dino sees painful lessons in Zimbabwe's sudden coffee collapse and slow recovery. "Cash crops like coffee and tobacco support a country's manufacturing industry, schools and health. When coffee fails, hunger sets in, and health suffers too. Kids drop from education. When a country like Zimbabwe began importing coffee beverages, our budget deficit ran out of control. The wheels in all sectors of the economy come off. Coffee is not just a drink;for Zimbabwe it's a cup of economic health."