Origin Visit to Halambo, Tanzania. May 2015

Sustainable Coffee Farming in Tanzania

As I stood outside the small hotel in Tukuyu, waiting for my lift to Mbeya, I was struck by the beauty of the distant mountain range that framed my view, and by the cool, fresh breeze; in sharp contrast to the stifling, humid climate and polluted traffic-choked streets of Dar es Salaam, where I’d been just a few days earlier.

Tukuyu is a small hills-side town, in the far south west of Tanzania, close to the shores of Lake Malawi, near the border with Zambia. It’s a very fertile area, where smallholder farmers grow everything from tea and coffee to vegetables, maize and bananas. Much of Tanzania’s banana crop originates in this part of Tanzania. I had been in Tukuyu as part of my role with the Lorna Young Foundation, working with RSTGA – Rungwe Smallholder Tea Growers Association – on a farmer-radio project, but was now on my way to Mbeya and on to the Mbozi district to visit the coffee growing communities from which we source some of our coffee at Dark Woods.

We buy through local company, Coffee Management Services – CMS –and I was really keen to spend some time with them to look at the agricultural extension work they are doing with small farmers in the area, something we are particularly committed to. Sam from CMS kindly agreed to host me, and to drive me the 4 hour journey to their Halambo wet mill in Mbozi district. It was Sam I was waiting for, outside my hotel in Tukuyu.

I spent the next two days with Sam and Simon from CMS. Sam is a coffee market specialist and Simon an agronomist; both are Kenyans, there is still a shortage of qualified and experienced coffee specialists in Tanzania (but that’s an article in its own right).

We visited the farming area around the Halambo Wet Mill. A wet-mill is the low-tech station where local farmers bring their coffee cherries each week during the harvest season. At the wet-mill, the cherries are flushed through a small milling-machine, along gulleys and in to bays, using water pumped from a local stream. This process uses the water to remove the coffee beans from the outer cherry; giving us what we call “washed” coffees. The coffee beans are then laid out on long wooden tables to dry out in the sun, before being taken to the dry mill to be graded, bagged and exported.

Smallholder farmers in this part of Tanzania are not “coffee farmers” per se; they are generally subsistence farmers who also grow some cash crops. Typically, farmers will have a small plot, on which they will grow vegetables and maize for their family, keep some small livestock – chickens, goats – and grow tea, coffee, bananas, or all three, as cash crops, if they have the land.

With my background in the Lorna Young Foundation, I have a particular interest in how small farmers can learn new techniques to increase the quality and yield of their crops, improve their livelihoods and become more resilient to external forces, such as market prices and, increasingly, climate change. Farmers in much of East Africa, particularly parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and where I was in southern Tanzania, are feeling the effects of climate change. Weather patterns are changing, the rains, usually reliable and regular, are now coming late, or early, or in torrential downpours. All of this impacts on crop yields and quality, which then impacts on farmers’ livelihoods.

Most smallholder coffee farmers do not have the means to irrigate their crops, so are totally dependent on the weather. Over decades, they have planned their planting, pruning and harvesting work around local weather patterns. The impact of climate change means that these weather patterns are no longer reliable, and this is making life extremely challenging for small farmers. At one small farm, Simon explained to me how the rain came early this year, prompting coffee bushes to blossom; but then it didn’t rain again for a month and so coffee bushes were starved of water and cherries didn’t form from many blossoms.

We visited several small local farmers, some of whom were trying to embrace more sustainable techniques, others, very much stuck in the old ways. Most of the practices Simon and his team were trying to persuade the farmers to adopt are very simple, low-tech and low cost, they make perfect sense, particularly to any of you who are keen gardeners. Techniques such as mulching, composting animal waste, digging rain-water ditches around coffee bushes, terracing sloping land to avoid soil washing away.

Probably the hardest practice to persuade farmers to adopt is shade-growing. The sun can be fierce in this part of Africa, made worse by the more-recent changing weather patterns. The first instinct of many small farmers is to cut down trees on their plots as (in their view) they take up valuable crop growing space and the roots swallow the ground water, starving their crops. However, unsheltered coffee bushes, exposed to the extremes of sun, rain, hail and wind, are typically less robust, produce lower yields and lower quality cherries and beans, than coffee bushes grown under the protection of taller trees. The right choice of tree brings other benefits. Certain fruit trees can be planted, that produce their own saleable crops (although not all fruit trees are suitable alongside coffee). Shade trees, also help to reduce soil run-off and attract wildlife and insects that improve pollination.

It was encouraging to see the work that Simon and his team were doing in Southern Tanzania, working with farmers, out in the fields, to help improve their knowledge and skills, training them in sustainable agricultural practices.

We are very keen to support initiatives that promote more sustainable coffee farming, particularly in areas like Halambo, where farmers are already feeling the impact of climate change and seeing ever-changing weather patterns. We will continue to work with and support farmer co-operatives, and coffee buying organisations that train farmers in the simple, yet effective, approaches that can help them to become more resilient to environmental and market-driven shocks.