The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / January 2006
By Larry Luxner
MAZABUKA, Zambia — Willem Lublinkhof may well be one of the most successful businessmen in Zambia, but if you want to meet him in his element, you'd better be prepared for some serious schlepping.
Mubuyu Farms Ltd., the coffee company Lublinkhof runs, is located near the town of Mazabuka, about an hour and a half southwest of Lusaka, Zambia's chaotic capital city.
Getting there requires driving along a lonely highway ravaged by potholes and poverty. Along the way, one passes numerous farmhouses, church missions and colorful billboards warning villagers to "Abstain or Practice Safe Sex" — a constant reminder of the devastation AIDS has brought upon Zambia's 10.6 million people.
At the turnoff to Mubuyu, it's another 15 minutes of bumping over dusty dirt roads until you reach the processing plant, warehouse and office of Lublinkhof, 59, and his son Jesper, the company's marketing manager. Here, in the shadow of the famous Munali Pass — where explorer David Livingstone fight sighted the Kafue River in 1855 — is the home of the Mubuyu Farms, which produces Zambia's prized Munali estate coffee.
"My father came out to Zambia with the Dutch development service in 1967 to teach the Zambian people about the poultry industry, then started growing vegetables here in 1971," Jesper says proudly.
Actually, the company began with Lublinkhof and two local partners, who cultivated maize, wheat and soybeans and transported them daily to the markets of Lusaka in a pickup truck.
"We started growing coffee in 1999, diversifying from cereal crops in order to grow export crops that could bring foreign exchange back to Zambia," he said. "Coffee is also a higher-value crop than cereals like wheat, maize and soybeans, with a longer-term sustainability."
Besides supervising Zambia's largest single coffee estate, the elder Lublinkhof and his wife Meta also possess one of the oldest — if not the oldest — private vehicle in the country: a 1930 Model T Ford. Lublinkhof imported it from his native Holland a few years ago and enjoys tooling around the vast plantation in his restored jalopy.
Lublinkhof's farm covers 1,600 hectares, of which 560 hectares are planted with arabica coffee — the only kind grown in Zambia. Thanks to loans from Barclays Bank Zambia, he's invested close to $7 million in the plantation, which is one of 32 commercial coffee farms scattered across this Texas-sized African republic.
Munali employs 1,700 laborers year-round, though the workforce rises to well over 2,000 during peak planting season. Coffee pickers, the majority of them women, earn 120 kwacha (2 to 3 U.S. cents) per kilogram, with the average worker able to pick 80 to 90 kilos of coffee beans per day. Especially good workers can gather 200 kilos, with some exceeding even 300 kilos.
Women young and old pick coffee all day. Many of them carry babies on their backs; some even breast-feed as they pick. Scenes like this are repeated on a daily basis throughout Zambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa.
"Coffee provides a lot of jobs for Zambia, because it's 98% commercial farming, with good employment practices — food, health, clinics and education provided by the farms," says Lionel de Roland Phillips of South African commodities trader I&M Smith.
That company, headquartered in Johannesburg, exports roughly 40% of Zambia's entire crop. The British firm CTC buys another 28%, and buyers in Germany and the United States purchases the rest.
While coffee ranks as one of Zambia's top 10 non-traditional exports, it generates less than $10 million a year. That puts way behind copper, which accounts for more than 70% of the country's foreign-exchange earnings. Other important minerals include cobalt, zinc, lead, silver, uranium and manganese.
A former British colony, Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia until it won its independence in 1964; Southern Rhodesia eventually became Zimbabwe. Despite its lucrative copper exports, Zambia struggles with an annual per-capita GDP of only $380 — about the same as that of Haiti or Bangladesh.
"At the time of independence, we had surplus revenue, and our currency, the kwacha, was worth $2.00. Today, it takes 5,700 kwachas to buy one dollar," said Zambian Foreign Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha.
"We've had an unstoppable influx of refugees from the Congo [formerly Zaire], Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe. Around 60% of the farmers who have had to leave Zimbabwe have come to Zambia. These people's farms were taken over, and Zambia has given them refuge, resources and financing," said Shikapwasha, interviewed at his office in Lusaka. "You can't keep two million refugees in your country for so many years, with very little international support, and expect the economy to survive."
The foreign minister added that "this country has eight neighbors, and the Zambian people have supported the liberation struggles of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. We've also been the backbone for the survival of Congo. This has taken a toll on our people, and now they're looking for the government to deliver."
As a result, Zambia is struggling to boost foreign exchange by promoting high-quality coffee exports and foreign investment in a variety of sectors ranging from agribusiness to telecom. The country — which with Zimbabwe shares world-famous Victoria Falls — is also trying to promote tourism.
Yet the economy remains dependent on foreign aid and loans from international financial institutions.
Lublinkhof noted that when coffee prices are low, the incidence of HIV tends to rise as women — laid off from their jobs — start selling their bodies out of desperation. Until recently, 26% of all Zambians were infected with HIV, but the government claims it has brought this infection rate down to 14% with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Thankfully, coffee prices are going up," Lublinkhof told us. "We've had low prices for the last five or six years. We're quite fortunate that most of our coffee has been at the young stage when we were incurring low prices, and that our production is peaking now that prices seem to have recovered. We just hope that prices can at least stay in the region where they are now for the next three or four years."
During the 2004-05 crop year, Zambia produced about 7,000 tons of coffee worth an average $2,400 per ton; that comes to $16.8 million. In the previous season, the country produced 6,500 tons at an average $1,500 per ton, worth $9.75 million.
"Seven thousand tons by world standards is a very small crop," says Phillips of I&M. "But the advantage for farmers is that Zambia has traditionally concentrated on producing domestic food crops, but they're looking for dollar-earning export crops, which makes coffee an attractive commodity to move into. The growth potential has been severely retarded in the last three or four years due to low prices, so the excitement within the farming community towards moving into coffee was dampened by the loss potential."
Phillips added: "From the day you say you want to enter the coffee industry, it's approximately four years until you get to a position where you're earning any sizeable return from your crop. It's a big risk when all your neighbors are experiencing losses, so it'll take period of good prices to accelerate new plantings of coffee in Zambia."
About 40% of that crop is grown in the country's northeastern region, near Kasama and Lake Tanganyika. Another 8% of the crop is grown near the Copper Belt in northwestern Zambia, another 5% in the central district and the balance in and around Mazabuka, in the southwest.
Zambia produces washed mild arabicas comparable to the better qualities grown in Kenya and Tanzania. Most coffees are of the typical Bourbon style, with fairly rounded beans of a bluish-greenish color, fairly solid and slightly coated. The coffees are acidic in nature, and exhibit a rounded, full bodied cup with excellent flavor.
Yet because of Zambia's late entry into coffee production, the country has been able to apply the latest expertise: prudent water usage, composting of coffee pulp, biological control of pests where feasible and the promotion of biodiversity. Some 14,000 tons of pulp per year are used in the manufacture of biofertilizer at the Munali estate, said Lublinkhof.
"For one, we've got a very unique drip-irrigation OHS [open-field hydroponic] system," he explained. "It doesn't rain much here. That's why you don't have diseases. It's only four months of rain, then eight months of drought. So for those eight months of the year, April to September, coffee plants are artificially irrigated."
Lublinkhof says that at present, he's getting yields exceeding six tons of coffee beans per hectare.
"Even elsewhere in Africa, you won't find coffee like this, grown in rows. This is high-yielding, commercial-based coffee," he explained.
"Nutrition is only added when the plant requires it. That makes our OHS system very efficient. We apply micronutrients, which boost the aroma of the coffee," he said. "We're the only farm in Zambia that puts all the skins back in the ground. The OHS is breakfast, lunch and supper irrigation."
Munali is only the second African coffee producer to be certified by Utz Kapeh, an organization whose name comes from the Guatemalan Mayan words for "decently produced coffee. The first was a coffee farm in Uganda.
This strict certification consists of "good agricultural practices" that run the gamut from plant protection and sanitation procedures to social and economic welfare.
"Complying with the Utz Kapeh code means that Munali meets criteria for responsible coffee production, such as protection of labor rights, responsible use of agrichemicals, standards for efficient farm management and access to education and health-care for employees," says a fact sheet prepared by Advance Consulting Ltd.
"Munali coffee has the advantage of being a high-grade product," says the paper. "The market for such coffees has been growing worldwide at a rate faster than that of the coffee market as a whole. While arabica production in Africa has been declining over the past years, overall production of arabica has been increasing due to the large increases in Brazil, which now produces almost half of the arabica coffee grown worldwide."
Thanks to aggressive marketing efforts, the United States is buying more Zambian specialty coffee every year; in fact, brochures for Munali coffee are strategically placed in the reception area of the Zambian Embassy in Washington. Yet the U.S. market still accounts for only 1% of Zambia's coffee exports. Europe buys 94% of that crop, with the remaining 5% going to South Africa, Australia, Japan and the Far East.
However, says the paper, "unfortunately, there is next to local market for coffee in Zambia. While there are some efforts to address this, it is clear that it will, in any case, take a long time to move from the current consumption of 20 tons per month, of which the majority is chicory-based, to being a significant consumer of specialty coffee."
South Africa, on the other hand, represents a "growing market with a significant and increasing demand" for specialty coffee, currently estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 tons. That country has the advantage of proximity to Zambia, and an interest in supporting African coffee production in general. In addition, consumers of specialty coffee aren't as price-conscious as those at other levels.
The official voice of the Zambian coffee industry is the Zambian Coffee Growers Association, which represents 47 large commercial growers and an additional 400 smaller growers (some of whom have as few as 10 or 20 coffee trees apiece).
At ZCGA's headquarters on the outskirts of Lusaka, quality assessment officer Dan Mukutuma said Zambia is soon heading for 10,000 tons of coffee exports a year.
"The industry's target is that by the end of this decade, we should be doing 20,000 tons of coffee annually," said Mukutuma, interviewed in a conference room upon whose walls hang large portraits of the ZCGA's past six presidents.
The organization has a staff of 14, including one extension officer and two assistants. The other 11 employees mostly take part in cuppings. Last March, the ZCGA hosted the East African Fine Coffee Association's 2nd African Fine Coffee Conference at the Zambezi Sun Resort in Livingstone, about a four-hour road trip from Mazabuka.
Mukutuma told us that Zambia started exporting coffee only 15 years ago, and that its total production is only 10% of that of Kenya.
"Our coffees are used predominantly in blends, but coffee growers do have a Zambica label, which is 100% Zambian coffee," he said. "This is our first year that we do our own shipping. Before, the transportation of coffee was always put out to tender by the forwarding agents. Now we're doing it ourselves to cut costs. We contract the ships, prepare the bills of lading here in our office, prepare the containers and ship from the Port of Durban, mainly by Safmarine-Maersk. The transit time from Lusaka to Durban is about 10 days via Botswana."
"We're just now entering the Japanese market and we've been steadily increasing the amount of exports going there," he said. "But Japan is a difficult market. There are certain aspects they might be looking for in coffee, which are very difficult to achieve. For example, they don't want certain chemicals used in their coffee."
In addition to Zambia, I&M's Phillips also imports coffee from neighboring Zimbabwe and Malawi. Poster-size coffee labels from all three countries decorate the halls of his office in downtown Johannesburg.
"Coffee is a high-cost input crop in our part of the world," he said. "We have climatic conditions that necessitate good-yielding production involving sophisticated irrigation."
Yet in the case of Zimbabwe, that country's economy has virtually collapsed as President Robert Mugabe has scared away investors with his increasingly authoritarian rule and brutal, violent crackdown on opponents.
"There's essentially no economy left," says Phillips. "There's also been a brain drain. Due to the poor economy, much of the business sector in Zimbabwe has emigrated. They say that three million Zimbabweans — or 25% of the population — is living abroad.
"A number of farmers who have lost their land to redistribution schemes were coffee farmers. Along with other crops like grains and tobacco, Zimbabwe's overall production of has suffered for it. Under such economic constraints, the farmers who remain have not been able to afford the necessary controls to fight disease and maintain adequate irrigation."
On the other hand, said Phillips, this hasn't hurt Zambian coffee production at all.
"Quite the contrary, the Zambian government's policy has been to invite Zimbabwean commercial farmers who wish to move to Zambia to take advantage of vast expanses of undeveloped land," he said. "Zambia is hungry to diversify its economy."