The Mania of Tanzania: The Tanzanian Coffee Trade

Tanzania has been considered by traders as a “lesser Kenya” in many respects. That’s not fair though.

In the commercial business, it is the source of less spendy, mildly acidic coffees via the weekly marketing auction in Moshi. But the quality potential of Tanzania coffee has been difficult to realize due to a number of factors.

Tanzanian coffees can be a more balanced version of neighboring Kenya, which is loaded with top end, bright acidity. Tanzanias can also be high-toned, but the acidity is usually more integrated into the cup flavors, less dominant, while fruited notes and body play a greater role in the overall cup character. In my experience, what actually arrives in the U.S. Specialty market often shows some degree of flavor fading or other damage. It’s difficult to truly know what Tanzania coffees cup like based on the arrival lots from the usual importers and brokers.

Fresh picking of coffee at Isende
Fresh picking of coffee at Isende FBG

What is the flavor profile of a great coffee from Tanzania? And how can a buyer working at origin actually locate, process and ship a top quality coffee from Tanzania? The answer is not so simple.

PB  is Peaberry (…and not Peanut Butter)

Oddly, much of the Tanzania coffee marketed in the United States is peaberry, PB grade. Peaberry (the fruit that has one rounded seed in it rather than two beans possessing a flat side) usually represents about 5% of the coffee harvested from a tree. Plants that are not pruned well, with nutrition or root structure problems, will produce more peaberry fruits, which are generally found at the ends of the coffee shrubs secondary branches.

Farmers and workers at the Isende group, Mbeya
Farmers and workers at the Isende group, Mbeya

It may also be the chronic water shortages found in parts of Tanzania result in more aborted coffees seeds, and hence more peaberry. But it appears that the bulk of the coffee shipped to the main buying nation for Tanzania, Japan, are AA and AB grades in which the PB is sorted out, redirected to the US market. Peaberry might have slightly more acidity and a different roast dynamic than the AA and AB grades from the same tree, but the difference is often slight. The problem is in logistics of producing a lot of coffee for export: If you wait and wait to bulk up peaberry to fill a container, you are mixing old coffee and new, good lots and bad, high-grown and low-grown batches. Bulking without quality oversight is rarely good.

Rumor has it that Japan Loves Tanzania

Tanzania has had a strong value as a single origin in Japan, where in some years more than 60% of the crop finds a home. (Some say the significance among Japanese consumers is that Mt. Kilimanjaro bears a strong resemblance to Mt. Fuji). Germany and the U.S. also buy heavily, especially in years where the Japanese economy is off. When an origin has a strong market, for example Saudi Arabia paying very high prices for Ethiopia Harar coffee no-matter the quality, farmers and exporters known that they can sell their product with little investment: It’s a disincentive for quality.

The auction system itself has been a barrier to exploring direct buying relationships that might result in higher cup quality. While auctions are discovery mechanisms for higher prices, they also stand as a barrier to the buyer who wants to enter a stable relationship with a grower. Historically, centralized auctions expressed a certain power relationship as well: The farmer is tasked with all the work to bring the coffee in the trader/exporter to sell. It’s quite easy for the traders to sit in the capital city and make the coffee come to them, a relation that suggests colonialism.

Parchment coffee on the drying beds Tanzania
Parchment coffee looked good but the cupping was rather bleh.

Coffee Damaged Before It Has a Chance

But my experience and frustration in trying to source Tanzania coffees has revolved mostly around the cup quality itself. The potential is there; the altitudes, the varieties of coffee shrubs, the type of processing, even the expertise of the farmers and advisors. A “type sample” or an “offer sample” might be beautiful, bright, clean and sweet. But actually exporting and receiving that coffee in Oakland has been difficult or impossible using the normal channels. As we embark now on a more direct route, initiated by my recent visit there, I’ll explain my experience of the recent past.

Coffee warehouse in Mbeya
Getting lots organized at a local warehouse in Mbeya

The harvest in some areas is in the driest months of the year. The same distinct dry season that aids in harvesting and drying the coffee also means competition with other water uses, specifically household use and drinking water. That’s not a good conflict to enter into, but recent implementation of low water consuming eco-pulpers is one solution. This weather can mean a great temptation to dry coffee too quickly, which can reduce cup quality itself as well as longevity of flavors once the coffee is in the storehouse stateside. That temptation is underscored because the government prohibits the trade in coffee cherry. A farmer must sell the dried parchment to a miller or a collector or a coop. So if you have 30 kgs of parchment on your patio ready to convert into Shillings, you are going to want that money sooner rather than later; dry faster, get paid now.

If coffee is not over-dried at the farm gate, it often is in the local warehouse or dry mill. In the South were I visited there were extreme cases of the coffee drying out while bulked up in the “resting period” or conditioning period. And the way the local dry mill was operating, which was along the lines of bulk commercial throughput and not specialty small lot processing, I heard of a coffee being sent in at 12% moisture and coming back a few days later at 9%. That’s a quality killer there, and is often the result of frictional heat created in the huller or polisher, if there is one.

Dar, Where Coffee Dies

If you have an over-dried coffee, it won’t be for long. Send it to the muggy seaside port capital of Dar Es Salaam and your moisture will be back up to 12% in no time. The warehouses in Dar are not set up for temperature sensitive products. Most of the coffee goes to warehouses designed for grains like corn. The port has other logistic challenges, including sourcing of available containers (there are often shortages for lack of imports) or the coffee container missing the vessel, and spending an extra week or four in this humid maritime environment.

A contributing factor to the logistic snags is a thread that runs across all steps of the coffee trade here; bureaucracy. The Tanzanian coffee trade is filled with bureaucratic snags. Tanzania has vestiges of it’s somewhat checkered past, in particular the ’70s when large coffee farms were nationalized by the state, as was all aspects of trade.

To do business in Tanzania now requires a literal landslide of forms to submit, permits to possess, and, for those extra-slow cogs, someone who wants to be paid off. So it makes sense that trying to export one shipment also requires an extended set of documents and approvals from more than a few uncoordinated agencies operating out of different cities. In the meantime, while a document sits on one desk awaiting a signature, a vessel sails off, and the coffee sits another month losing whatever fine taste it used to express in the cup.

Coffee farmers Tanzania
We had a discussion among the trees while the family was harvesting their plot. They are part of the Isende group. Sadly, I couldn’t understand because I dont speak Swahili!

History of Risk

These problems have meant a greater risk to try to work directly with coffee sources in Tanzania. My approach has been to contract lots when they are in transit, based on samples, but reserve the right to reject them on arrival if they show signs of age. This is referred to in the trade as SAS/NANS, which means Subject to Approval of Sample  / No Approval No Sale. In other words, I have had to shift the risk to the importer, because I don’t believe all the good Offer Samples will actually arrive with an equally high level of quality.

Old Mbozi Mission variety coffee
Old Mbozi Mission variety is the original type of Bourbon coffee planted in this area. The clumbing fruit set hints at the fact it is Bourbon.

2014 is the first year we will be working direct, which you can read as, we are selecting lots in Tanzania with the help of exporters, visiting the farmer groups and estates that cup well, and thinking ahead to longer term relationships. In part this is possible because the Coffee Board allows direct sales now; every coffee lot is not required to go through the auction. And secondly, we have found some good partners on the ground who understand quality. While it means we take greater risk on the coffee delivered to us, having exporters in the country who are clear about the expectation of cup quality, and are taking steps to mitigate the short-comings of the “usual way” coffee is handled, means it is a good time for me to take a more active role in sourcing in Tanzania.

We’re Down with the FBG

Tanzania has a variety of coffee farmers, from the older large estates that are rooted in colonial days, to local coops (called an FBG, Farmer Business Group), to nationally organized Cooperatives. Many of the the biggest estates, especially those owned by people of foreign descent, were nationalized by the government during the socialist-leaning administrations of the ’70s. However quite a few remain, and one we have enjoyed in the past from the Ngorogoro area, Blackburn Estate, has some fine coffee. In the South Kanji Lalji is a large, old farm with nice quality, and since the owner is Tanzanian by birth, they avoided the forces of nationalization, as did quite a few estates in the South.

Farmer Business Groups are usually organized around a few larger members that may have 5 or 10 hectare farms (in contrast to the estates which might be 100+ hectares). In visiting these groups, I understood how attractive the model was: small farmers, often 50-100 in number, can pool their resources, process their coffee in a coordinated way, split up labor-intensive activities among the members, and market their coffee in unison looking for a better price. A FBG avoids the bureaucratic burden of a nationally-recognized cooperative, while gaining some of the benefits. They can also receive support as a group from an exporter, such as financing to buy cherry in the harvest (which an exporter cannot do directly), receive fertilizer inputs, assistance with wet-mill machinery, the advice of a trained agronomist, and more uniform quality by coordinated wet-milling at a single location.

Old Mbozi Mission cultivar that was brought to the area, likely a Bourbon type coffee. Tanzania

HP and CPU – It’s Not Tech Talk

To elaborate a bit on coffee processing in Tanzania, there are two categories of wet-mills; HP and CPU. I know, it sounds like we’re talking computer hardware … but HP means Home Processed coffee and CPU is Central Processing Unit. Throughout East Africa, HP coffee has existed as the fastest, cheapest way for a farmer to get their coffee into parchment and sell it to local collectors. HP coffee is often pulped in a hand crank machine each night, fermented in a plastic tub or small concrete tank, washed and dried beside the family home, and sold in the local market, or to a buyer who comes around offering cash. There is almost always a great lack of uniformity in the processing, and because it’s all mixed together, the coffee is usually tainted by ferment, earthy tastes from bacterial fermentation or mold from being bulked up when it is still wet.

Interestingly, there is nothing inherently wrong with home processing: In Central America you have huge coops with coffee that is essentially a blend of hundreds of HP batches blended together, and the coffees can be clean and tasty. But a great effort has to be made in training farmers to process uniformly, and to seek out tainted lots to exclude them from the top grade exports. In some African nations, HP coffee is seen as a scourge that keeps farmers from ever realizing better payments for their product. Rwanda specifically bans farmers from processing at home. But they do it anyway, often hidden from view around the back of the house.

One of the best lots I cupped in Tanzania was a single farmer, Abraham Mwashinga, a member of a FBG, but who processed coffee in buckets on his small 1 hectare farm. The entire lot was just 2 bags of parchment, and his whole output will be 3 exportable bags of green coffee. It’s nearly impossible for an exporter, or some buyers, to deal in such small lots. But we will be importing this coffee as a distinct micro-lot nonetheless.

CPU coffees are delivered as fruit direct to a central wet mill. By processing the coffee together, its possible to achieve better uniformity … at least in theory. Many FBG CPUs lack technical skills, good equipment, and sound advisors, so they can damage some batches of coffee or even an entire harvest by fermenting poorly or over-drying in the hot sun. But a good CPU run by trained operators can produce high quality as consistently as an estate that has more resources to direct toward their coffee production.

Hand sorting coffee on a genuine authentic african bed.
Hand sorting coffee on a genuine authentic african bed. Igamba Fine Coffee, Mbeya

Don’t Be Sad About Tanzanian Coffee

There are many reasons to be optimistic that we can break these qualty barriers, and offer some beautiful coffees from Tanzania. While this article outlines in broad and biased strokes what has been wrong in the past (well, wrong for a business like ours looking for high quality, clean-tasting coffee), it seems like a good time to feel hope. Having partners who are living full-time in the coffee areas, organizing farmers, offering financial incentives and technical support, means that the message of coffee quality is circulating in the local communities.

The connection we are making with farmers via these new conduits might sound like a lot of marketing on the surface, but it’s a model that offers deliverance from business-as-usual: the farmer receives standard market level prices, leaving them nothing to invest back in the coffee plot, back in the mill, and slowly the quality drops each year. It’s a law of diminishing returns, and one in which they can’t grow the kind of coffee I am looking for, so a buyer like myself stops looking, and the chain is broken.

With the coffee we are bringing in this year, the farmer receives prompt payment for parchment coffee delivered to the warehouse at fair local price level. Then when the coffee finds a buyer who pays a premium, there is a second payment distributed to all farmers in the group. That can go toward household needs, educating the family, wherever the need is. But in the off-season there is also targeted assistance to improve the health of the coffee shrubs, improve the wet-mill, and dedicated assistance from an agronomist. This means motivated farmers, who have an increasingly better chance with each harvest of improving their yields, producing coffee that scores better in the cup, for which we will pay more … a much more positive cycle for them, and great coffee for us, now and in the future.  -Thompson

Other articles of possible interest:

Congo Kivu Coffee Photo Tour

2 Responses

  1. Dear Sweet Maria’s,
    I have been working in the coffee Industries since 2015. I I have evaluated and cupped hundreds of Tanzanians lots in the last several years.
    This article helped me to understand better the value of this Origin.

    Thank you very much.


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