12 August 2018

Central Africa: Can African Coffee Producers Step in to Fill Gap When Global Leaders Falter?

When one thinks of coffee-producing countries, Brazil and Colombia are sure to come to mind.

However, Ethiopia and Uganda are also among the top-10 coffee producing nations. These countries are positioned to boost their production rapidly over the next five years, but only if they can capitalise on domestic demand, successfully market to international buyers, and work towards greater efficiency in their operations.

And with top producers like Brazil and Vietnam holding such a large share of global output, any upsets to production in these countries could have great implications for global supplies.

Brazil is the top producer of coffee by a wide margin, with output reaching 3.36 million tonnes last year.

Vietnam comes in second at 1.6 million tonnes, and Colombia third with production reaching 876,000 tonnes in 2017.

However, crop sensitivity to fluctuations in temperature and precipitation makes coffee subject to market volatility, so El Niño weather patterns in South America could mean trouble for two of the global powerhouses.

Droughts are worsening, which decreases coffee production, reduces navigable waterways for cargo transportation, and contributes to wildfire spread.

Weather events like drought and frost can greatly affect global coffee markets and trade, but can lesser-known, smaller producers like those in Africa step up in the absence of top producers?

Ethiopia is the world's sixth largest coffee producer. The industry employs 15 million people and accounts for 28 per cent of total annual exports.

Uganda ranks eighth. It grows very little arabica coffee compared with Ethiopia, with robusta comprising 82 per cent of total production.

Robusta is indigenous to Uganda, and two main varieties -- Nganda and Erecta -- grown specifically for their suitability for the growing instant coffee industry.

Last year the country produced 216,000 and 45,000 tonnes of robusta and arabica coffee, respectively, and exported 270,000 tonnes in total.

The USDA forecasts that Uganda's 2018/19 total coffee production will reach just over 287,000 tonnes, a 10 per cent increase from last year.

Exports should jump back up to the record 2016/17 volume of about 276,000 tonnes this year.

Positive outlook

The African Fine Coffees Association (Afca) has a positive outlook for the continent's future coffee production.

The Afca says farmers are working to optimise their operations by planting more coffee trees and by penetrating new markets to boost sales.

Uganda, for example, recently eradicated a wilt disease which had wiped out a significant number of robusta trees since it was first found back in 1990. Now, Uganda is in a prime position to rapidly bolster production.

The Afca believes Africa's total coffee production could almost double over the next five years, giving Africa a more considerable presence on the global market.

To further increase production, Uganda is targeting domestic consumers.

Coffee retains its long-lived cultural significance in Ethiopia, but consumption in Uganda has historically been low compared with that of cheaper tea.

However, as Uganda's urban middle-class grows, so does its taste for coffee.

As production expands, coffee is becoming more affordable and widely distributed throughout the country. Higher demand in their domestic market will protect farmers from global market volatility, which can be fatal for producers who are unprepared.

African coffee yields tend to be low, as growers may not have access to new coffee plant varieties or costly inputs such as fertilisers and agro-chemicals.

Many producers also lack support services like training and advice from extension programmes that could greatly increase productivity.

Despite these challenges, many are working towards solutions. Programmes such as the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre in Ethiopia and the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda help conduct vital research and provide farmers with pertinent growing information.

The programmes perform research to breed new coffee varieties which are more resistant to pests, diseases, and a changing climate into the hands of farmers.

Sustainability initiatives will also be important for the future of the African coffee business.

Organisations like the FairTrade Foundation and Rainforest Alliance are actively working with farmers in East Africa to increase sustainable farming practices.

These programmes could augment revenue and assist farmers by marketing their sustainable products to larger consumer markets in Europe and the US.

Consumers in these nations are increasingly willing to purchase specialty coffee at a higher price when they see FairTrade or Rainforest Alliance labels.

These labels indicate that the product was sustainably produced, is more economically beneficial for the farmers, and is grown in a manner that lessens environmental impact. African coffee would undoubtedly benefit from practices that increase production.

Countries like Ethiopia and Uganda are significant coffee producers, but have faced constraints to increasing production like lack of capital and extension service support.

However, domestic demand, farmer support programmes, and training are increasing. If those countries boost their market profiles and shore up their finances by targeting niche consumers in wealthier countries, they could be better prepared to profit when other producers have lapses in production.

©Gro-Intelligence, a software company that harvests agricultural data and uses machine learning to allow stakeholders to make business decisions. www.gro-intelligence.com

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