From the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, the country stretches just south of the equator to the Indian Ocean. The earth is rust-red, which indicates that the soil is rich in minerals. In the last eons, the numerous volcanoes saturated the landscape with minerals from the depths of the earth. These nutrients are eagerly absorbed by the coffee plants, which is then able to produce to truly irresistible coffee cherries. But the spirit of abundance doesn’t only prevail on the landscape: With 130 ethnic groups and 125 languages, the country is equally well-endowed with cultural riches.
We left Arusha in the middle of the night and drove on sandy roads to our first stop – the Mondul Coffee Estate. We were awakened by strange bellows that emanated from the flowering trees; clearly we had arrived in Africa. After we had refreshed ourselves with local fruits and coffee, Dean Peterson, the manager of the coffee farm, took us across the first plantation on our journey. At 1750 meters above sea level, the morning hours are surprisingly crisp for Africa. The children go to school at the farm’s own school while their parents work on the coffee fields. Everything is very clean and tidy, and there’s a bustle of work everywhere.
In the following days we also visited the farms Kongoni, Ngila, Hights and Tembo Tembo, which means “elephant”. It’s a very apt moniker, because in Tanzania it’s not unusual for elephants to roam the plantations. They’re either in search of bananas or, in the dry season, for water (which often results in them digging up the laboriously laid irrigation systems). Around the Ngorogoro Crater, which is a nature reserve, coffee farms lose an average of 20% to 30% of their harvest to wildlife, particularly elephants and buffalos. When we visited a well-known farm, the Ngorongoro Convent in Karatu, we the head sister Emelda informed us that for this very reason artificial irrigation is not used at all. Ngorongoro is run by nuns and lies at the foot of the crater, a huge, collapsed volcanic plain that resembles an oasis. During a tour of the coffee fields Emelda pointed out that the coffee trees, with their deep-digging roots, can withstand long periods of drought. Mulching, i.e. the application of a protective layer of organic matter on the soil, provides the soil with additional protection against direct sunlight and erosion.
This area is characterised by mineral-rich soil, which is reflected by lively grapefruit notes in the aroma profile of the coffee beans. In addition to the soil quality and the microclimate, the cultivation height of the coffee trees plays a decisive role. The further the coffee grows above sea level, the less carbon dioxide is available to the coffee cherry, which causes it to grow more slowly and develop more intense aromas. The coffee farmers know this, of course, and the altitude is considered an important attribute that sets their coffee region apart.
Climate change is currently the biggest challenge for coffee farmers in East Africa. In Tanzania, the fight is equally against water shortage and soil erosion. The coffee fields are at the mercy of the scorching sun that blazes above the African continent. Increasing deforestation of the forests means there’s less morning mist than usual, which puts more and more pressure on the dry soil. It’s a vicious cycle that could ultimately end in the rainforest drying out – A scenario with far-reaching consequences.
Rain is increasingly absent, leading to water shortages. Sprinkler systems for irrigating coffee plantations have become inefficient, which is why those who are able to switch to a drip irrigation system in order to handle water resources as gently and purposefully as possible.
The rural exodus is another challenge. More and more people are looking for work in urban areas, which is why it’s becoming increasingly difficult for coffee farms to find enough workers. This drives up operation costs and is altering the economic aspect of coffee production.
That’s why it’s all the more important to stick to our sourcing strategy and strive to build the longest possible partnerships in order to be able to guarantee the coffee farmers, ultimately the weakest link in the value chain, security for the future.