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Rehabilitating coffee in Angola

Minister of Agriculture officially opening the 2006 coffee harvest season. (CABI)
Minister of Agriculture officially opening the 2006 coffee harvest season.

Black gold, the title of a 2006 documentary on coffee, is more usually a term used to describe oil. Angola is a nation renowned for both. The country was once the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world and oil exports have helped to bring about economic recovery after almost three decades of civil war. But while oil generates much needed foreign exchange, with over four million displaced people returning to their communities, it is the coffee sector that the government and supporting organisations are looking to as a means of restoring rural livelihoods.

The Angolan coffee industry was once dominated by large plantations, which supplied about 70 per cent of the annual coffee harvest. These plantations had their own processing facilities and were mostly run by Portuguese settlers supported by a sophisticated road infrastructure. After independence the majority of the plantations were nationalised but, with the departure of the Portuguese, the experience of new farm managers was limited and a combination of mismanagement, loss of labour and poor supply of essential inputs led to a significant decrease in yields.

From decline...

Privatisation of the state farms during the 1990s led to the plantations being subdivided. But most owners found rehabilitation of their coffee farms increasingly difficult as insecurity and civil strife continued to grip the country. Many of the larger farms were consequently abandoned during the war and some remain landmined. As a consequence, large areas of coffee grow unattended and the berries are never harvested. Most plantations are also old, pests and disease seriously constrain yields, crop husbandry is poor, and inputs are either unavailable or too expensive. In addition, essential support services, including research, extension and credit facilities, no longer exist.

Coffee production has been identified as one way to restore rural livelihoods in Angola (CABI)
Coffee production has been identified as one way to restore rural livelihoods in Angola

Compared to more than US$180 million at its peak in 1974, coffee exports currently amount to only around US$250,000. During the harvesting season, the flow of coffee to exporters is often erratic and coffee frequently has to be blended from different sources and stored for long periods in order to accumulate sufficient volumes for shipping. In order to rehabilitate the coffee sector, and for its export potential to be realised, significant investment is needed. However, after so many years of civil unrest, the banking system in Angola remains risk-averse. With only four exporting companies working in a difficult environment, reviving the coffee sector has so far proved a challenge.

...to restoration of Angola's coffee farms

Angolan Robusta coffee is reportedly famous for its neutral and pleasant cup (flavour) and is particularly popular in southern Europe (Spain and Portugal). However, quality is no longer consistent and many traders confirm that Angolan coffees are often characterised by an 'old' taste, yellow colour and a low moisture content. Yet the market potential for Angolan Robusta coffee has been confirmed to be good and if production can be improved and yields increased, a greater quantity could be exported.

To address some of the current constraints and assist in improving the coffee sub-sector, CABI is coordinating a pilot project funded by the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) and the Angola Government through the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) UK. The three-year project, which began in March 2006, aims to provide 4,000 previously displaced families in the province of Kwanza Sul with two-to-five hectare plots from the subdivision of abandoned coffee estates. The acquisition of title deeds by each farmer collaborating in the project is also being facilitated, as well as other forms of social support including the construction of houses, schools and clinics.

In contrast to colonial times, smallholders now account for almost 90 per cent of coffee production in Angola. Farmers employ family labour and achieve relatively good yields: but the lack of processing facilities means that farmers are restricted to selling their coffee as dried cherries. To improve production, over three million coffee seedlings have been raised, mainly on farmers' fields, although a supplementary nursery has been established at a research station of the Instituto Nacional de Café (INCA). Over 2000 farmers, extensionists and scientists have been trained in various aspects of coffee production, processing and marketing.

In collaboration with a local bank, an effective micro-credit system has been set up and another partner, the Cooperative League of the United States of America (CLUSA), has helped farmers form business organisations and trained them in effective management. So far, over 30 business entities have been legally constituted. The creation of farmer cooperatives and associations will also be encouraged to enable value-added processing. In addition, the establishment of producer, trader and exporter interest groups will be promoted to encourage the active involvement of key players in determining relevant policies for the coffee industry.

Making an impression

A farmer with her coffee nursery (CABI)
A farmer with her coffee nursery

Despite the success of the project so far and government efforts to address the problems of poor infrastructure, changing attitudes has been testing. Many farmers had become accustomed to handouts and provision of assistance from aid NGOs that distributed free relief during the prolonged years of civil strife. But farmers are now more understanding of the critical role they themselves have to play in a liberalised economy, and that financial assistance is available - if only as loans that have to repaid.

Through the establishment of communal coffee nurseries, ownership of the project has increased and more farmers have asked to be included. Resources are currently not available to extend the remit of the project but the ultimate aim is to provide a proven concept for coffee rehabilitation to policymakers at provincial and national level in Angola. Then, the benefits may be spread to a greater number of smallholder farmers, as well as those in other provinces and countries that have also suffered conflict.

With contributions from: George Oduor, CABI

Date published: November 2007


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