Turning off the main road we head up a windy incline into the foothills of Kilimanjaro towards Kahawa Shamba, a family run coffee farm. ‘Kahawa Shamba’, incidentally, means ‘coffee farm’ in Swahili – it must have taken a long meeting to decide on the name.
I quickly slip (literally) into my first off-road driving experience as we bump along a narrow track to the farm, at the gate of which we are greeted by our beaming host Josephat August Minde – resplendent in an Argentina football shirt.
Our jovial host is clearly a coffee aficionado, his enthusiasm for the roasted bean clearly evident as he regales us with stories, making the growing process come alive.
“My dad was a coffee farmer and his grandfather before that,” he tells us. In fact, coffee growing goes even further back in the Minde family – Josephat is a fourth-generation coffee farmer.
Traditionally, farms were passed down to the children – the land being split between them, Josephat says. As a result, the farms were getting smaller and smaller and, as a consequence, less cost-effective. But this splitting process has since stopped and the farms have become family – rather than individually – run.
There are close to 70,000 coffee growers in the Kili region, who each farm from 0.25-2 acres; Josephat’s plot measures half-an-acre. In his village, Msuni, there are around 800 small-scale coffee growers. Naturally, coffee is far and away the main source of income here, but beans, maize, bananas, avocado and other vegetables are also grown among the coffee trees. Indeed, these other crops form an essential part of the coffee-growing process.
The majority of Tanzania’s growers belong to a co-operative, which works on the farmers’ behalf to ensure they get a fair price for their coffee. Kahawa Shamba is a member of the KNCU (Kilimanjaro Native Co-operative Union), which helps guarantee the growers a minimum price of US$1/kg (as weighed before the husk is removed).
Despite this (relatively) lucrative industry, and the fact coffee has been grown In the country since 1898, Tanzanians are renowned as tea drinkers – a hang-up from their colonial past – the country exporting around 95% of its coffee, while consuming just 5% at home, compared with Ethiopia where the split is pretty much 50:50.
“The young have started drinking coffee,” says Josephat, himself an avid fan of the drink. Well, he’d have to be wouldn’t he? “It would help growers if [more] Tanzanians drank coffee as it helps the price,” he muses.
There are two types of coffee grown in Tanzania – Arabica and Robusta. High altitude growing, such as in the foothills of Kili and Meru, is best-suited to Arabica – 15 out of 16 Tanzanian regions grow Arabica, which flourishes in the wet soil; while the larger Robusta bushes prefer a flatter terrain.
Robusta, which is found growing on the Burundi border, requires less work – you just pick and dry, explains Josephat. There’s no need to remove the skin, with the beans being dried in their fruit shell – a process that takes about 15 days. The easier process is reflected in the price, however, as it yields just 50c/kg.
While Arabic is fruity and delicate, Robusta is more heavy-bodied – and the caffeine levels vary starkly as well. In every 4-7g of coffee beans, which make a normal-sized cup of coffee, there is 100mg of caffeine in Arabica, compared with a whopping 200mg in Robusta.
“Coffee from Arabica makes you awake,” grins Josephat. “You sit at your keyboard and everything is working well. With Robusta, the caffeine goes [straight] to your heart – and makes it pumping!”
His introduction over, Josephat leads us into the ‘forest’. “Now it is time for you to work,” he says.
From tree to mug
Fortunately, we don’t have to plant any trees and then wait five years before they start producing beans – Josephat already has a host of thriving trees. There are not the long lines of bushes that I envisaged, instead they are scattered about. Here, coffee trees are grown in what is called an intercropping system. Growing in between the coffee bushes can be found avocado, mango, maize, orange and banana trees, to name a selection. Bees cross-pollinate the plants, giving Arabica its fruitier taste. The volcanic, acidic soil also contributes to the flavour.
Small-scale growers operate an organic system, using cow dung for fertiliser. They don’t spray the trees with pesticides, either. There was a problem with beetles eating the flowers, but growers introduced chameleons to the area, who eat them (the beetles not the growers), so this has become less of a problem.
Animals don’t eat the beans or the leaves, either – the plant causing havoc with their digestive systems. In fact, coffee was discovered, Josephat says, when goats used to eat the beans and “they had runny poo”.
First up, Josephat points out the vibrant white flowers on the flourishing bushes and the beans that are in various stages of ripening. He passes us each a bucket and instructs us to pick only the red-coloured fruit – these are the ripe ones. The green ones are to be left well alone.
The picking season lasts from July to December, with each tree producing around 5kg of coffee per year. The tree itself lasts about 45 years. Coffee farming at this level is very labour-intensive, with the picking, and even the pruning, done by hand – machinery only being found on the big plantations.
“It’s hard work and difficult for the price you get,” Josephat says. But when it comes to picking, it is very much a woman’s game “because they are so fast and the men are pole pole (slow)”, he laughs. “They can pick 20kg in five minutes.”
Next, we transfer our freshly picked beans into a hand-operated press, which peels the fruit. The press removes the flesh, revealing a white bean, which then drops into a pot of water that sits below the press’s shute.
Known as the ‘fermentation stage’ the beans are left in water for around three days, to break up the sugar. As this stage, the bean has no smell and is slimy to the touch – a sensation caused by seeping sugar. During the fermentation process, the water is changed every morning. The dirty water is nicknamed ‘Coca-Cola water’, due to its brown colouring.
The beans are then drained and shovelled onto large trays, where they are left out in the sun to dry for around seven days. Great care is taken over hygiene during this stage because dirty hands could contaminate the batch. For example, cow dung could be passed from fingers onto the beans, causing a somewhat unexpected taste for the coffee drinker.
Luckily, Josephat has some dried beans he’d prepared earlier and he soon has me operating a man-sized mortar and pestle to break off the shells. Apparently I do a good job, but it’s backbreaking work and I’m glad I’m only having to grind enough so that we can all enjoy a mug of coffee at the end of this.
The crushed beans are then sieved. This is a job for an expert – Josephat flipping the seeds like pancakes to skillfully remove the unwanted shells. The shells flying out of the sieve while the beans miraculously stay in the sieve. At this stage, the beans would be packed into sisal bags and shipped off to market. But we want to taste the fruits of our labour…
Taking a large handful of beans Josephat roasts them over an open fire. The length of time on the fire determines the strength of the roast. Around six-seven minutes gets you a medium-roast bean, but Joesphat doesn’t need a watch – he judges by the colour and the cracking sound the beans make as the heat hits. The quality of coffee is the same whatever the size of bean, it is just the roasting time that differs, he explains – the smaller the bean, the quicker the roasting. After ‘cooking’, the beans are left for around 12 hours to cool.
It’s time to taste the results. The roasted beans are ground – this time with a hand-sized mortar and pestle – into a fine powder.
Pouring and drinking
Josephat then pours boiling water over the beans through a ‘tea’ strainer and straight into the mug. Our ‘hard’ work is rewarded with a cracking cup of coffee.
“To get good coffee always drink it black,” Josephat says, adding: “If you want milk you’ll have to come back in the morning because that is when we milk the cow.”
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