I grew up in a home that farmed coffee in Zimbabwe. Now I work as an artisanal gold miner in South Africa, where I am an undocumented immigrant. I often think of the coffee I left behind in Zimbabwe, how the industry collapsed, and I grumble about buying very expensive coffee here in South Africa. When my young son asked me, “Dad why are South Africa’s coffee cafes mostly packed with white people?” he forcefully reminded me of what I left behind—family coffee farms.
Coffee earnings from the family plot paid my way to school, and these earnings sustained my family until twenty years ago when it all collapsed. This is the story of coffee in the country I left behind, Zimbabwe.
In the 1990s Zimbabwe was famed globally for its premium Arabica coffee beans. But in the 2000s, farmland was grabbed by force from white Zimbabwean farmers, without compensation. In June 2000 the government of Zimbabwe encouraged its militant Black supporters to invade all farmland owned by white Zimbabweans and take it by force. The goal, said government propagandists, was to return land stolen by white settlers in the early 1900s to Black Zimbabweans. The land grab exercise saw white Zimbabwe farmers assaulted, tortured, a few murdered, and thousands thrown off the plots where they had farmed maize, coffee, wheat, or citrus fruits for decades. Many white Zimbabwean farmers fell into penury, abandoning their plots, or went into exile in Australia, Europe, and the USA. When these experienced white farmers left Zimbabwe, so did many skills, much money, and access to technology. Black farm workers who used to earn a living on the white-held farms lost their jobs too. Small scale Black coffee farmers who grew the crop under the tutelage of big plantation-owning white farmers, also lost their livelihoods. White farmers used to own the land and finance the planting of crops. Blacks were employed as farm hands to provide labor (planting, tilling, harvesting). The land is now mostly owned by Black Zimbabweans. The violence and expulsion of white farmers from the land in Zimbabwe not only soured race relations but flattened the economic froth of the coffee farms. Since the start of 2000, Zimbabwe lost 97% of its coffee output. This hit hard the small-scale Black producers, like my family.
We must look to the past to find the story of Zimbabwe’s coffee. At the peak of production in the late 1980s, the country produced almost 15,000 tons-per-year. What was interesting about Zimbabwe was the very high yield and its consistent high quality. Zimbabwe had the highest per-acre yields of any African country. That’s how we became one of the world’s favorites. In the late 1990s there was a big push to increase capacity, and I recall Zimbabwe was looking to go for 50,000 tons-per-year until things fell apart.
Before the land grab exercise, small-scale Black coffee growers often cooperated with nearby bigger farms owned by white farmers. Knowledge of soils, climate, technology, water reservoirs, pests, seeds and milling would be shared. The white farmers were mentoring some Black farmers, easing them into commercial farming supply chains. These were local farmer-to-farmer exchanges that cut across races. The small-scale farmers, like my family, were producing very significant amounts of coffee at that time too. We were an important part of the industry though not at the scale of White coffee farmers.
Two decades on, in the 2020s, after the dust of hostilities has settled a bit,the Zimbabwean government is extending an olive branch to the expelled large-scale white farmers. Starting in August, 2020, they were told they could apply to get back some of their farms (if they “partnered” with Black growers), or get a slice of a promised $3.5 billion restitution fund. Now several white farmers, growing crops and raising animals, are back on the land, partnering with Blacks and trying to make things accelerate again.
Whenever I think about the global coffee industry today, I look at Jamaica or Yemen. They are very small but they produce their coffee at high quality and it’s in very high demand. I wonder if in Zimbabwe, the country I abandoned years ago, could we move ahead in the same way by growing premium coffee, starting small, and putting skin color and race behind us?
Jairos Sozwana, an upstart Black coffee brewer back home in Mutare, east Zimbabwe, tells me via WhatsApp, that there is new enthusiasm among domestic drinkers in Zimbabwe, where tea has been the overwhelming choice of beverage, to try local coffee. But, he says, coffee policy planners in Zimbabwe must move to curtail a flood of foreign coffee imports that threaten to torpedo the work of small-scale Black growers and brewers.
“Milo, Parmalat, and Jacobs Krönung, these foreign European coffee brews have grabbed a big slice of the market since our coffee went down in the early 2000s. They’re cheap, they undercut domestic producers and brewers—and they discourage the consumption of our specialty domestic coffees which for us brewers fetch a better price. I’m not happy about imports,” he writes.
There is a small revival of Zimbabwe’s old coffee industry. It involves nonprofits, global coffee corporations like Nespresso, some expelled white farmers who are returning from exile and renting land at commercial prices while cooperating with Black coffee farmers, and of course the government. The idea is to make Black growers, millers, brewers improve their operations and perhaps co-exist side by side with the white farmers who have returned. The other bigger hope is that, in Zimbabwe itself, a coffee drinking culture among Blacks will emerge and thus drive domestic sales of coffee. Despite our history of coffee growing, Black Zimbabweans are more accustomed to drinking tea.
“We feel respected,” says Black coffee small grower, Agripa Zuka, who is taking part in the revival in Chimanimani, in the heart of east Zimbabwe’s coffee belt, the region I hail from. I found his comments in a WhatsApp chart, as I researched the painful story of my country’s coffee collapse. “We are happy to be growing coffee again but it’s important to get a transfer of skills, research, and friendship between large-scale white farmers returning and us Black growers.”
I feel there is a need to drop the racial temperatures surrounding Zimbabwe’s coffee growers and there is a need for win-win relationships among all coffee stakeholders. I remember some white farmers back in the 90s would work with small-scale Black farmers like my family, sharing insights on pests, diseases, and milling. It was farmer-to-farmer relationships, the same language, the same soil, the same issues. That’s where my family’s passion for coffee cultivation comes from. We owe the former white farmers gratitude for how they mentored small-scale Black coffee farmers, like my family.
As an undocumented immigrant here in South Africa, 1000 kilometers frommy home in Zimbabwe, I never tire to think of the small coffee farms we left behind and mourn the way our country’s coffee industry collapsed, along with our lives. The price of coffee for me is the price of being forced to live in exile. At least my son frightened me into remembering the sensitive history of the coffee we left behind.
21 December, 2022