African Coffee Production: Challenges and Opportunities for 2024

Updated Nov 26, 2023 • Donna Lu

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African countries that form part of the global coffee belt regions are known to produce some of the most delicious coffee in the world. In fact, coffee from Ethiopia, an East African country, has been commonly ranked as the world’s best coffee over the years. Yet, African coffee-producing countries account for only a meager 10% to 12% of the global coffee supply. African coffee has proven to be a worthy contender on the global scale- with impressive potential, both in quality and flavor. Producing both arabica and robusta coffee, African coffee producers have experienced some opportunities though many challenges still exist.

African Coffee Farmer showing his coffee fruits

Facts: Coffee Production in Africa

  • Ethiopia is the largest producer and exporter of coffee in Africa (accounting for 39% of the arabica beans produced) and the world's fifth largest, accounting for 3% of the global market share today. However, Ethiopia is known to only produce arabica coffee beans. So, this directly puts another African country as a giant of robusta production.  
  • Uganda is the largest producer of Robusta coffee in Africa, accounting for 70% of its production. This is surprisingly followed by a West African country, Ivory Coast, which accounts for 22% of the total production in Africa. The remaining market share is taken up by other smaller producers.

Africa’s Largest Coffee Producers

  1. Ethiopia (39% Arabica)
  2. Uganda (23% Robusta)
  3. Ivory Coast (13% Robusta)
  4. Tanzania (6% Arabica, Robusta and Peaberry)
  5. Kenya (5% Arabica, Robusta, and Peaberry)

When it comes to coffee production, we tend to focus mostly on East African countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. This is usually due to their geographical locations. Areas, such as Ethiopia, Mount Kenya, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania offer the perfect higher latitude growing conditions, of up to 5000 feet, perfect for arabica coffee beans. This, in turn, creates the perfect and distinctive flavors of the slower-growing beans (they have ample time to develop their sugars).

Several other African countries form part of the coffee belt region and contribute to the total African coffee market share. Here's a complete list of coffee-producing countries in Africa and their ranking in the global market share (based on both types of coffee):

  • Ethiopia (5th)
  • Uganda (8th)
  • Ivory Coast (14th)
  • Tanzania (16th)
  • Kenya (18th)
  • Cameroon (21st)
  • Madagascar (23rd)
  • Gabon (24th)
  • DRC (29th)
  • Rwanda (30th)
  • Burundi (31st)
  • Togo (33rd)
  • Guinea (34th)
  • Central African Republic (40th)
  • Nigeria (41st)
  • Ghana (42nd)
  • Sierra Leone (43rd)
  • Angola (44th)
  • Malawi (45th)
  • Zimbabwe (49th)
  • Liberia (50th)
  • Zambia (51st)

Other smaller coffee-producing African countries include Mozambique, South Africa, Comoros, Seychelles, Sao Tome and Principe, and Cape Verde.

Close up on coffee fruits

Coffee Production in Africa: Strengths and Challenges

Over the years, coffee production has grown in Africa on a wider scale. Several factors contribute to this growth. The first important factor is the overall growth in coffee demand globally. However, locals, including the younger generation have also started to show keen interest in the crop for both business and consumption. This hasn't just led to the increase of its production but also more investment. Further, movements in supporting smaller-scale farmers to increase revenue and livelihood, and fair pay have also improved the overall coffee farming landscape. In addition to exports, coffee production for local consumption has grown substantially across African countries.

The Traditional Dry Coffee Processing in Africa

To date, most African farmers and producers still use the dry coffee processing method, which integrates natural air drying of green coffee beans. Now, this method has been used on the continent by farmers for decades. While hand-dry processing plays a role in yielding the distinctive flavors we love, it is time-consuming and impacts production levels. A single farmer can take up to a month to process and ready their consignment for sale and shipment. Often during this time, they have to lay the beans outdoors under the sun daily, constantly moving the beans to counter mold, mildew, and other potentially damaging components. Moreover, global climate change patterns affect the process as irregular weather changes happen. For instance, a farmer may fail to meet the targeted shipment day due to unexpected rainfall.

Hands showing dried coffee beans

Challenges Hindering Africa's Full Potential in the Global Coffee Market

Nonetheless, various challenges still loom in this area. While some of the best coffee comes from the African region, African coffee still only captures 10-12% of the global market share. Compared to other coffee-producing regions, such as Asia and the Americas, most coffee producers in Africa are small-scale and can’t produce such huge harvests. Similarly, poor infrastructure plays a significant role in the low market for African coffee. For example, robusta coffee grown in the Kagera region of Tanzania (Tanzania's only robusta coffee-producing region) is 870 miles from the nation’s commercial port city, Dar es Salaam. Moreover, railway infrastructure from Kagera to Dar es Salaam is not nonexistent while air travel is limited due to the smaller airport capacity.

The Complex Web of Transport Challenges in Africa's Coffee Supply Chain

So, the only reliable travel is the minimum 21-hour travel by road. The 21-hour travel is only calculated by the distance and a standard highway speed without considering other factors. These include poor road conditions, limited quality trucks, and weather changes (Kagera can be relatively cool while other regions along the way are very warm – travel from Kagera to Dar es Salaam covers more than 5 regions). This is only a fraction of the factors to consider – but many more exist. With such challenges experienced along the way, it is unsurprising that the supply chain becomes long. A small-scale farmer cannot navigate the high transport and storage costs, whether to Dar es Salaam or the nearby neighboring Uganda capital, Kampala (which is just 188 miles away!). Due to this, the farmer ends up earning significantly less as the higher-ups on the supply chain try to maintain friendly prices. With this continuing cycle, it is easy to understand why the African coffee market continues to loom and remain in the same limited cycle!

Gravel road in Africa

Climate Change Impacts on African Coffee Farming: Rainfall, Processing, and Pest Infestations

The effects of global climate change can also be felt within the coffee farming sector. For one, the weather pattern changes affect coffee farming and processing. As mentioned earlier, irregular rainfall impacts the natural dry process of green coffee beans, a practice that has been used for decades. Temperature changes have also been reported to aggravate pest infestations as they create the perfect conditions for pests and diseases to thrive.

Strengths Challenges
Growth in global coffee demand. African coffee captures only 10-12% of the global market share.
Increasing local interest in coffee cultivation and consumption. Most producers are small-scale, limiting huge harvests.
Investments in coffee production. Poor infrastructure affecting transport and supply chain.
Support for small-scale farmers enhancing revenue and livelihood. High transport and storage costs for small-scale farmers.
Rise in local coffee consumption across African countries. Effects of climate change on coffee farming and processing.
Distinctive flavors from hand-dry processing. Increasing pest infestations due to changing temperatures.
Savana surrounded by bush fires

Political and Regulatory Hurdles

Africa, home to several nations that boast fertile lands suitable for coffee cultivation, holds significant promise in the international coffee market. However, navigating through the intricacies of African coffee exports reveals a myriad of political and regulatory challenges that growers, traders, and investors grapple with. Here's an in-depth look at some of the key issues:

  1. Inconsistent Trade Policies: Many African nations face frequent changes in trade regulations, which can make it difficult for coffee exporters to maintain a consistent presence in the international market. With each political regime change, there can be shifts in export tariffs, duties, and standards.
  2. Bureaucracy and Red Tape: Slow and cumbersome bureaucratic processes in some countries can lead to delays in obtaining the necessary export permits and licenses. These delays can affect the freshness of the coffee, which is a crucial factor in maintaining high market prices.
  3. Lack of Harmonized Standards: While global coffee buyers often look for specific quality standards, the lack of a harmonized grading system across the continent means exporters often have to navigate a confusing array of local and national regulations.
  4. Political Instability: Areas with political unrest or instability can disrupt coffee production cycles and export logistics. Conflicts can make regions inaccessible, putting the lives of farmers at risk and leading to potential losses in yields and profits.
  5. Restrictions on Foreign Investment: Some nations have protective policies that limit foreign investment in their agricultural sectors. These restrictions can deter potential investors who might bring in capital, technology, and expertise to boost the coffee export industry.
  6. Infrastructure and Export Facilities: Governments in some regions have underinvested in the necessary infrastructure like roads, ports, and warehousing. This lack of infrastructure can increase the costs and time associated with getting coffee beans from farms to international markets.
  7. Tariff and Non-tariff Barriers: Apart from their internal challenges, African coffee exporters also face tariff and non-tariff barriers in target export markets. These can range from quality standards to quotas, making market entry more complex and costly.
  8. Limited Participation in Trade Agreements: While regions like East Africa have made strides in forming trade agreements, many African countries aren't part of larger international trade agreements, which could grant them preferential access to lucrative markets.

Older Farming Practices

In Tanzania, older farming practices aren't just limited to the natural dry processing of green beans. Many farms, particularly in the Kilimanjaro and Kagera regions depend on older trees. Now, this is a problem as older trees yield lower harvests. Other farmers don't have up-to-date knowledge of managing their coffee trees – or, choose to not put in the effort. Additionally, coffee trees, particularly arabica varieties, growing at higher altitudes have a more high-maintenance nature, requiring labor and time.

The Choice of Coffee Varieties

Even with new and younger trees, farmers may still experience hurdles. Varieties, such as the Arabica Bourbon pointu are known to be susceptible to diseases, such as leaf rust. Leaf rust is a common coffee tree disease across all coffee regions, no matter the environmental differences.

Young small coffee trees

Opportunities for Better Profits

Many farmers in the Kagera region have ditched robusta coffee farming for the more lucrative vanilla crop. This has significantly reduced coffee production, leading to even lower coffee volumes for export. As farmers put less emphasis on coffee farming, less effort is put into improving the sector.

Potential Future Opportunities for Coffee Production in Africa

Undoubtedly, coffee production in Africa still has unimaginable potential. Like elsewhere in coffee-producing regions, climate change continues to be a huge threat. Nonetheless, with just a few adjustments, the sector can thrive. For one, natural processing and sustainable farming practices guarantee adequate production and superior bean quality. With improved financial compensation, trading policy, the addition of new stronger varieties, and awareness, coffee production, and sales can significantly skyrocket.

Two African women serving traditional coffee

Focused Lens on Tanzania: Coffee Production Challenges Different African Coffee Belt Countries

As mentioned above, most coffee producers in African countries are small-scale farmers. In Tanzania alone, more than 90% of coffee producers are small-scale farmers, usually working on 1 to 7-acre land. On the other hand, less than 10% of the total producers account for larger estates, usually located in the Northeast and southern highlands, such as Arusha, Kilimanjaro, and Mbeya. These larger coffee estates exclusively harvest arabica coffee beans. Being a smaller-scale farmer in the coffee sector comes with its fair share of limitations.  Several factors account for the challenges experienced by coffee producers in Tanzania.

Meet the expert

Donna is a coffee lover and freelance writer from Tanzania. Coffee runs deep in her family, tracing its roots to her grandmother’s running of their first coffee farm in the mid-70s. During the summer seasons, she enjoys writing and co-running her grandmother's small robusta coffee farm with her sister in northwest Tanzania.

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