There’s nothing quite like a cup of coffee early in the morning to start your day on the right foot. The coffee industry that has slowly been brewing in South Africa over the past few decades has been booming recently.
Coffee is an inherently African crop, with humble beginnings rooted in Ethiopia. The world’s largest traders and exporters of coffee are now synonymous with the caffeine-filled bean, Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia, but coffee still plays a huge economic role throughout Malawi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya and the Ivory Coast, according to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).
“South Africa is not considered a ‘coffee producer’,” says Dylan Cumming, a farmer, roaster, barista and the managing director of Beaver Creek. “Because the number of hectares under production is currently very small.”
But he believes that South Africa has the opportunity to be one of the leading coffee growers in the world, with ideal and suitable climatic areas and a great farm and garden culture.
Beaver Creek is a family-owned coffee farm on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The Beaver Creek Coffee Estate and Company has 60,000 coffee trees from an original four trees 37 years ago, when the Cumming family moved over from banana to coffee farming.
“There is a growing demand for the high-end, specialty coffee,” says Cumming. “People are looking for coffee that is distinct in its character and that they know exactly where it is grown.”
Statistics from Rainforest Alliance show that coffee is the second largest globally traded commodity, with crude oil being the first. Africa’s coffee industry is worth $1 billion annually.
With South Africa’s growing appetite for good coffee, why don’t you see if you’ll be the next big coffee producer in Mzansi? Read further for 10 steps to starting your coffee farm in South Africa.
1. Choosing your cultivar
There are more than 120 species of plants in the Coffea genus, according to The Spruce, with Coffea arabica (Arabica) and Coffea Canephora (Robusta) accounting for the main coffee production and consumption around the world. Arabica and Robusta, as with all varieties of coffee, vary in terms of bean, roast, caffeine content and taste.
The Cumming family plants predominantly Coffea Arabica, but they also have some trial fields of Coffea Canephora (Robusta) and Coffea Racemosa (Wild Coffee).
“Of the Arabica species we have four cultivars, SL28, Catuai, Catimor F6 and Batian,” says Cumming. “Each has their own characteristics in terms of disease and drought resistance and cup quality.”
“In our over 35 years of experience we believe that our region is ideal for both Arabica and Robusta. This is one of the best coffee growing regions of the world.”
Choosing between Arabica and Robusta cultivars depends on which market you want to go into. Arabica delivers high-end aromas and flavour experiences, but are more difficult and expensive to farm with. Robusta, on the other hand, has higher caffeine concentrations and a less delightful taste, and are mostly used in instant coffees, and this cultivar comes with much easier farming input.
Arabica is grown on the few coffee plantations in South Africa, and is a valued species that has been grown for several centuries. It currently represents three-quarters of the world coffee production, according to Farming Portal.
Arabicas contain less caffeine than the robusta varieties and are thought to be more difficult to grow (as they tend to be more susceptible to diseases and the effects of poor soil conditions). Arabicas also have a higher production cost.
Currently, arabica accounts for about three quarters of the world’s coffee supply.
How is this possible if they seem to be more difficult to cultivate?
Well, Arabica beans are acknowledged as having an overall better taste than Robusta and are generally the variety used exclusively in finer, specialty coffees. With the rise in speciality blends and designer coffee experiences, Arabica delivers the taste and aroma for a memorable experience.
Lifestyle South Africa has referred to Robusta as the stepchild of the coffee family – the less favoured variety. This less punchy bean originates in the forested areas of Liberia, Tanzania and northern Angola. Robusta is used primarily in instant-coffee production- it is more resilient and has a longer shelf life.
As mentioned above, Robusta trees are easier to grow than Arabica and they are less vulnerable to pests and weather conditions. Robusta can also grow at lower altitudes than Arabica, and deliver a greater crop yield than Arabica, according to Farming Portal. Because of their higher caffeine content (about twice as much as Arabica) and strong character, Robusta are used mostly in blends.
Robusta coffee beans tend to be easier to grow. But, due to their harsh, bitter flavour profile, they tend to collect a lower price on the market. These are generally the beans that are used in instant and mass-produced commercial coffees.
“To get started in coffee growing, your first step would be to make sure that your area was climatically suitable for commercial coffee farming,” advises Cumming.
The best environment in which to grow coffee is to mimic its natural conditions found on a tropical, mid-elevation mountainside: plenty of water with good drainage, high humidity, relatively cool temperatures, and rich, slightly acidic soil.
According to the ARC, coffee can be farmed in South Africa in a few provinces, and is currently farmed in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Eastern Province and KwaZulu-Natal.
The KwaZulu-Natal region is one of the best to grow coffee in the world, according to Cumming. This is due to a combination of latitude, altitude, and ocean currents that create ideal climatic conditions to produce world-class coffee.
According to Real Good Coffee Co. your soil must be rich with nutrients and allow for the plant’s roots to penetrate deep. You’ll also need to ensure the plant has proper drainage.
The soil needs to be well draining, so if your soil is too clay-like, it won’t work well. Add river sand, perlite, vermiculite or gravel basalt to clay soil to increase its aeration and make it lighter and more well-draining. Sandy soil will need plenty of compost and nutrients added to it to increase nutrient content.
Coffee trees also prefer a slightly acidic soil type. A soil with a pH close to a 6 is ideal. According to Lifestyle South Africa, acidic soil can be achieved by adding freshly ground coffee grinds, or any fertilizer with ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate. Ammonia is a good additive, and adding iron sulphate to clay-like soils is also a good idea.
Producing coffee is a lengthy process, says Cumming.
At Beaver Creek they collect the fruit from February to October and start selling once the coffee completes the curing process, which includes fermentation, drying, hulling and grading.
The best time to start a coffee plant is in the early spring, according to The Spruce. Even though coffee plants are vigorous growers, it will typically take a few years before your plant produces flowers and subsequent fruits.
It may take anywhere between three and eight years for coffee cherries to appear on your plant. This is arguably the chief reason to buy an established plant, over seed. Your waiting time from seed to cup is far longer when you decide to plant from seed.
Arabica will flower in the spring with small white flowers and then bear berries that gradually darken from green to blackish pods. Each of these fruits contains two seeds, which eventually become the coffee beans you use to brew coffee.
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The coffee plant ranks among the tropical crops with the highest nutrient demands. The kind and quantity of fertiliser would vary depending on the type and initial fertility of soil, climate, plant age, cost and availability of fertiliser, of course.
According to Perfect Daily Grind, coffee trees need nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as increased levels of potassium and magnesium during the reproductive phase (i.e., when the trees flower).
Fertiliser application should be done four to eight weeks after planting and also every few months afterwards. Nitrogen is important to increase growth and prevent leaf fall, and its shortage may affect production. Potassium, zinc and boron are some of the essential elements in coffee production.
Zinc should be applied annually. Boron is needed for cell division and it can be applied at the beginning and towards the end of the flowering period.
The department of agriculture, land reform and rural development has a set of production guidelines for coffee production and harvesting. According to this, there are two main ways of harvesting coffee berries: strip picking or selective picking.
Strip picking can be accomplished manually or mechanically, whereas selective picking can only be done by hand. The strip picking method removes all the berries at one time, including all of the flowers, green berries and deeply overripened berries.
The second method is to selectively pick the ripe berries by hand, leaving the unripe berries connected to the branches of the tree. This is a time-consuming process, but it is worth the time invested because the unripe berries will eventually become ripe, increasing the future yield.
Picking the cherry is still mostly done by hand, according to Agribook. But there has been an encroachment of mechanical harvesters in certain regions which can do the work of 150 field workers, though not nearly as selectively and gently.
Harvesting requires a gentle touch as picking the cherries too early or too late can result in off-flavours that come out in the cup, or result in visibly noticeable defects, which may deter a potential customer from buying a crop of green beans.
Harvesting is such a labour-intensive task that it alone is responsible for roughly one-third of all the manual labour required in coffee production.
Once the coffee has been picked, processing must begin as quickly as possible to prevent fruit spoilage. Depending on location and local resources, coffee is processed in one of two ways, the dry method or the wet method.
Dry processing is the oldest method. This is simply the act of placing the coffee fruit in the sun to dry. According to Blackout Coffee, in Ethiopia, India and Kenya it can be as simple as placing the fruit on sheets on the ground to dry. In Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica it may mean dispersing the coffee fruit in buildings that look like glasshouses.
This method produces a coffee with a strong, sharp flavour, and is suited to drier regions. Bad fruit need to be identified and removed by hand.
Freshly harvested fruit are passed through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean before going on to the wet process.
Wet processing is when the coffee cherries are floated in a vat of water where the bad cherries drop to the bottom and are easily removed. After sorting out the bad fruit, the remaining fruit will be transported to water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on several environmental conditions, this might take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours, according to Blackout Coffee.
When fermentation is complete, the beans feel rough to the touch. Then they can be dried in the same way as the dry method fruits are dried – laid out in the sun. When the skins become flaky, the beans are dry enough.
8. Grading and sorting
Producing quality coffee beans is a painstaking process, with a lot of selection for only the best beans to make it through to the end product.
Coffee Magazine says that grading and sorting is based on size, weight, colour and other imperfections or flaws. Beans are passed through a series of screens to sort for size and sorted pneumatically by using an air jet to separate heavy from light beans.
The final remaining beans must be sorted manually to ensure that only the finest quality coffee beans are sold. Any deficiencies (unacceptable size or color, over-fermented beans, insect-damaged, unhulled beans) are removed.
As mentioned above, coffee is repeatedly tested for quality and taste. The process of testing the taste of coffee is referred to as cupping, according to the National Coffee Association.
The taster, called the cupper, evaluates the beans first on their visual quality and then on their aroma. After being infused with boiling water at a carefully-controlled temperature, the cupper will slurp up the coffee, spreading it evenly over their taste buds, weighing it on the tongue, and then spitting it out.
An expert cupper can taste hundreds of samples of coffee a day and still taste the subtle differences between them.
Farming coffee and exporting the raw bean has not been considered a viable option in Mzansi, largely because it is a labour-intensive crop.
But that is changing. Coffee, as one of the world’s most important commodities in terms of value, is an industry that could be developed, and which could create jobs.
Mzansi is also one of the few countries where coffee can be grown organically, potentially opening a niche in the coffee market. According to Agribook, other coffee producing countries have an array of pests and diseases to cope with, while we are relatively fortunate in that regard.
A projected trend in the global consumption of coffee provides a very lucrative opportunity for South Africa to increase the production of coffee beans to meet both domestic and export demand.
“We believe that there is a great opportunity for coffee farming in South Africa,” says Cumming in a Forbes Africa article. “From one hectare, one household to commercial estates. We want to nurture and inspire growers to realise this dream.”
He also mentions that organizations, such as the Specialty Coffee Association of Southern Africa, the African Fine Coffees Association, and the East African Fine Coffees Association, are all playing their part in developing the industry. They are making it more accessible to new entrants and the consumer alike, while inspiring passion within those already involved in the industry.
“Although there may be the occasional wobble in the market, the trend is positive and Africa has much to look forward to when it comes to great coffee,” says Cumming.