Caffeine is something I’m well accustomed to consuming in very large quantities, but until recently I’d never witnessed the birthplace of the fragrant coffee bean.
On a heavily precipitous day in late June the tracks leading up Mt. Kilimanjaro are awash with cars navigating the precariously muddy surface. It’s not uncommon to see them sliding, sometimes reminiscent of a Whirling Dervish, up and down the slippery slopes.
Those lucky enough to survive (or brave) the gridlocks of up-to-the-axle bogged cars, skating pedestrians and disoriented cows are rewarded with a spectacular view of coffee plantations in their rawest form.
Away from the boutique estates, reserved for refined European taste buds, you can find farms that use the shelter-system for growing Arabica coffee; a traditional coffee production method which involves planting coffee trees under the shade of taller trees and shrubs. The shaded coffee production system provides shelter for birds and other animals and is thus favoured by many environmentalists.
The short trek took us past coffee plots that stretched out in all directions. The light rain and tranquil vale of slowly moving mist gave the whole place a serene feel. We could easily have mistaken it for the set of “Gorillas in the Mist” rather than a forest plot less than half an hour’s drive from Moshi.
Every bit of arable land was kept productive; where coffee wasn’t grown, corn and soya took its place without any objection.
Eventually we reached a small village where a crash course in coffee production whet our appetite. Naturally, no course would be complete without proper hands-on training — by far, this was what we looked forward to the most.
We picked the ripe red berries, removed the outer skin, sorted for quality, removed the second skin, roasted in a traditional clay pot on a three-stone fire, pulverised, ground and sifted the beans to finally produce a powder that closely resembled the brown substance we’re all familiar with. Only one thing left, a taste test.
A pot of boiling water was already bubbling on the fire — we poured the finely ground powder into the pot and let it boil for two minutes. Once in our cups, the coffee shot off a fragrant burst of steam that overpowered us with its intensity. Simply divine and so much better than Starbucks. From red berry to cup of coffee in less than 20 minutes; that’s what I call fresh.
Well worth the visit if you want to experience the Tanzanian coffee growing culture.
There are 68 coffee-producing villages dotted around the slopes of Kili and many consider themselves autonomous from the Tanzanian government. Their defiance of central political rule has delayed basic infrastructure development; as a result they still suffer from poor road and medical facilities. But who could blame them — as farmers they don’t pay any tax to the government — the cash crop can now be freely sold on the international markets to the highest bidder without government intervention or price-fixing.
Previously the system was very different; the government would purchase all the coffee from the farmers, sell it on the open market for a hefty premium (16,000 shillings per kilo) and pocket the bulk of the proceeds. Interestingly, a typical coffee bush produces about six kilograms of coffee beans per year; enough to make roughly 1200 cups.
On average the farmers would only receive 25% (4,000 shillings per kilo) from the government — barely enough to provide for next season’s crop investment let alone to clothe, school and feed the family.
Being autonomous and not paying taxes has its disadvantages, but not as bad as having to deal with a starving family. No doubt the roads will continue to be of limited priority unless the government starts to see some dividends from coffee sales into its coffers.
Opening up the coffee markets to direct foreign buyers has enabled the farmers to provide for not only themselves but also allowed them to reinvest the profits and begin improving on the woeful infrastructure. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Starbucks is one of the major buyers of coffee (at reasonable rates I’m told) from this region. The proceeds of coffee production (at least in the three villages closest to Moshi) have been used to setup a campsite, lavatory, an auction house, restaurant facilities and a thriving coffee tour business.