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July 13, 2011

Zimbabwe: Hard times for tea, coffee farmers

by Obert Chifamba

The cool climate and the undulating plains of Manicaland, eastern Zimbabwe have nurtured thick bushes of lush green tea and coffee, acting as the basis of economic development for many people.

Today, places like Honde Valley, Katiyo, Tanganda, Cashel Valley and Chipinge, traditional heavyweights in tea and coffee production, have experienced waning fortunes owing to a plethora of challenges.

The woes of the tea industry mirror the broad challenges afflicting the Zimbabwean economy at the moment.

Tea prices are beginning to firm internationally but this is only felt by large-scale estates, which leaves the new farmers most of whom are in outgrower schemes still waiting on the fringes.

The price of tea is currently swinging between US$1,80 and US$2 for a kilogramme locally while the international markets are offering US$3 per kilogramme. On the other hand, coffee prices are ranging from US$3,50 to US$4 on the local and international markets respectively.

Producers however feel the prices fall short of upsetting the high costs of production, which leave them unable to sustain their operations without seeking financial aid from other sources. They also find it difficult to penetrate the lucrative international markets.

Places like Chipinge have unique weather patterns lending them to tea and coffee production as well as avocado and macadamia.

It takes a year or so to establish a coffee or tea nursery, followed by land preparation, then planting after which the farmer starts reaping profits only in the fifth year. This is generally a period of heavy financial and input investment into the crop yet dry in terms of income for the farmer.

"Many farmers involved in outgrower schemes find it difficult to pull through this stage as there will be no income to support their families yet they will be investing a lot of time and human resources into the project. Some have even opted out of the schemes," a manager at Clear Water Tea Estates commented. He added that most of the small-scale farmers did not have electricity and found it difficult to cure their tea and get good quality and competitive prices in the end.

"The crop is highly susceptible to fusarium wilt, which if not controlled can cause severe damage and losses. It requires a lot of spraying and is labour intensive right from the nursery, planting, weeding, irrigation, fertilization and harvesting. Coffee prices have been very low in recent years. They are only beginning to firm but that is countered by high fertilizer costs. Compound J that is needed for the crop is locally very expensive with the price ranging between US$34 and US$36 per bag."

Many players in the tea and coffee industry have since broadened their scope to accommodate alternative crops to raise their revenue levels.

Tanganda, which has an outgrower scheme of approximately 1000 farmers, is replacing tea with macadamia and introducing avocado in areas where tea yields are falling below minimum thresholds. There are already 120 000 hectares under macadamia, a hectarage that will be increased to 150 000ha by year-end while another 120 000ha will be put under avocado. At the moment macadamia and avocados are making their debut on the markets but are not bringing much as they are being sold locally and unprocessed. Macadamia nuts can be processed into soap, body lotions and cosmetics while the crushed nut can also be put on cakes.

Zimbabwe has just started exporting the product to South Africa, which in turn exports to Europe and England. Locally, Chinese business people are buying the crop and sending to China but in both situations the producer is getting the least profits.

The Herald

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