Malawi is home to some stunning landscapes, dominated by highs and lows: the Great Rift Valley and the vast Lake Malawi, the ninth largest lake in the world, running dramatically alongside the mountainous highlands, where peaks reach 10,000ft in places.
These highs and lows are analogous for the region as a whole. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest nations – an estimated 65% of its population lives below the poverty line – but its coffee industry, a legitimate cash crop in a significantly cash-strapped country, boasts thousands of smallholder farms scattered throughout its incredible altitudes, particularly in the likes of Viphya and the Nyika Plateaux to the North.
Standing between 1,700 and 2,000 metres above sea level, close to Malawi’s Tanzanian border and the Songwe River, the Misuku coffee region grows naturally-canopied Arabica (largely Agaro and Geisha) that commands premium prices. It is Malawi’s principal coffee growing region, housing 48% of its farmers, and coffee from this area can be described as sweet, delicate, floral, with hints of liquorice and spice.
As is commonplace for Malawi, the Misuku region’s coffees are represented by their own cooperative, named after their home state. Herein lies the chief element in understanding Malawian coffee: in 1999 the Misuku Cooperative helped form the Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union along with five further regional cooperatives across Malawi. And it is the Mzuzu Cooperative Union that makes the difference.
Mzuzu represents the clearest picture of Malawi’s coffee industry. It covers the breadth of the country, providing infrastructure to farms through their own regional cooperatives, and it has watched the Malawian coffee industry grow from strength to strength.
The main bulk of the 200 plus tonnes annually exported by the union goes to Germany and South Africa. Some also goes to Switzerland, Holland, USA and Japan plus, of course, the UK which accounts for around 10% of the country’s production. The union also sells approximately 24 tonnes annually into the domestic market.
One explanation for its success is the freedom it allows its farmers; it is described by First Source International as “completely liberalized”. Though unionised through the cooperative and through the Mzuzu organisation, individual farmers are permitted to sell their beans to anyone. The cooperative’s role is merely to ascertain and command a fair price, not to make demands on the coffee’s destinations.
In other words, the farmers are empowered. As is the case with all strong and solid coffee cooperatives, through trust and respect, control is placed strongly in the farmer’s own hands. Mzuzu explain that they don’t impose solutions onto the farmers when problems arise, but encourage and facilitate diplomatic discussion.