Coffee has been a central part of Tanzanian culture and the country’s economy since the 16th century. Though its role has changed over the last four centuries, coffee still generates approximately 5% (about $100 million) of the country’s export revenue and employees 6% of the population (about 2.4 million people) both directly and indirectly.
Many of those employed in coffee are the 450,000 smallholders responsible for more than 90% of Tanzania’s 30,000-40,000 metric tons of coffee produced annually. These farmers cultivate plots between 0.5 to 3 hectares. The remaining 10% of total production is grown by larger estates found in the Arusha, Kilimanjaro and Mbeya regions.
A History of Coffee in Tanzania
Coffee Comes to Tanzania
The arrival of coffee in Tanzania is documented in oral history. The Haya tribe in Northwest Tanzania reportedly brought coffee back from Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) in the 16th century. This “Haya coffee”, or amwani, was a Robusta variety. Early Tanzanians prepared amwani by boiling unripe cherries with herbs and then smoking the mixture for several days. The resulting cherry mixture could be chewed whole.
The role of coffee in Haya culture was more for culture functions than daily consumption. Amwani was included in formal greetings, tributes to royals and religious rituals. Coffee use was ritualistic that anyone needed authorization from the royals to be able to grow coffee. This strict control of coffee growing also increased its value and status by restricting supply and making coffee rarer.
Germans Take Control of Tanzania and Its Coffee Industry
When Germans took control of East Africa in the late 19th century, they quickly instituted laws that spread coffee planting throughout the region. These laws were intended to force the Haya to enter the cash economy and, in turn, become less independent and more easily governable. When coffee became ubiquitous, the Haya lost the wealth that came with having a monopoly on it. At the same time, coffee also increased German profits from coffee exports.
Similarly to Rwanda, Tanzania has only recently become recognized for its specialty coffees. With increasingly better infrastructure, access to washing stations and farmer organization, Tanzania is now consistently producing high-quality specialty-grade coffees.
Coffee Production in Tanzania Today
The North Leads Coffee Production
Coffee growing in Tanzania was almost exclusively a Northern Tanzanian crop for a long time. The Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Tarime, Kagera, Kigoma and Karatu/Ngorongoro regions were prized for their ideal Arabica growing conditions. Coffee was so concentrated in the north that Moshi, a northern municipality, was the central—and only—hub for all coffee milling and sales until fairly recently.
Operations in Moshi grew to truly massive proportions in the 1950s and 1960s. Even though transportation from some of the few farms in the South to Moshi could take nearly a week, without another mill, most farms in the South still sent their parchment to Moshi for milling. There wasn’t enough production in the South at the time to make it beneficial to have a nearby mill until the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly enough, the majority of coffee grown in Tanzania today is grown in the South.
Coffee in Tanzania Today
While historically almost all coffee grown in Tanzania was grown in the North, coffee cultivation has extended southwards in recent years. Today, in addition to the Northern coffee growing regions, coffee is also grown today in the southern regions of Ruvuma and Mbeya/Mbozi. Most Southern expansion of coffee growing occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and was encouraged by two projects supported by European backers.
With a range of altitudes, climates and rainfall patterns, each coffee growing region is unique. Here’s a quick overview of each region to help you familiarize yourself with different areas and coffees you might find in Tanzania.
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,700 meters above sea level Climate: Mild with warm days and cool nights. There are two rainy seasons. The “small rains” fall between November and December and the “big rains” between March and May Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent, Typica, Bourbon and some Kenyan varieties (including SL varieties) Farm Size: Mainly estate-grown coffees on old plantations. Some of the country’s oldest plantations are in Kilimanjaro region Percent of total Tanzanian crop: 5%
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,800 meters above sea level Climate: Similar to Kilimanjaro, which is only 75 kilometers away Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent, Typica, Bourbon and some Kenyan varieties (including SL varieties) Farm Size: Mix of smallholder cooperatives and private estates Percent of total Tanzanian crop: <5%
Karatu / Ngorongoro
Altitude: 1,300 to 1,800 meters above sea level Climate: The higher altitudes in this area means warm days and cool nights Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent, Typica, Bourbon and some experimentation with Geisha, Pacamara and SL varieties Farm Size: Mainly private estates with some smallholder cooperatives. Percent of total Tanzanian crop: <5% Additional Information: Thanks to their proximity to Ngorongoro Crater, a famous wildlife preserve and safari location, farms are commonly ‘invaded’ by herds of elephants, buffalo and even rhinoceroses
Altitude: 1,500 to 1,800 meters above sea level Climate: The wet season typically runs from March to June with a smaller rain from November to December Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent, Typica, Bourbon and some Kenyan varieties Farm Size: Predominately smallholder estates Percent of total Tanzanian crop: <5% Additional Information: Tarime is close to the Kenyan border. Due to its more remote location, smallholder cooperatives here are under-resourced and have neither washing stations nor expertise on home processing. Most coffees from Tarime are sundried on the ground and sold as lower quality coffee. Given the right investment and attention, Tarime could be a real standout region for coffee production
Altitude: 1,100 to 1,700 meters above sea level Climate: The wet season typically runs from October to December with a smaller rain from March to May Main species: Arabica Farm Size: Predominately smallholder estates with a small regional output of under 1,000 metric tons annually Percent of total Tanzanian crop: 2-3%
Altitude: 1,100 to 1,300 meters above sea level Climate: The wet season typically runs from October to December with a smaller rain from March to May Main species: Robusta with small amounts of Arabica Farm Size: Predominately smallholder estates who belong to cooperatives that are governed by large unions. These unions also control milling, storage, marketing and sales Percent of total Tanzanian crop: Nearly 100% of Robusta crop and 25% of total coffee crop Additional Information: In the past, large portions of coffee from Kagera were smuggled into Uganda. More recently, tighter border control and industry governance means most of the harvest from Kagera is now exported as Tanzanian coffee
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,800 meters above sea level Climate: The wet season typically runs from November to January with smaller rains from March to May. The main district, Mbinga, is close to Lake Malawi, which means it has wetter weather. The consistent rain can make drying more complicated Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent and Typica Farm Size: Smallholder cooperatives of about 3 to 600 producers. About 50% of cooperatives operative full washing stations Percent of total Tanzanian Arabica crop: 40-45% Additional Information: Older rootstock in these areas often means that farmers must frequently combat coffee berry borer disease (CBD)
Mbeya / Mbozi
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,800 meters above sea level Climate: The wet season typically runs from November to January with smaller rains from March to May. The dry season is long here and there is little rain from May to November, which provides excellent drying conditions Main species: Arabica Varieties: Kent and Typica Farm Size: About 90% smallholder farms with a few private estates Percent of total Tanzanian Arabica crop: 35-40% Additional Information: Coffees grown in these regions are considered among the best quality smallholder coffees in Tanzania. Most producers in the region work with cooperatives. Cooperative washing station are usually well managed and efficient.