Zimbabwe coffee industry gives women — and the country — grounds for hope

The Batanai group are part of an attempt by Nespresso to save Zimbabwe’s coffee industry

The 14 women singing and dancing in the rain as they shovel mud into piles interspersed with banana leaves look at first as if they might be calling on spirits to save them and their country from decades of decline.

In fact, they are learning to make compost to save buying costly fertilisers. They call themselves Batanai, the Shona word for “unite”, and as Zimbabwe falls apart, they have seen a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes, thanks in part to British coffee drinkers and their desire for exotic blends.

Anne Ushumba, a widowed mother of four, lists all the things her last coffee crop enabled her to fund: “School fees. Exam fees for my daughter. Medicines for my son. Cementing the mud floor of my kitchen. Materials to construct a toilet and bathroom and a chicken coop. Technical fees for my eldest daughter’s college.”

A coffee farm in the Honde Valley, eastern Zimbabwe
A coffee farm in the Honde Valley, eastern Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has left city dwellers beset by five-hour fuel queues, bread shortages and 18-hour power cuts. With the UN warning of a massive failure of the staple maize crop, a third of the population is facing starvation. In rural areas people such as Ushumba barter the bananas and avocados they grow for cooking oil and salt.

“We’ve given up on the government helping us — we get on in spite of them,” she shrugs. “For me, I’m not looking at the macro level but the micro. Because of coffee, I feel I can work hard for my family and have an income.”

The $641 (£527) her small coffee plantation brought in last year is more than the salary of a teacher in Harare — $480. She and the Batanai women are part of an attempt by Nespresso, the capsule company, to save Zimbabwe’s coffee industry from the brink of extinction. Thecool temperatures in the eastern highlands are ideal for growing coffee. In 2003 15,000 tons were produced, making it the country’s fifth-largest export.

Almost half the Honde Valley growers are women
Almost half the Honde Valley growers are women

Land seizures forced out the 100 white farmers who produced the bulk of it. Today, there are just two left and one of those recently had to battle to stop his farm being seized by the son of a provincial minister. The land on seized estates is in disrepair. Last year 430 tons of coffeee were produced.

Nespresso has set out to change this in its search for “rare origins” coffee. Zimbabwe is a star of its programme, which has invested 100m Swiss francs (£84m) in five countries in association with TechnoServe, a US non-profit organisation.

The programme supports 392 Zimbabwean growers, 45% of them women. Their coffee “has a unique flavour — quite acidic yet smooth and chocolatey that works well short or long,” said Guillaume Chesneau, head of Nespresso UK. “When you give it to experts they almost pinch themselves.”

Source: The Times (UK)