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close this bookThe Courier N 137 - January - February 1993 Dossier: Development and Cooperation - Country Report: Mauritania (EC Courier, 1993, 100 p.)
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Scientific research and the coffee crisis


by Antoine LABRY

Collapsing prices have hurt coffee producers everywhere, especially producers of Robusta in Africa. Researchers are playing their part to contain the effects of the crisis by looking at the problems of the quality and competitivity of African coffee.

'There is no point in asking for a quota for African coffee if the producers are then unable to provide good quality beans to fill it', Mr Mpungi Buyungu, Deputy Secretary-General of the Inter-African Coffee Organisation, points out, in a good summing up of the present drive to obtain a stable and remunerative price, if possible via an international agreement, and to improve the quality of the product and restore an image which has become seriously tarnished over the past few years. The first thing, the price of coffee on the international market, has essentially to do with the negotiations which the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) is running with a view to getting the international agreement renewed.

But, Mr Mpungi warned, 'in view of price levels over the past few years, the price bracket to be used under this new agreement (if ultimately reached) will have to be low in comparison with the last one. We therefore have to concentrate on productivity and bring down the cost of producing African coffee, which is currently too high', despite the low cost of labour on the traditional holdings which still dominate the West African coffee industry.

Selling at a loss

The situation in Cd'Ivoire bears this out. The break-even price in the industry there is CFAF 340 per kg (CFAF I = FF 0.02), but this year's top price on the international market is CFAF 190, so the State, through the stabilisation fund, is subsidising coffee to the tune of CFAF 150 for every kilo sold - an obvious paradox, for the nation's biggest earner up until 1988-1989 is now a financial burden on the State.

Professor Renoste, former director-general of the IRCC (the coffee and cocoa research institute), says that one aspect of the productivity problem is that industrial crops and food crops are vying for space and, assuming more land is used for food crops, the coffee yield per hectare will have to improve if output is to be maintained. 'Is it reasonable for Cd'Ivoire, where demographic expansion is high, to use such large tracts of some of its best land for such a poor proposition ? How is it that yields on village plantations are still stagnating at around 150 kg per ha while industrial plantations can turn out 1500 or 2000 kg? And above all, is it reasonable to have these industrial plantations occupying only a tiny amount (about 100 000 ha) of the country's 1.3 million ha of coffee-growing land?

Benoit Daviron and Frans Lerin say much the same: 'Pioneers and clearers of virgin forests are no longer responsible for most of the increases in world production. The intensification of coffee production, an idea which came much later to this industry than to other agricultural products, is now becoming the key to the market and competition between producers'.

Cd'Ivoire is now paying for its negligence in growing food only on the ever rarer stretches of land left free by coffee and other export crops. Fraternitatin, the Government daily, which does not make a habit of criticising the authorities, sounded the alarm in mid-August. Under the headline of 'Famine at the gates', it announced that Cd'Ivoire was in danger of food insecurity, 'as a prelude to unprecedented poverty'. Although the drought, an unusually severe one for this country, had something to do with all this, the Abidjan daily thought that a policy which had 'always' neglected food crops was also to be blamed for the ongoing situation. There were 100 000 t of fertiliser for the nation's 400 000 ha of industrial export crops in 1985, it says, both figures being 10 times greater than those for food crops grown for the local market.

Professor Coste also criticises the fact that there is no proper agricultural policy. 'What chance is there of the researchers. who have warned the authorities time and time again, responding to such a rundown situation ?', he wants to know. And Mr Mpungi backs this up, pointing out that 'productivity depends essentially or the authorities', a reference to the marketing systems and the amounts hived of at every stage in the process. The coffee and cocoa industries of most of the producing countries in Africa are indeed being overhauled, but political resistance, which varies in extent from one country to another, impedes progress. But the quality of African coffee has got to be improved, because the competition from Arabica is severe.

New dynamism for research

African coffee needs a brighter image in the leading consumer countries and, with dwindling prices and the demand for diversification of African agriculture, productivity has to be boosted too. Research can help with both of these, provided it is given new lease of life.

A progress report on African coffee research run for the CTA (Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Research) by the IRCC 2 has shown just where the weak points lie. For a start, financial means are short. 'With the price slump in 1986-1991', it says, 'the countries of Africa are no longer in a position to finance agricultural research and development. There has been a slow down in production as a result, followed by a period of stagnation and ultimately decline, while research activity is tailing off and has even been stopped altogether in some countries'.

Another handicap, the report says, is that the researchers have to work in isolation and are cut off from the producers. 'Their international contact tends to be with the scientific centres where they trained or with the expatriate researchers who work with them'. The African research network currently being set up under the auspices of the IACO (see box) could be a good answer.

Robusta could recover

However, Robusta coffee is not in such a poor position as is generally supposed. E.D.F. Man, the coffee handler, who is as much an authority on statistics as the ICO, brought out a report in July saying that Robusta had maintained its share of the market since the international agreement broke down in July 1989 and still accounted for 30% of final demand at international level. However, performance in terms of market share is one thing. Prices are another and, since the agreement broke down, the gap between Robusta and Arabica has widened.

The price differential can be reduced if the consumer stops thinking of Robusta as poor quality, bottom-of-the-range coffee. But this, of course, means making an effort with quality from the start, with proper monitoring to do away with all-too-common practices like the virtually black market exports of coffee plant waste which roasters then incorporate into the Robusta coffee sold to institutions. Scientific research, however well-intentioned, can do little about this.

A.L.