By Ngala Killian Chimtom
Hermine Tomaino Ndam Njoya is arguably Cameroon’s largest coffee farmer. Her farm spans some 150 hectares, and she depends on the labour of a whole village to keep the farm alive.
But what sets her apart is not just the size of her farm. What makes her different is that she is a woman excelling in a venture generally reserved for men.
Growing up in her native Noun commune in Cameroon’s West Region, she saw her parents tend their coffee farm with great care. “So I fell in love with coffee,” she says, smacking her lips after a sip of the aromatic drink.
Coffee was first introduced to Cameroon by German colonialists who realised that the country’s western highlands and grass fields offered the perfect conditions for grow the prized commodity. It has since played a significant role in Cameroon’s GDP. Yet, the sector has known changing fortunes.
An overall trend in decline of Cameroonian coffee production and exports began in the 1990s, with the lowest point being reached during 1992-1994, the years of liberalisation of the sector that came along with government’s disengagement.
Until 1989, Cameroon’s production accounted for two percent of the global total. That figure has since fallen to a mere 0.002 percent.
The reasons for the downward trend are many and varied. According to Omer Maledy Gaetan, executive secretary of the Cocoa and Coffee Inter-professional Council, CICC, the costs of inputs like fertilisers spiked in the wake of the government’s decision to eliminate subsidies and price protections for the sector in the 1990s.
The increased costs of production, coupled with low market prices at the time, discouraged farmers, many of whom turned to food crop cultivation instead.
“Without fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides and sprayers, it was hard for many farmers to sustain their farms,” says coffee farmer, Issah Mounde Nsangou.
Yet, Cameroon had been one of Africa’s leading producers of coffee.
“In 1980, we were ranked 8th [as a] world coffee producer. In 1992, when we liberalised the sector, Cameroon was ranked 12th in the world. Today, we are ranked 30th,” says Maledy.
However, while many farmers cut down their coffee plants to plant food crops, Ndam Njoya understood that price fluctuations were only cyclical and that resilience was needed to stay the course until better times.
“I actually went out telling other farmers to not cut down their cocoa farms. I told them that prices may be down now, but they will still rise because demand for coffee is ever rising,” she tells IDN, “and today, many of them are regretting their decision.”
That regret is definitely driven by rising coffee prices which in turn are driven by rising global demand. In 2015, demand rose by six percent, and will continue to rise. A seemingly unquenchable thirst for coffee by millennials in the world’s largest consumer – the United States – is driving prices up to record highs.
According to Chicago-based researcher Datassential, people in the 19-34 age group account for about 44 percent of U.S. coffee demand. Rising demand in China, Japan, and India is also driving up prices for the beans. And all this is compounded by shrinking production in coffee producing countries like Brazil due to harsh weather conditions.
In normal circumstances, all this should be good news for Cameroonian farmers. But Ndam Njoya believes that without a shift in policy priorities, the farmers who produce the beans would still be left out of the benefits.
“It is the middlemen who benefit most,” she says, noting that the incomes earned by farmers on their coffee pales in comparison with the price that is paid by the end consumer.
Referring to research carried out by her own daughter, Amatullah Ndam Njoya, she notes that “in Kouoptamo, a small village in Western Cameroon, farmers are constrained to sell 15 kg of their green (unroasted) coffee to middlemen for 9.57 dollars – that is, for a price of 0.64 a kilo. When this coffee is brought to Douala, the port city located six hours away, it is sold to exporters at a price of 3.26 dollars a kilo. When someone buys a 354Ml tall black filtered coffee from Starbucks for a price of 1.75 dollars, assuming 17 g of coffee is used to make 250 ml of coffee, they are essentially paying 24.07 dollars a kilo. This means that small farmers are earning only 2.66 percent of the final value of their product.”
Complaining about this great injustice, Ndam Njoya suggests measures that can be taken to allow small farmers to take a fairer share in the benefits of the coffee they produce.
For example, farmers need market information which can even be more useful if they know “the tastes and preferences of their customers. This means we need to train our own quality-graders – people who can taste our coffee and determine the quality. Good quality coffee will fetch a higher price.”
She is also calling for the training of baristas who can prepare and serve coffee in coffee shops, but that will depend on how well Cameroon develops a coffee consumption culture. And, here, Ndam Njoya has taken the lead.
Sipping coffee in what she has called her “Coffee House” in the nation’s capital, Yaounde, she says her intension is not only to “encourage Cameroonians to consume coffee, but also to educate them on the whole range of activities that can be developed along the value chain.
“We want people to have all the information concerning coffee, where they can find whichever type of coffee … it’s like a coffee museum.”
But it’s also where she markets coffee she has transformed. “Here we train people who prepare and serve coffee, or baristas. The barista can serve you all kinds of coffee: it can be espresso, cappuccino or macchiato. You can have coffee in the form of a hot drink or as a cold drink. We have even introduced ginger into our coffee to give it a unique taste.”
She cites the example of Ethiopia that consumes 71 percent of the coffee it produces as evidence that transforming locally could bring greater returns to the farmers.
“And besides Cameroon, we have a very huge market in Nigeria. We can take advantage of that and start exporting processed coffee to Nigeria.”
That may still be a long way coming. Only 10 percent of Cameroon’s coffee is processed locally. Government has made pronouncements to the effect that local transformation of agricultural products should be a priority. But that has remained little more than political talk.