By: Susan Heller Evenson

Mzuzu Coffee Planters Cooperative Union was established in 1999 when the coffee sector was liberalized in Malawi. In 2006 under a large European-Union backed project, the cooperative expanded and built many of its 61 CPUs (Centralized Processing Units/Washing Stations) as well as a centralized dry mill in Mzuzu town for hulling, processing, and export. Mzuzu has dominated the specialty coffee scene in Malawi and is one of the country’s only coffee cooperatives. Mzuzu members have also gone gender-equity training and GALS workshops, and some of the cooperatives offer women-produced coffee.

Muzuzu’s approximately 2,600 smallholder farmers are organized into 5 different cooperatives across north and central Malawi: Misuku hills in Chitipa district,  Viphya North in Rumphi, Nkhatabay Highlands, South East Mzimba, and Ntchisi East. Under each cooperative, farmers are a part of a business center unit (smaller group of farmers) who are part of business zones (each zone has a CPU). With the higher altitudes and cooler climates, it can take up to 3 days to ferment the coffee, and some of the CPUs have McKinnon vertical-disk pulpers, while others have installed Ecopulpers to reduce water usage.

Like other union umbrella cooperatives we work with, each cooperative is registered as an independent cooperative, and members buy shares in the smaller cooperative, cooperatives buy shares in the union, each cooperative has its own board, and the chair of each cooperative is a member of the union board. If the board chair is a man, the vice-chair must be a woman. The 11 members of the Mzuzu Union board are comprised of: An independent chair (chosen from one of the coops), six coop chairs, two ex-officials (one from government who is a permanent member; other being someone with considerable business/financial acumen), and a women from each of the two largest cooperatives.

Mzuzu also has several other businesses, including roasted coffee for local and regional consumption, a coffee shop, a cooperative-owned coffee Estate called Usingini, and tea and honey production.

Coffee production levels throughout Malawi has been erratic over the past century due to unstable temperatures, unpredictable rains, coffee pests and diseases, and lack of market access, but Mzuzu has made good progress in the specialty-market sector with aims of increasing specialty washed Arabica coffee.

The challenges are steep, but Malawian coffee farmers have grit and determination to make coffee-farming work in an area with few other income-generating alternatives. Malawi’s coffee history is storied–from the late 1800s when Dr. John Buchanan brought the Nyasa coffee varietal to Malawi from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh; through colonial rule when the British owned large coffee plantations and estates; through a steep decline in production in the 1980s and 1990s due to coffee disease and organizational mismanagement; to today, where there are a few estates and between 3,000-4,000 smallholder coffee growers working to improve livelihoods and produce high-quality coffee.

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