Coffee came to Zambia via missionaries, a common story in Africa. But what is unusual is that this happened as recently as 1950. The Bourbon seed stock imported from Kenya and Tanzania dug their roots into Zambian soils without a backward glance. Even so, coffee as an export product was (pardon the pun) slow to grow. However, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, funding from the World Bank and The Food and Agriculture Organization got the coffee industry on its feet and moving forward.
This relatively recent beginning has created a sort of “Catch 22” situation. Because not many specialty coffee importers or roasters are familiar with Zambian coffee, there has been less incentive to invest in increasing the quality of the offerings, and because the focus on quality is not stressed, specialty roasters and importers are not hearing much about what may just be Africa's best kept coffee secret.
One of the beauties of being a latecomer in coffee cultivation and production is that growers are not latecomers to cutting-edge farming techniques, sophisticated irrigation systems, and biodiverse, sustainable practices for composting byproducts, fertilization, and pest control. In addition, functional infrastructures are another advantage Zambia has over other nations who have been growing, processing, and exporting coffee for centuries.
At this point, it is the larger coffee estates that have benefited most from World Bank funding. These farms do a great job on all levels of production and processing, yielding clean, consistent, quality coffees that are traceable to single estates. Meanwhile, smallholders, whose typical farms measure from .25 to .5 hectares, lag behind in quality and traceability due to obstacles such as limited access to fertilizers, water, and decent post-harvest processing facilities. This is not to say that smallholders in Zambia aren’t producing some amazing coffees, but that they are doing so under a handicap. However, this is beginning to change, and for a young coffee-growing entity, Zambia’s trade organizations are well ahead of those found in many other countries.
Landlocked though it may be, with conducive climate, distinctive terroir, and reliable cultivars, Zambian coffee has the potential to rival the best East African offerings on the market. Classic bright fruit flavors, sparkling acidity, and sweet aftertaste have Zambian coffee poised to rise in the specialty coffee world.