Black gold, the title of a 2006 documentary on coffee, is more usually a term used to describe oil. Angola is a nation renowned for both. The country was once the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world and oil exports have helped to bring about economic recovery after almost three decades of civil war. But while oil generates much needed foreign exchange, with over four million displaced people returning to their communities, it is the coffee sector that the government and supporting organisations are looking to as a means of restoring rural livelihoods.
The Angolan coffee industry was once dominated by large plantations, which supplied about 70 per cent of the annual coffee harvest. These plantations had their own processing facilities and were mostly run by Portuguese settlers supported by a sophisticated road infrastructure. After independence the majority of the plantations were nationalised but, with the departure of the Portuguese, the experience of new farm managers was limited and a combination of mismanagement, loss of labour and poor supply of essential inputs led to a significant decrease in yields.
Privatisation of the state farms during the 1990s led to the plantations being subdivided. But most owners found rehabilitation of their coffee farms increasingly difficult as insecurity and civil strife continued to grip the country. Many of the larger farms were consequently abandoned during the war and some remain landmined. As a consequence, large areas of coffee grow unattended and the berries are never harvested. Most plantations are also old, pests and disease seriously constrain yields, crop husbandry is poor, and inputs are either unavailable or too expensive. In addition, essential support services, including research, extension and credit facilities, no longer exist.
Compared to more than US$180 million at its peak in 1974, coffee exports currently amount to only around US$250,000. During the harvesting season, the flow of coffee to exporters is often erratic and coffee frequently has to be blended from different sources and stored for long periods in order to accumulate sufficient volumes for shipping. In order to rehabilitate the coffee sector, and for its export potential to be realised, significant investment is needed. However, after so many years of civil unrest, the banking system in Angola remains risk-averse. With only four exporting companies working in a difficult environment, reviving the coffee sector has so far proved a challenge.