Tag Archives: Farm

Beany Has a Farm In Africa

Located just 40 minutes from Blantyre, there is a 200 hectare farm nestled in a patch of wilderness with views of Mulanje and Chiradzulu mountains and Zomba Plateau.  The tobacco farm, established in 1915, has 36 hectares are reserved for coffee.  Our friend, the farm’s Managing Director (appropriately named Beany), is an officially trained coffee taster and is trying to increase the farm’s coffee exports and develop the domestic market.  Desperate to visit and imagine myself as Karen Blixen on her coffee farm in Out of Africa (where is Robert Redford?), I was also interested to see how coffee gets from the plant to my mug.

Rows of Coffee Plants with Chiradzulu in the Background

Coffee Cherries

Beany showing the beans that come from the ripe cherries

We had a chance to visit the farm a few weeks ago.  It was a beautiful day, warm in the sun but with cool breezes, soft light, and big cream colored clouds.   Beany took us through the coffee fields, showing us the berries that are just beginning to turn bright cranberry red.  The berries are picked by hand and the reaping season will get into full swing in a few weeks.

The plants were three years old in the first field we visited and five years old in the second.  The plants are cut back but grow quickly.  The berries weigh down the branches and the weakest plants seem to topple over.  The spacing of the plants is very important – they must be far enough apart that the berries can get sunlight and then the rows should be far enough apart for a tractor to come through and spray.

Beany showed us the two white coffee beans inside the berry, covered in a thick coating.  The picked berries are taken to a de-skinner (my name for the machine – not sure of the official one) and the de-skinned beans tumble down into large concrete tanks where a naturally occurring bacteria eliminates the mucus coating.  From there, the beans are rinsed off and laid on burlap bags (or in concrete channels) to dry.  Left for about a week, the beans loose most of their moisture, becoming light and brittle, and turn from white to a richer parchment color.

Ripe red coffee cherries

The beans inside the ripe cherries

The de-skinning system.

Beans drying in the sun

The beans are then ready for sorting.  A coffee business oddity is that beans are sorted, graded and sold based on size.  Regardless of the flavor of the bean, the bigger the bean, the more expensive it is.  The beans are put into a large machine that has several layers of perforated metal; each layer has different sized holes, allowing the beans to fall into the different grades.  From there, people check each beans as they travel by on a conveyer belt.

Size and grading distribution machine

Most of the coffee is then bagged in 50 kg bags and exported to Europe or Japan.  Beany, however, reserves some for the local market and roasts and grinds his own.  Beany’s coffee, labeled Makoka Coffee, is widely sought after in Blantyre.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to stock up, we had made our coffee order before the tour and it was roasted while we were in the fields.

50 kg Bags

High-quality Makoka Coffee

The roasting machine was fascinating – the roaster is brought up to a high temperature, the beans are dropped in and as the heat increases again, they pop, like popcorn.  They expand with the heat and the hope is to cool the beans down again before the second pop.  The beans go through a range of smells as they are roasted  and you can pick up on the notes of honey and hazelnut.  After about 8 minutes, the beans are cooled and ready for grinding.  The whole roasting process seems to be a highly technical art form in and of itself.

The Roaster

Freshly Roasted Beans

The finished product

We enjoyed  warm cups of coffee at Beany’s home, high up on a hill, while monkeys jumped around the parked cars.  Beany showed us the case of coffee smells – small bottles that encapsulate each of the identifiable tastes and smells in coffee, everything from the predictable hazelnut and honey, to lemon and orange, and even earth and rubber.

We drove back to Blantyre, enjoying the rich smell of freshly roasted coffee and the spectacular sunset.

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Denis has a Farm in Africa

Late last week, a neighbor invited us to join the Society of Malawi on an excursion to a tobacco farm near Zomba. Eager to take every opportunity to see the country and meet people, I quickly agreed. Saturday morning, Sandy had to deal with the car (more about that coming soon) so it was just me. We packed up a lunch and headed off in our neighbors’ 30-year-old land rover.

We stopped at a roadside market as we drove north out of Blantyre. Unlike my last trip out of the city, this landscape was more mountainous. Large hills or small mountains rose out of rocky green fields. After awhile, we turned off of the tarmac and onto a mud road. While not as rough as the last mud path I was on, it certainly wasn’t smooth sailing. We bounced along the way, passing small herds of goats, sheep, and random chickens. We passed small villages and fields of neatly planted crops.

Eventually we made it through the gates and pulled up at Denis’ house. Denis, I learned, is a white Malawian who offered to host the Society on a trip around his farm and Bar-B-Q afterwards. He is a good looking man, probably in his late 50’s, with a unique accent that sounds like a combination of South African and Zimbabwean. He welcomed us warmly but seemed slightly overwhelmed when he heard 50 people would be showing up.

After we were all gathered, slathered with sun screen, and ready with our hardy footwear, we headed off to learn all about this working tobacco farm. The farm had been in Denis’ family for generations and now his son is taking over. He is very proud of employing over 200 Malawians, and producing crops that contribute to Malawi’s exports.

Our first stop was at his new Macadamia grove. It turns out that Malawi is fourth in the world in Macadamia nut production (behind Australia, Hawaii, and South Africa). Planting, growing, harvesting, roasting, and packaging the nuts can be a difficult process, but at the end of the day, Malawian macadamia nuts are some of the best and most sought after in the world.

The long train of visitors wound along the path to the tobacco fields. It reminded me of a middle school field trip – it was a little cliquey as everyone stayed with people they knew. Everyone had their cameras out, snapping away and asking questions. I half expected us to be directed to the nearest food court where we each had $8 to spend. Or for teenagers who were “sort of going out” to lag behind and stealthily hold hands.

Denis was extremely knowledgeable and made tobacco growing sound pretty exciting. Having grown up in Winston Salem, North Carolina, I have an interest in the cash crop and found it all really interesting.
As we were heading back to the house, the heavens opened up and we got caught in a major thunder storm. It put a damper on our plans to have the bar-b-q, but watching a dramatic thunderstorm from the porch of an African farm was amazing.

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