Can you grow coffee in South Africa?
Yes, you can! Although we know that the world’s best coffee comes from just a handful of locations – they lie in a band of tropical regions along the equator in what’s become known as “The Bean Belt.” Coffee plants are very fussy about where they’ll grow best. The tastiest beans are cultivated in warm, tropical environments and at elevations higher than 1,300 meters above sea level. There are however countries producing coffee nowhere near this Bean Belt, like South Africa, but not at any significant scale.
The first coffee in South Africa
Coffee was first planted in South Africa in the 1880s in KwaZulu-Natal at a missionary station. During the 1930s, experimental plantings were done at the old government research facilities in Rustenburg, and during the 1950s just north of the Magaliesberg in the North West Province. The first commercial plantation existed in 1963 on the Grenshoektea estate near Tzaneen, Limpopo Province. Since then, South Africa has a few coffee farmers supplying only approximately 2000 bags (0f 60kg) VS Brazil who supplies near 48 million bags.*
Where is coffee grown in South Africa now?
KwaZulu-Natal – South and North coast (near Oribi George)
Mpumalanga Province Barberton, Hazyview, Bosbokrand
Eastern Cape Province – East London
Limpopo Province – Grenshoek Tea Estate near Tzaneen
Arabica or Robusta?
Coffea Arabica is grown on the few coffee plantations in South Africa, and is a valued species which has been grown and selected for several centuries. It currently represents three-quarters of the world coffee production. Originally indigenous to the forests of the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, it is also known as the “coffee shrub of Arabia”. The Arabica provides a vastly wider variety of flavours than Robusta. The Arabica tree is a beautiful small tree that grows to about 5m high with glossy green leaves and jasmine-scented white flowers that appear along the stems in summer-autumn. As the fruit develops along the stem, it starts off green and then changes to a bright red cherry-like fruit, finally maturing to a dark brown. Although coffee is a small tree, you can prune it to a 2m shrub, which is how they’re kept in coffee plantations.
Coffea Robusta trees are easier to grow. They can grow at lower altitudes than Arabica’s, and they are less vulnerable to pests and weather conditions. Robusta trees can grow to more than 12 m in height and has a greater crop yield than Arabica. This variety was discovered in the Congo in 1898 and is broadly spread, especially in Africa, Asia and Indonesia where the climate is undesirable for the cultivation of Arabica. It represents one quarter of the world coffee production. Because of its higher caffeine content (about twice as much as Arabica) and strong character, Robustas are used mostly as a blend component.
How you can grow your own coffee tree in South Africa
The complexities around growing coffee shouldn’t stop you from growing and nurturing your own coffee tree at home, and it’s very easy to grow it indoors. This is surely worth a try for something different – here’s how:
Try the Coffea arabica nana. It is a small subtropical evergreen tree. This is a dwarf variety of it which only grows a few feet tall. It has large, deep green, glossy leaves and white fragrant flowers, each lasting a few days, with a scent like jasmine. Plants can be pinched back or pruned. You can buy seeds locally from Seeds For Africa here.
How long will it take?
To grow your own coffee from this tree will take approximately 4 years for first harvest. Plants can have flowers and berries at the same time. The berries are green at first, ripening to dark red over a period of eight months.
Where do I grow it?
The coffea Arabica nana is fairly easy to grow in the home as a potted specimen, which should be moved outdoors for the summer if possible. Plant them in any good, fast draining potting soil. Choose a shady spot, sheltered from cold or hot winds.
What’s the ideal amount of sunlight & temperatures?
They do best in filtered sunlight, with night temperatures around 15°C and day temperatures of 21°C or higher. Coffee prefers temperatures between 15 and 24°C, although if it’s within the range of 7-30°C, it will still grow quite well.
How much water?
The soil should be kept on the moist side, but never soggy. The coffee plant can tolerate dry conditions but it won’t flower and fruit without regular watering.
Do I need fertilizer?
Coffee plants will produce fruit without any fertilizing whatsoever, but for best results and maximum yield, fertilize monthly during winter and every 2 weeks throughout the growing season. Use a soluble, all purpose (10-10-10) fertilizer.
When should I plant?
Late spring is the perfect time to plant your coffee tree.
What if I want to grow enough for a daily cup?
You’ll need about 30 plants for enough beans for a daily cup. Think of a coffee hedge in a shady part of the garden. Six weeks after planting apply 100g of a complete citrus fertiliser per tree, and keep doing that every 6 weeks during the warmer months as coffee trees are heavy feeders. On small plants, when it’s about 500mm tall prune off the growing tip to encourage lateral branching. In many coffee plantations, heavy-cropping coffee trees are cut almost to the ground every 3 years to encourage vigorous new growth, which is then thinned and tip-pruned to restore the bushy habit.
We hope this has helped you celebrate Earth Day on 22 April 2017
We encourage you all, as coffee lovers to grow your own coffee tree – whether it’s in your windowsill or in your garden. We support the global movement to encourage people to do things that will benefit the Earth, such as recycling more, using solar power or plant trees.
More than a billion people are expected to celebrate Earth Day this year including environmental campaigners Leonardo di Caprio and Emma Watson. For more information you can visit the Earth Day website here.
*Source SA Department Forestry, Agriculture, Fisheries Report