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Cuba bets on specialty coffee to boost industry

MANICARAGUA, CUBA (AFP) – In the lush, fertile mountains of Cuba, farmer Jesus Chaviano dreams of adding his arabica beans to a list of specialty coffees the country hopes will lift an industry in decline.

It’s harvest time on Chaviano’s eight-hectare plantation in the central Guamuaya mountain range, and his 42,000 coffee plants burst with ripe reddish fruit in the shadow of avocado and banana trees.

At 800 metres altitude, conditions are ideal for the eight varieties of high-quality arabica coffee beans he planted with his “own hands”.

While Cuba has been growing coffee for almost 300 years, it has never produced the specialty coffees beloved worldwide for their unique flavour profiles that come from careful cultivation in a specific terroir.

In the past two decades, the appeal of high-end coffee has soared, and so has its price on the international market.

“I think that needs to be the path we take: going after specialty coffees. Not large quantities… small batches that we can sell well,” said Chaviano, 46.

A sample of varieties of Cuban coffee are pictured at a coffee improvement centre in Jibacoa, Villa Clara province, Cuba. PHOTOS: AFP
Coffee farmer Jesus Chaviano verifies the quality of coffee grains at his coffee plantation in Jibacoa

As the island catches on to the appeal of high-end coffee, the first five specialty coffees will be unveiled in December at the first-ever Cuba-Cafe producers fair, which is being held in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

The name and origins of the chosen coffees are being kept secret.

“We are taking the first concrete steps to add value to this coffee,” said scientific director of Cuba’s National Institute for Agroforestry Research Ramon Ramos. He added that “with the same production, the same yield, it will be sold at a much higher price”.

According to Ramos, the price for 1,000 kilogrammes of commercial who built his house in the middle of his plantation, in the style of the French colonists who fled Haiti in the 18th Century and brought the culture of coffee cultivation to Cuba.

In 1960, Cuba produced more than 60,000 tonnes of coffee. Last year, this figure stood at only 11,500 tonnes, less than half of what is consumed locally.

According to official figures, only 1,365 tonnes were exported.

Experts say climate change – drastically reducing coffee-growing areas worldwide – is partly to blame for the drop in production.

In Cuba, the emigration of plantation workers has also impacted the industry.

“Why did the country once produce a lot of coffee, but now it can’t produce coffee?” asked Chaviano.

“I’m focussed on doing it right and demonstrating that it’s possible to produce coffee, and quality coffee,” but “you have to put your heart into it”, he added.

In 2021, his yield was one tonne of coffee per hectare, four times the national average.

Some 25 kilometres from his farm, researchers at the Jibacoa Agroforestry Research Station, have been tasked with training and providing technology to producers to improve their yields.

Director Ciro Sanchez, said the goal is to produce 30,000 tonnes of coffee by 2030.

To achieve this, the aim is to recover some plantations in areas affected by climate change, by planting more resistant varieties of coffee. Sanchez also wants to prioritise the growth of “high-quality arabica” in mountainous areas.

Chaviano is optimistic that one day his coffee will be one of the feted specialty brands being exported from Cuba.

“We can do it. We just need to work!” he said.