Is There a Future for Increased Specialty Coffee Production in Nepal?

Vietnamese Coffee Exporter
Specialty Coffee Production

Nepal, a small, landlocked nation nestled between India and Tibet in South Asia, boasts an exceptionally varied terrain that includes eight of the world’s ten tallest peaks, among them Mount Everest, the globe’s highest point. Traditionally known for its tea cultivation and consumption, coffee production in Nepal is a relatively recent development. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that coffee began being cultivated on a commercial scale, according to data from the National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB) of the Nepalese government.

The NTCDB’s records show a production of 354.9 tonnes of coffee in the 2021/22 harvesting season, marking a decrease from the peak production of 530 tonnes in 2018/19. However, there has been a general uptrend in coffee production over the past few years. Nepal primarily produces high-quality Arabica beans, indicating a significant potential for the expansion of specialty coffee production in the country.

Bhavi Patel, a dairy technologist as well as a food and travel writer with extensive experience covering the global coffee industry, delves into the Nepalese coffee sector in her article. She examines the hurdles faced by local coffee growers and debates the possibility of Nepal enhancing its specialty coffee production.

When was coffee introduced to Nepal?

Coffee, while not indigenous to Nepal, shares a history of introduction similar to other coffee-producing nations. The journey of coffee into Nepal is traced back to 1938, when Hira Giri, a nomadic hermit, is believed to have brought coffee seeds from Burma (present-day Myanmar) to Nepal. He reportedly sowed these seeds in Aapchaur, a hill village within the Gulmi District. Despite this early introduction, it wasn’t until thirty years later, in 1968, that coffee cultivation began to gain momentum in Nepal.

This change was propelled by the Nepalese government’s initiative to import coffee seeds from India, marking the beginning of a focused effort to cultivate coffee. In the subsequent decade, this endeavor expanded, as small-scale coffee production began to take root in various other regions of Nepal, including Palpa, Syangja, Kaski, and Baglung, setting the stage for the country’s emerging coffee culture.

Specialty coffee production as a business venture in Nepal

By the mid-1980s, the landscape of agriculture in Nepal began a significant transformation with the commercial cultivation of coffee. The establishment of the Nepal Coffee Company (NeCCo) in 1983-1984 in Manigram, located in the Rupandehi district, marked a pivotal moment. This initiative enabled local farmers to collectively process and dry mill their coffee for export, significantly enhancing production volumes.

As the 1990s and early 2000s unfolded, an increasing number of farmers shifted their focus towards coffee cultivation. In response to this growing trend, the Ministry of Agriculture of Nepal introduced the Coffee Development Programme, aimed at offering both technical guidance and financial support to the country’s coffee producers.

In contemporary times, according to estimates from the International Coffee Organisation, the coffee production network in Nepal has expanded across 42 districts, encompassing over 32,500 households. Furthermore, data from Specialty Coffee Nepal, a non-profit entity dedicated to fostering the culture of specialty coffee within Nepal, indicates that approximately 45% of coffee farmers in the nation are women.

Leading the charge in coffee production within Nepal is the Kavrepalanchok district in the eastern part of the country. Covering an area of 273 hectares, this district boasts the highest coffee output, exceeding 32 tonnes. Following closely is the Gulmi district in western Nepal, which spans 231 hectares and contributes 27 tonnes of coffee to the national production tally.

Common varieties and processing methods

Nepal’s unique climate and high-altitude terrain provide the perfect conditions for cultivating arabica coffee. Experts within the coffee industry often highlight that arabica is the predominant, if not the sole, variety grown in the region.

Surya Dura, the visionary behind Lake City Coffee in Pokhara, Nepal, shares insights into the nation’s coffee production. “Approximately 80% of Nepal’s coffee output is considered specialty-grade” he notes. The 2022/23 harvesting season saw an expected increase in production to around 400 tonnes.

The varieties of coffee most commonly cultivated in Nepal include Bourbon, Pacamara, Typica, Caturra, and Catimor. This selection underscores the high quality of Nepalese coffee.

While the washed processing method remains prevalent among farmers, there’s a growing interest in exploring natural and honey processing techniques. The trend towards anaerobic natural fermentation is also gaining traction, adding to the diversity of processing methods used in the country.

Nepalese coffee is distinguished by its exceptional flavor profile, featuring floral and chocolate notes, complemented by a variety of nutty undertones. The primary markets for Nepal’s coffee exports are Germany, Japan, the United States, South Korea, and the Netherlands, reflecting its global appeal and recognition.

How coffee is enjoyed in Nepal

In Nepal, a nation traditionally steeped in tea culture, a burgeoning interest in coffee has been on the rise. Representatives from Specialty Coffee Nepal highlight the influential role of Nepalese baristas abroad in championing local coffee. These baristas, through their work and participation in international coffee events, are not only showcasing Nepalese coffee on the global stage but also fostering a community both within and outside Nepal that is keen on exploring the country’s coffee potential.

This growing enthusiasm for coffee has spurred the emergence of specialty coffee roasters, cafes, and educational institutes dedicated to coffee in Nepal. Specialty Coffee Nepal points out that among the forefront of this movement are establishments like Mount Brew Coffee, Nya No Specialty Coffee, and Brewshala Coffee, each contributing to the richness of Nepal’s coffee culture.

Deepak Paudel, a distinguished figure in Nepal’s coffee industry and the founder of Pokhara Coffee Roastery, notes a rising interest among the youth in pursuing barista careers. This, he suggests, is due to the relatively quick and accessible nature of acquiring barista skills compared to other professions within the coffee domain.

Many young Nepalis are venturing abroad, particularly to Middle Eastern countries and Australia, where the specialty coffee culture thrives, to refine their craft. Paudel sees this trend as a positive cycle, where skilled baristas return to Nepal with enhanced expertise, potentially leading to the opening of new, innovative coffee shops and further enriching the local coffee scene.

Widely enjoyed beverages and their preparation techniques

In Nepal, just like in numerous other countries, dairy-based beverages such as cappuccinos and lattes hold a cherished spot among coffee enthusiasts. However, a significant shift is underway in the local café scene. The manual pour over method, revered for its ability to accentuate the nuanced flavors of coffee, is gaining momentum.

This brewing resurgence has ignited a passion among baristas for professional development, leading to a surge in formal barista training programs. Additionally, coffee roasters are stepping up to offer classes and educational workshops, enriching the coffee culture with deeper knowledge and expertise.

Parallel to the professional realm, there’s a growing trend among Nepalese coffee lovers to master the art of brewing café-level beverages in the comfort of their homes. This enthusiasm for home brewing is evident in the increasing participation in coffee workshops.

To cater to both the commercial and home barista communities, companies like Brewing House have emerged as pivotal players, providing a wide range of coffee brewing equipment and supplies. This holistic embrace of coffee education and brewing sophistication marks a new era in Nepal’s coffee culture, enhancing the coffee experience from café to home.

Obstacles facing the coffee industry in Nepal

While Nepal’s coffee production is projected to rise steadily, local farmers face significant hurdles, primarily due to climate change and labor shortages.

Climate change, in particular, presents a series of challenges for Nepal’s coffee industry. Erratic weather patterns, including unpredictable rainfall and frost, frequently damage the coffee cherries and blossoms, adversely affecting both the quality and quantity of the harvest.

Furthermore, these climatic shifts exacerbate the vulnerability of coffee plants to pests and diseases, notably the white stem borer (Xylotrechus quadripes). This pest became a major issue in the Gulmi district during a 2016 epidemic, dramatically impacting local coffee growers. In some instances, infestations by the white stem borer have led to losses of up to 60% in annual yields, as the insects lay their eggs in the coffee plants’ branches, causing the plants to cease cherry production and eventually perish.

Compounding these challenges are the projections related to long-term climate change impacts. According to research from Kunming University, significant changes in Nepal’s agroclimatic zones are anticipated over the coming decades. This could render as much as 72% of the current coffee-growing regions in Nepal unsuitable for cultivation by 2050, presenting a dire outlook for the future of coffee farming in the country.

Labor-related challenges

The agriculture sector, notably within the coffee industry in Nepal, is grappling with significant labor challenges. A representative from Specialty Coffee Nepal highlighted that the core issues stem from inadequate pay, a lack of structured educational programs for farming techniques, and diminishing interest in agricultural careers. Moreover, the temptation for workers to seek employment abroad exacerbates the situation, creating a shortage in the local labor force.

Market volatility further complicates matters, prompting some farmers to align with cooperatives. These organizations offer myriad advantages, such as broader market access, formalized training opportunities, and supplies necessary for farming.

At the heart of efforts to mitigate these challenges is Tulasi Raj Dhital, the pioneering founder and chairman of the Central Coffee Cooperative Union Ltd. (CCCU) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Dhital reveals that the cooperative collaborates closely with the National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB) and other entities to set stable prices for coffee products, ensuring transparency and fairness for its members.

This strategic pricing model not only guarantees farmers a fair compensation for their produce but also introduces them to innovative agricultural practices aimed at boosting crop yields and enhancing plant health.

Strategies for expansion and development in Nepal’s coffee industry through the next ten years

To enhance sustainability in Nepal’s coffee industry, it’s crucial for farmers to adopt climate-resilient farming practices. One effective strategy is intercropping, where coffee is grown alongside other plants like bananas, which provide essential shade, creating a beneficial microclimate for coffee plants.

Surya, a key voice in the field, emphasizes the importance of expanding coffee production through improved farming techniques and the cultivation of diverse coffee varieties. “By enriching our farming practices, diversifying our coffee strains, and motivating the youth to engage in coffee cultivation, we can significantly amplify Nepal’s specialty coffee sector” Surya notes.

He points out that while specialty coffee production in Nepal is in its infancy, the sector holds immense growth potential due to the unique qualities of Nepalese coffee.

A spokesperson from Specialty Coffee Nepal highlighted ongoing efforts to bolster the industry through education. “A number of agricultural academies in Nepal have begun integrating coffee-centric courses into their programs,” they mention, underscoring the importance of equipping farmers with comprehensive knowledge on optimal coffee cultivation, harvesting, and processing techniques.

Moreover, Tulasi underscores the necessity for governmental support in enhancing the infrastructure critical to coffee farming. “Boosting logistics and transportation facilities would greatly benefit coffee producers,” he asserts, indicating the need for stronger support systems to advance the coffee industry.

Spurring consumption growth

Deepak emphasizes the critical importance of education in the coffee industry, striving diligently to capture the Specialty Coffee Association’s attention. He believes this connection could significantly benefit baristas, roasters, and coffee farmers by providing them with enhanced access to various training programs and events.

With a vision for Nepal’s future in coffee competitions, Deepak is optimistic that the country could host its own National Barista Championship or AeroPress Championship in the near future. He points out, “Nepal is already home to national champions, though they currently represent other countries. With numerous local coffee competitions already underway, it’s only a matter of time before we make our mark on the global stage.”

The presence of a Starbucks sign in Lukla, Nepal, underscores the vast potential for the country to expand its coffee production. As the popularity of specialty coffee continues to rise, the prospects for Nepal’s coffee industry look exceedingly bright.

Yet, Deepak also recognizes the challenges ahead, particularly the need for the coffee sector to receive more support to grow sustainably and adapt to climate change. This dual focus on expansion and sustainability highlights the path forward for Nepal’s coffee industry in navigating both opportunities and obstacles.