Celebrating long-term relationships and innovation with the Vohora Family in Arusha and Ngorongoro.
Two days is an unfair timeline for a visit with Neel and Kavita Vohora, the brother-sister team behind some of Tanzania’s best coffee. I’m not quite sure how exactly we squeezed all that we did into such little time.
Most recently I managed to connect with Neel in-person in the US back in 2018 in Seattle, at the SCA Expo. We’d known each other for ten years at that point, the anniversary of his visit to Chicago where his suitcase was lost and we’d met in a blizzard – him wearing shorts and a Stetson hat and possibly frostbitten.
But my 2023 return to Tanzania – the first time back in eight years – nearly didn’t happen. Precision Air cancelled my Nairobi-Kilimanjaro connection and I had to scramble to book a last-minute alternative from Kigali, laying over in Dar Es Salaam, the sweltering port city and bustling financial hub some 400 miles to the southeast.
By contrast, Arusha is a coffee town, second only to Moshi in the country’s traditional northern growing region, and its outskirts are still heavily planted. Both are foothill cities, and while Kilimanjaro looms large over both, its little sibling Mount Meru casts the longest shadows in Arusha. A long dormant stratovolcano, Meru marks the center peak in a stepped trio, a nearly perfect east-to-west run from Kili to the Ngorongoro crater, where the Vohora’s farms are located.
Before venturing into the field, I check in at the mill in Arusha, which includes offices, processing machinery, the cupping lab, and Kavita’s residence. A quick tour includes an overview of their new color sorter, a welcome addition, but the sibling’s enthusiasm is clearly fixated on the Macadamia processing, including a drying room, shelling machinery, and packaging equipment (which, of course, can also be used for small microlots). It’s their first sizeable harvest this year, an opportunity to work out the production flow before the next year, when the volume should be exportable. I’m reminded of the long-term timeframe of investment and payoff in farming – the trees were newly planted on my last visit, and only just now yielding fruits.
The Vohora coffee operation has been in continuous business for decades, however, and is well-equipped to manage the lengthy timelines required to recoup investment in new trees and technologies. BN, Kavita and Neel’s grandfather, founded the first family farm in 1969 after relocating from India under British colonial oversight. His son Ajai still oversees business from nearby Nairobi.
The third generation has grown alongside the emergent third wave (and beyond), carving out a niche in a country rarely thought of as cutting edge in the specialty coffee circuit. 2022’s harvest landed just before I jumped on the plane to Africa, and I got to taste the arrival of their most exciting lots to date, including a spectacular Gesha and lovely natural Ethiopian variety.
Driving up to the farm includes passage up the Gregory wall of the Great Rift Valley. Just past an enormous Baobab tree is an overlook, where we stop to observe the plains below and the enormous albeit shallow Lake Manyara, a national park home to wildlife including some of Africa’s only tree-dwelling lion population. We spot a dusty elephant in the distance while a baboon sits nearby taunting us from a clearly ignored signpost admonishing tourists not to feed wildlife.
The farms are in off-season, and it’s quite damp on our arrival in the late afternoon. A light mist occasionally threatens to rain, and the weather is quite cool. Neel informs me their recent long rain cycle, much like our rainy winter season in California, has been mercifully generous for the first time in recent memory, and he expects a reciprocally generous crop. Harvest still looks months away, by all the signs: fruits are still green and immature, not a ripe berry to be picked in sight.
Since I’d last visited, Neel secured a spot on the Tanzanian Coffee Board and is currently replanting lots of the farm with new varieties. The farm has grown Costa Rican Gesha cultivars for a while now, but these new trees are pulled from the genetic banks from across the world. Some varieties, like his Pacamaras, are already causing me to reconsider my bias against the trees. Others I’ve yet to taste and have been sworn to secrecy about.
He’s also transitioning parts of the farm to organic cultivation – it’s a risky undertaking as Coffee Berry Disease is rampant in the area and traditional knowledge would dictate heavy fungicide use. However, Neel and Edelweiss’ young farm manager Colin Rejmes both note the organic plots are in especially good health, possibly in part due to Colin’s initiative. He’s applying a homemade foliar spray, a concoction of garlic and chili that I secretly hope imparts a little flavor to the product, in addition to warding off disease and pests.
The farms include the ~400-acre range on which we stand named Edelweiss and a ~600-acre composite of two estates – Ascona and Helgoland – which are combined under the brand “Gaia Farm by Finagro Plantations.” It’s about three too many names for me; I usually just call it Finagro (which irks Neel, who’s always disliked the moniker the farm can’t seem to shake).
Finagro is awkwardly separated from Edelweiss by a forested hill and neighboring farm. The fastest way from one to the other is to drive back into the town of Karatu and turn up a sideroad, taking us nearly straight up the other ridge. However, on our way from Edelweiss a downed powerline in an outlying village diverts us; the scenic route takes us through a few neighboring estates, mostly planted with aging cultivars and poorly tended plots. Neel informs me that multinationals and investment groups have been buying some estates in the region recently, and then mismanaging them. The difference is visible when we cross the border into Gaia/Finagro; both newly planted and older plots all regularly pruned and in good health.
It’s late in the evening as we pull into Finagro’s homestead, which has been renovated since my last visit but retains the rustic charm of a farmhouse. It strikes me that there’s no generator noise; the farm is finally on the grid. The dogs greet us on arrival, and we take the easy option for dinner; reheating some pizza and cracking a Kilimanjaro beer, retiring to the patio as the night slips away.
Hugh Johansen swings by for coffee in the morning and shares his side of the story about the farm’s evolution over the last 8 years. Hugh, the farms’ senior manager, has 60+ years of coffee farming experience under his belt, originally in Kenya but some two decades with the Vohoras. Neither restrained with his opinions nor resistant to innovations, he brings a healthy mix of pragmatism and history to the equation. We drive up to the processing station at the top of Ascona, met by Francis Mutavi, longtime manager at Finagro. Francis, Hugh’s foil, speaks softly but spends no time with the past; instead driving innovation at the processing level and overseeing the massive nursery wherein grow new generations of trees; including more and more Geshas, Pacamaras, SL28s and Batians, and seeds from the research center’s Yirgacheffe collection the team have affectionately labelled Yanga after the top-tier Tanzania Premier League football club.
We hike through the empty washing station, in maintenance during the off-season, and look at the huge new black maceration tanks looming over the fermenters and depulpers. Neel informs me that even their larger commercial volumes of bulked coffees like the peaberry and AA selections Royal regularly buys undergo whole-cherry pre-fermentation before standard washing practices.
We pose for a quick group photo and hit the road; it’s two hours back to Arusha, I’ve got a flight at 6am the next day, and Neel wants to catch “Ma” at the Snake Park bar outside of town before we rejoin with Kavita for a late cupping and early dinner. Ma hugs me, though I can’t imagine she remembers the only other visit I’ve made nearly a decade ago, on Neel’s birthday. We swap tales over ginger ale, mostly about how the pandemic affected tourism. She’s concerned she’ll have to close the park. I offer to pay for our drinks as we leave but she refuses.
Kavita meets us at the lab for a sensory survey of the season’s harvest. Nothing on offer here, no pretense to stand upon, just a shared experience for open feedback on quality and expectations for the new season. The Geshas and Ethiopian varieties stand out of course, but it’s the SL28 that takes my breath away. Did I miss this for 2022? Kavita tells me my feedback was that it wasn’t sweet enough, and I admit I’ve clearly misjudged it and request samples when the new harvest is ready, not likely until September or October at the earliest. I’m hoping for a February 2024 arrival in Oakland for 2023’s harvest, but that might be a little ambitious given the trees still aren’t ready for picking anytime soon.
In the parking lot Kavita introduces Nicolene, her seven-year-old daughter. The gate guard is pushing her on a bicycle. Kavita tells me she’s already training to taste coffee – that makes generation four. Twenty years from now I hope I’m still working with them. I can’t wait to see it all unfold… time keeps on slipping.
I promise to return, not knowing when, and wishing I’d spent a week or more, seen a giraffe or two, brought a friend. Neel and his partner are building a tourist lodge up on Edelweiss; if you’re in the neighborhood of Ngorongoro you should swing by; it might be my favorite spot on earth. It’s definitely my favorite coffee farm.
You can view Royal Coffee’s Tanzanian coffee offerings here.