Coffee Farming in Africa – Where It All Began

As we embark on a trip through the coffee regions of the world, it makes sense to begin our journey in Africa where both the arabica and robusta coffee plants originated. Although intentional coffee farming in Africa dates back over 2,000 years, Coffee Arabica L. grew wild in the Kaffa district of Ethiopia thousands of years prior to that. Today some of the most prized coffees in the world are grown on the African continent. Let’s go exploring to find out why.

Coffee Farming in Africa

Africa is the second-largest continent on the planet (behind Asia), covering nearly 12 million square miles. Coffee farms and plantations cover approximately 9,600 square miles of the continent that fall along the coffee belt. Roughly 25 countries in Africa benefit economically from coffee production. And for nearly 10 million African households, coffee is the primary source of income.

Top Coffee-Producing Countries in Africa

Most coffee aficionados will recognize the names of the top two coffee-producing countries in Africa: Ethiopia and Uganda. Although relatively well-known for its coffee, Kenya actually produces less coffee than both Cote d’Ivoire (also known as The Ivory Coast) and Tanzania. Madagascar, Guinea,  Camaroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo round out the top producers on the continent.

Types of African Coffee

Different countries within Africa grow different types of coffee. In the image below, the darker-shaded regions produce mostly the generally less-desirable robusta coffee. Arabica, the world’s preferred gourmet coffee bean, is grown where the map is shaded the palest green. The areas colored a medium green produce a mix of both robusta and arabica coffee beans.

african coffee growing regions

Robusta and Arabica Coffee

Though both robusta and arabica coffee trees are native to Africa, they are very different plants whose beans produce very different coffee. Robusta is a hardy coffee varietal that grows well at lower elevations and in a greater range of climatic conditions. Arabica is a more finicky plant that thrives best at higher altitudes, preferably in volcanic soil, and is more prone to influence by unfavorable rainfall totals and/or atmospheric temperature variations.

Overall, robusta coffee is easier to grow, yields a larger crop, and is cheaper to process than arabica coffee. Robusta beans also have a higher caffeine and antioxidant level.

Unfortunately, however, robusta coffee just doesn’t taste all that good.

Simply put, robusta beans brew a bitter cup that does not appeal to most palates. Robusta coffee still holds it a prominant place in the world’s coffee market, though, since it is used in the making of espresso, as a filler in cheaper coffee blends, and in the production of instant coffee.

Arabica coffee beans, on the other hand, are the basis for the world’s best-rated and most-celebrated gourmet coffees.

Despite the arabica plant’s susceptibility to all matter of agricultural blights — poor weather, insects, and/or foliage diseases — as well as its lower crop yields and more labor-intensive processing, its beans are the most sought-after because of their flavor. Brewed arabica coffee is generally smooth and rich with an acidity and clean finish that appeals to our human taste buds.

Economic Impact of Coffee Farming in Africa

With its vast size, the African continent boasts climatic conditions that support the production of both robusta and arabica coffees. Some areas are better suited for growing one type of coffee over another, but many African countries, as we see on the green-shaded map above, can cultivate both. Having a choice of coffee to grow maximizes the economic benefit of coffee farming in Africa.

Coffee production in Africa supports the economy in the same manner it does anywhere else:

  • Growing coffee directly supports the coffee farmers, their families, and any farm laborers, such as harvesters, whom they employ
  • Coffee provides many jobs related to its processing; this includes sorting, cleaning, drying, and, in some cases, roasting the coffee beans
  • Once processed, coffee beans create income opportunity for wholesalers, retailers, exporters, coffee shop owners, and the staffs they employ

African Coffee Culture

Coffee culture refers, in a broad sense, to the way people prepare and consume coffee as well as the social importance, if any, that is placed upon that consumption.

For centuries, coffee houses have played host to businessmen, activists, reformers, debaters, and poets alike. Coffee houses have even been outlawed at various times throughout history in an attempt to quell political or religious dissension and revolutionary uprisings.

Today many of us view the corner coffee cafe as simply an ideal place to work, study, chat with friends, or enjoy a first date while indulging in our favorite beverage.

It’s interesting to note that, despite the prevalence of coffee farming in Africa, there is almost no coffee culture on the continent. Africans may grow a lot of coffee, but they drink very little of it themselves.

Although coffee culture has been growing across the continent in recent years, Ethiopia remains the only country in Africa with an exceptionally strong, traditional coffee culture that boasts an intricate coffee ceremony.

coffee beans in burlap bag

African Coffee Characteristics

For many coffee lovers, there’s nothing quite as indulgent as enjoying a cup of coffee brewed with beans sourced from Africa.  But, like anything to do with coffee, the love of African coffee is both a subjective and regional thing. On a continent as large as Africa that hosts so many different growing condition, an overarching flavor profile is impossible to pinpoint.

As we learned in Coffee Growing Around the World – The Geography of Flavor, everything from elevation to soil-makeup, rainfall, and air temperature as well as the type of processing (wet or dry) all affect the final flavor of our coffee beans.

What is it, then, that makes African coffees so unique and enjoyable? We can only fairly answer this question by breaking things down by country of origin within the African continent.

Here, then, is a very broad and general summation of the regional flavor profiles of a few of the top coffee-producing countries in Africa (we will explore these countries in more detail individually in upcoming articles):

Ethiopia

As noted, Ethiopia is both the top producer of coffee in Africa and the top coffee-consuming nation on the continent. Which means that a lot of the coffee Ethiopia grows, it keeps for its own enjoyment and use in its famous coffee ceremonies.

It is perhaps because coffee is such an integral part of their culture that Ethiopians take great care and exceptional pride in the coffee they produce and serve.

It is not really a surprise, then, that Ethiopian coffee is some of the most prized in the world. The following three regions provide the most sought-after Ethiopian coffee beans:

Yirgacheffe

This high-altitude region in Ethiopia produces a bean with a marked citrus flavor and aroma with heavy floral overtones.

So marked and heavy with citrus, in fact, that many coffee drinkers complain that Yirgacheffe coffee does not taste “like coffee.”

And that was definitely my reaction when I first tried a cup! Once my taste buds adapted, however, I found it an enjoyable coffee with a light body and bright acidity.

With Yirgachefe coffee, the method of processing — wet versus dry — will influence the flavor, with dry-processed beans losing a bit of complexity but adding a hint of cocoa to the profile.

And, of course, level of roast will also impact the final flavor. Most high-ranking Yirgacheffe coffees are medium roast which seems to be ideal for highlighting the beans’ bright citrus notes.

Ethiopian coffee label

Harrar

Ethiopian Harrar coffee is dry processed, meaning the coffee cherry (fruit) is allowed to dry on the plant. This imparts unique flavors to the coffee bean, and, in this case, it leads to deep, complex flavors of fruit, chocolate, and spice. Harrar coffee is full-bodied with a medium acidity, and, when at its rich, fruity finest, is often compared to dry red wine.

Sidamo

Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans are hand-picked and wet-processed (washed), resulting in a bean that provides a smooth cup of coffee with medium acidity. As is common among the other Ethiopian coffees, the flavor is predominantly citrusy and the aroma quite floral. Sidamo will often tend to have sweeter undertones of berries, apricot, or honey.

Uganda

Uganda is primarily a producer of robusta coffee which, as we learned above, is mainly used in creating espresso, cheaper coffee blends, and instant coffee. In the last few decades, however, there has been an increased focus on growing high-quality arabica. The success of these efforts means Uganda produces limited quantities of highly sought-after gourmet coffee.

Like their Ethiopian counterparts, Ugandan coffee beans tend to be citrusy, but individual growing regions create their own flavor complexities. Ugandan coffee beans have a unique sweetness, rich texture, and low acidity. Cupping flavors range from wine-like fruitiness to earthy notes of dark chocolate and figs.

Cote d’Ivoire

The Ivory Coast’s climate is unsuitable for growing prized arabica beans. Robusta coffee thrives in this coastal environment, though, and, at one time, Cote d’Ivoire was the top coffee producer and exporter of robusta in all of Africa. Unfortunately civil wars and unsustainable farming practices in this poverty-stricken country have nearly decimated the country’s coffee industry.

When coffee production was booming, however, the local population never managed to acquire a taste for its home-grown strong and bitter-tasting robusta coffee beans. This is the primary reason of the lack of a local coffee culture: no one local liked the local coffee!

So, in the 1960’s, a hybrid coffee plant was developed that wed the flavor characteristics of arabica beans with the hardiness of the  robusta plants.

The result: arabusta coffee, also known as Presidential Coffee because it was developed at the request of the Ivory Coast’s first president.

Arabusta coffee creates a unique profile in the cup. It is bold and somewhat bitter due to its robusta roots, but the roasting process produces the rich aroma and pleasant floral notes typical of better arabica coffees. It is doubtful many of us will ever get to taste arabusta coffee from the Ivory Coast, unfortunately, as it seems to be headed towards extinction. We can only hope that revitalization efforts in the region will return this uncommon bean to the world’s coffee cups.

Kenya

Kenya is blessed not only with some of the best coffee farming conditions on the African continent but also with a solid business model supporting the industry.  Not surprisingly, therefore, Kenya’s arabica coffee is considered some of the best in the world.

Kenyan coffees are generally described as bold, full-bodied, vibrant, and intense. As always with coffee beans, flavor markers will vary based on the specific growing region within the country. The citrusy notes typical of African coffees is often present and may be accented by either blackberry (“winey”) or peppery overtones.

Tanzania

Grown on the Kilimanjaro slopes, arabica coffee from Tanzania lends a bit of the exotic to our cups. Since Japan purchases most of Tanzania’s regular coffee beans, that leaves plenty of “specialty” Tanzania peaberry coffee available for marketing in the United States (a peaberry is simply a single coffee bean produced inside the coffee cherry as opposed to the usual two beans). Between the intriguing name and special “single” bean, we Americans, evidently, were — and continue to be — sold on this unique coffee.

Tanzanian coffees generally provide the anticipated citrusy and/or winey taste typical of African coffees. They are highlighted by notes of chocolate and blackberry or currants. The cup is bright, medium-bodied, and provides a clean, soft finish.

The Future of Coffee Farming in Africa

Although the soil of the African continent gave birth to the planet’s first wild coffee plants, the future of coffee farming in Africa is anything but certain.

The extreme poverty in many African countries is a double-edged sword to coffee production: there are too few resources available to support the efforts of coffee farmers and, without the necessary support, farmers abandon coffee-growing outright in favor of more lucrative crops.

Poorly-organized and/or inadequate government farming agencies, political instability and/or corruption, and violence in many of the coffee-growing regions also contribute to the overall decline in Africa’s coffee production.

Thankfully the need to address the issue of coffee production throughout Africa is being recognized both on the continent itself and by industrialized nations with the knowledge and resources to help. Efforts are currently focused on:

  • Supporting farmers through training and financial incentives
  • Implementing sustainable farming practices
  • Establishing agencies to oversee the welfare of the industry
  • Developing local coffee cultures that support the overall process

With the love and demand for coffee growing daily around the world, one can imagine coffee farming providing an economic boon for many African nations. We can hope that each African country capable of growing coffee will find a way to rise to the challenge. It will mean a better life for their people and more exciting coffee varieties for the rest of us.

coffee cup on coffee grounds

 

Do you have a favorite African coffee? If so, I’d love to learn what it is you like (or don’t like) about it in the comment section below.

18 Comments

  1. Geoffrey wurz

    Thank you for the post on coffee farming in Africa. I never knew that Africa was such a huge producer of coffee. I always thought that most of the world’s coffee came from Columbia. I love coffee and your descriptions of each of the region’s coffees are interesting. I would love to try the coffee from Sidamo. That coffee sounds so good.

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you found the article informative. You might be interested to learn that Brazil is actually the world’s top coffee-producer (for more on this and how region affects the flavor of our coffee, see: https://athingforcoffee.com/co… ). I hope you get a chance to try the Sidamo coffee that sounds appealing to you. If you do, I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it. 

  2. Ablati

    Was an interesting read. We hear about poverty and low efficiency of local farmers, and that coffee corporations treat them badly. I do not understand why corporations do not cultivate their own crops. In that case they would not have to deal with local farmers and would have a sustainable product using modern technologies. Is my picture wrong on this?

    • Cheri

      You raise an interesting question. I’m personally no fan of corporations taking over production of just about anything because when you start putting profits over people and planet welfare, which is what corporations are notorious for doing, everyone loses. As far as coffee farming in Africa specifically, it is my understanding that the farmers own the land…would you see them displaced so a corporation could grow coffee on their land? Where would those farmers go and who would work the land? 

      The better scenario, in my opinion, is that farmers be given education so they can maximize their crops, crop yields, and earnings. It is not the farmers’ fault if they do not know the best practices to be efficient. That knowledge is available in the world now, but it comes from wealthier countries who have had the financial resources to do the research and make the technological advances. If this knowledge is provided to the farmers in the locales where coffee can be grown, they will be able to run efficient farms. Most of these people love their land and take great pride in their farming efforts. They deserve to earn enough for a comfortable life in the process.

      I’m happy to see a more humanitarian approach developing does not put corporations in control but instead helps educate farmers and provide them with the tools and technologies they need to thrive. The best-case situation for coffee farming in Africa, in my humble opinion, is for farmers to become so good at growing coffee that they are ultimately competing with each other to grow the best beans. They will all earn more money by offering top-quality coffee beans (improving their quality of life), no single corporation will dominate the coffee production (so they can’t force farmers to take little money while gouging consumers with high market prices), and coffee drinkers around the world will benefit from the great-tasting coffee produced by the healthy coffee trees on sustainably-run farms (which also helps the health of the planet). 

      It’s a complex issue, that’s for sure. Although others (perhaps you) might not agree, I think we always do best when we focus on helping individuals be successful. Corporations rarely care about much more than profits, and, in that situation, everyone (workers, consumers, and the planet) loses. Coffee farming can only happen on a limited portion of the planet, so we do well to preserve and protect the places, the processes, and the people involved if we want to continue enjoying delicious and affordable coffee. SEE: Coffee Growing Around the World – The Geography of Flavor

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

  3. DerrAd

    I’m enlightened so much reading your article. Africa is endowed with a lot of natural resources that sometimes we lose count of them but I never knew it’s popular in a coffee plantation. I guess it’s probably from the part of Africa that I’m coming. Ghana is not known for coffee production and its consumption as well because it’s when I traveled that got to know how Asians and other nationals drink coffee. 

    My lab consumes a lot of coffee and it’s like most of the guys can’t work without it. I couldn’t agree with you more, there’s no coffee culture in most African countries but it’s high time I take interest in it. At least, to know the type of coffee my lab consumes. Thanks for this information. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you learned something from the article, DerrAd. I was surprised myself to learn that Africa doesn’t have much of a coffee culture, other than in Ethiopia, because I did know a lot of coffee farming in Africa. But I think the lack of coffee culture has a lot to do with how many countries focus on growing robusta — it’s easier to grow but is very bitter compared to arabica coffee. No wonder the focus is more on exporting it than drinking it! I wonder if you will end up liking coffee one day like the guys in your lab. You’ll have to find out what their favorite coffee is and give that a try. If you do, I’d love for you to let me know what you think. I’m one of those who can’t work (or anything) without it, too, so I understand where they are coming from. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  4. Divine13

    Wow, what a nice and well detailed article on coffee farming in Africa.

    I never knew African countries like Ethiopia and Uganda are the top coffee producing countries in Africa. I also believe that coffee farming in Africa can be helpful for the standard living. Personally, I prefer the robusta coffee to the arabica coffee because of the higher caffeine and antioxidant levels.

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you found the article interesting. I do hope coffee farming in Africa will be revitalized in the coming years so we can all continue to enjoy the unique qualities of African coffee, whether robusta or arabica, and for the benefit it would bring coffee farmers and the African economy overall. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Tunde

    It is interesting to know some of the most prized coffees in the world today are grown in Africa. I never knew Tanzania and Congo are great producers of coffee. If I may ask, are Arabica and Robusta the only types of coffee grown in Africa? Don’t we really have any other types besides those ones?

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you found the article interesting. To answer your question, Arabica and Robusta are not just the only two types of coffee grown in Africa, they are really the only two types grown in the whole world (though there are different cultivars within each of those species). Arabica production makes up about 70% of all the world’s coffee, and Robusta makes up the other 30%. If you’d like, you can read more about Arabica and Robusta coffees in this article: https://athingforcoffee.com/co

  6. Gomer

    Unless I am mistaken, I thought Africa is deprived with adequate rain fall and is not suited for farming. But since there’s enough evidence saying the continent is a good supplier of world’s coffee beans, then I must accept that it is indeed a good place to grow coffee. Here in the Philippines, coffee is also one of the permanent crops farmers depend on, and it is inspiring to learn how Africa cultivates these different kinds of coffee. In fact, while reading this article, I am wondering if the same kind of coffee varieties can be grown here in my country.

    • Cheri

      As the second-largest continent on the planet, Africa is blessed with many different climates and amazing topography. While there are desert regions unsuitable for farming, there is more than ample fertile growing areas for all kinds of crops: coffee, cocoa, bananas, maize, and cotton are just a few. So coffee farming in Africa is not the only farming done by a long shot. Agriculture is, in fact, the continent’s primary source of sustenance and income.

      In your beautiful country, coffee has had a troubled history with coffee rust nearly wiping out the industry in the late 1800’s. Thankfully Philippine coffee production has been on the increase in recent years with the introduction of hardier strains of coffee plants. Yours is one of the countries where the climate is suitable for growing a wide variety of commercial coffee, and the world’s coffee lovers are most grateful for this.

      If you’d like to learn more about the unique regions where coffee is grown, you might enjoy this article: Coffee Growing Around the World – The Geography of Flavor

      Thank you for visiting and commenting.

      • Rose

        Thank you for answering that question so correctly, as a person who was born and raised in Kenya, I can assure you that Africa is ideal for cultivating all kinds of plants.
        For example in Kenya we grow Coffee as you mentioned, we actually used to produce a lot of coffee in the 70’s even more than Uganda.
        But then some farmers uprooted their coffee trees to plant Tea, which was more in demand, some also have uprooted their coffee plants to plant avocado trees, because the avocadoes are in very high demand all over the world and the farmers are making lots of money.

        In my country we grow lots of things depending on which part of the country you go, some parts the climate is very good for growing bananas, some parts are good for sugar canes, we actually produce a lot of cane sugar, which we use and also export some.
        We also grow lots of tea, we have lots of tea fields and they look so beautiful, like a green carpet.
        some parts of Kenya produce rice too.
        and in the coastal area of Kenya, we produce lots of cashew nuts and peanuts, which we export.
        we grow lots of wheat and barley, maize, potatoes, beans peas, pumpkins, arrowroot, cassava, millet, sorghum.
        And when it comes to fruits, we grow pineapples, there is a company called Demonte, they have fields upon fields where they grow pineapples and other fruits and tin them for export. we also grow mangoes, oranges, guavas, many kinds of berries, lemons and pawpaws just to name a few
        So that is just one country growing all those things, imagine what other countries in Africa are producing. Africa is very rich, we have very good soil and climate to grow many things, fruits, vegetables, cereals, Flowers, Kenya exports lots of roses to Europe, middle east and America. I am sorry if my comment is too long but I just wanted to make it clear that Africa is not a desert.

        • Thank you so much for your detailed and informative comment, Rose. I did find in my research that Kenya used to produce far more coffee decades ago. Alas and unfortunately, this is true for a lot of the continent because, as you point out, farmers have replaced coffee with more lucrative crops. And surely one cannot blame them for that, but it does raise real concerns about the future availability of coffee around the world because climate change is unquestioningly adversely affecting coffee production in many countries. It was very encouraging, in the course of my research, to find so many studies and reports and organizations online that are focused on revitalizing coffee farming throughout Africa. As a coffee lover, I am definitely hoping these efforts find great success, but, even more, I hope coffee farming in Africa will provide economic and social improvements for the residents because there is undoubtedly great potential in the crop. Time will tell… It was truly an honor to have you share your knowledge of Kenya with us, Rose, and I appreciate you taking the time to comment so thoroughly.

          • Rose

            You are welcome Cheri, yes efforts are being put in place to rescue the coffee production in Africa.
            In Kenya the coffee board of Kenya which is the body in charge of coffee production in Kenya is putting measures in place to ensure that the Kenyan Coffee farmers are getting paid on time and also, they do get bonuses every end of the season.
            So a lot is being done to encourage the farmers to take up coffee farming.
            The other problem that is affecting the coffee farming in Kenya, is that the areas where the land is ideal for coffee farming, prices are very high because of expansion of urban areas and so farmers are selling their land and giving up coffee farming.
            For example, the village where I was born, we used to have many coffee fields, but now all that land is full of buildings, shops, and residential houses, because the farmers, sold the land, and coffee trees were gone and replaced with houses and shops.
            It’s sad, I hope coffee farming will pick up in Kenya again.

          • That is sad, Rose, that so much land is being sold and urbanized. It’s a situation that is, unfortunately, not restricted to Kenya, as you well know. Kenyan coffee is some of the best in the world, though, so I, too, hope coffee farming will be revitalized there.

  7. Fortune

    What a broad and interesting article on coffee farming in Africa. African countries have a good fertile land when it comes to crop farming, it is no surprise that we have good numbers of African countries like Ethiopia, Kenya,  Uganda, Ivory coast who are into coffee farming. Well I like the Robusta coffee more than the arabica but any of the two are good. I agree with you that African coffee farmers are not cared for by their government and thus they prefer to go for other type of lucrative crop that us not much stressful. Coffee products from Africa will rise again as measures has been taken to support coffee farmers financially, mechanically and welfarism. I enjoyed reading this article, it made my day. Thanks 

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I learned a lot in researching it. Like you, I am pleased that efforts are being made to revitalize coffee farming in Africa because it would be a great loss to the world to lose out on all these unique coffees. It would also be a shame for the African people to miss out on what, ultimately, could be a tremendous financial boon to their families, communities, and countries for generations to come. 

      I do think you are one of the only people who has ever said they prefer robusta coffee to arabica outright, and I find that interesting. But then robusta is used to make good espresso, and many people do love espresso best of all. Coffee is just a very subjective, personal thing!

      Overall I prefer arabica coffee, but I also find robusta acceptable as well in many instances. It is used, in fact, in this healthful blend of coffee I wrote about in  https://athingforcoffee.com/co… that I enjoy almost daily. Perhaps you will find cordyceps coffee with its robusta base of interest as well. 

      Thank you for your visit.

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