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.
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.
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):
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:
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.