Coffee growing in Africa

by JulieCraves on April 7, 2006

Since shade certification is not available for coffee grown outside of Latin America, it can be helpful to understand coffee cultivation practices in the Old World.  This can help consumers choose sustainable coffees.  Certified organic is a good choice where available, although in many African countries, it is grown organically by default because small farmers cannot afford chemicals and fertilizers (“passive organic”) and may not be certified.

The whole concept of “shade grown” and what it means to biodiversity is different in Africa (and other Old World countries). Many Eurasian breeding bird species winter in Africa, but the most species are not found in tropical forests, but scrub savannas north of the equator, areas that do not coincide well with coffee-growing regions.  Thus the issues are not quite the same as in Latin America, but generally the most biodiversity is preserved on small farms, in diverse mixed crop farms, and farms that do not use chemicals.  If anybody has further information on biodiversity issues in African coffee plantations, drop me a line at coffeehabitat AT gmail.com.

Coffee originated in Africa, and today Africa still produces some great high quality arabica (Coffea arabica) coffees.  Africa is also the source of a lot of cheap robustas (Coffea canephora), which is also the easier variety to grow in the sun.  Sun plantations are more likely to be monocultures, and by virtue of that harbor less biodiversity.

The following countries produce primarily or entirely robusta coffee. Coffees from these sources are likely to be of lower quality, or not grown in a sustainable manner.  I would avoid them: Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea,  Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, Zaire.

The following countries grow Arabicas, or both varieties. Links provide more growing, historical, or quality information. A star (*) indicates the best bets in sustainable coffees.

*Burundi – Nearly all arabica. Most is grown in full shade, and most is organic, since farmers cannot afford chemicals.  Coffee is a major export crop for Burundi.  A specialty coffee marketed as Ngoma is traditionally grown and especially sought-after.  Bird info for Burundi.

Cameroon – Mostly (>80%) robusta.  Most arabicas grown in the west, northwest, and east at high altitudes. There are Important Bird Areas in these regions. Choose arabica coffee from Cameroon, which is grown in small mixed plots (shade) or harvested nearly wild, and without the use of chemicals.  Bird/birding info for Cameroon.

*EthiopiaNearly all coffee in Ethiopia is grown in shade, either as “forest coffee,” nearly wild, or “cottage coffee,”  interplanted with other crops without the use of chemicals.  Some is now being grown on planations.

The two main growing regions are Harrar, the province east of the capital of Addis Ababa, and Yirgacheffe in southwestern Ethiopia (also known as Sidamo).  Both regions grow coffee on small plots using traditional methods, and there are Important Bird Areas in these regions. Bird/birding info for Ethiopia.

Kenya – Grows Arabica almost exclusively, but rarely grown in shade. While it may be that the growing areas are not along migratory routes, and shade trees are less important to birds there, monocultures of anything are generally not good for any type of wildlife, and replace native habitats. Large estates generally use a variety of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Bird/birding info for Kenya.

Madagascar — Both arabica and robusta are grown. Interestingly, Madagascar has 55 endemic species of coffee, including a bean without caffeine.  This island is one of the richest areas of biodiversity on earth, and has been severely deforested, and the farming of coffee was a major reason.  Unless you can determine the specific origin and growing practices of a Madagascar coffee, I’d avoid it.  I’ll try to dig deeper into this situation.  Bird/birding info for Madagascar.

Malawi —Arabicas are grown in several regions.  Due to the steepness of the terrain, coffee in Malawi is usually grown on terraces, using organic mulches to prevent erosion, and usually without pesticides.  It is sometimes grown interplanted with bananas, but it is often in fairly sunny conditions, or under bananas.  Bird/birding info for Malawi.

*Rwanda – Only arabicas are grown.  After the genocide and political unrest, various organizations have been helping to repair the Rwandan coffee industry (see my review of One Thousand Hills here, with accompanying links). Rwandan coffee is generally grown in small mixed plots with little or no chemical inputs.  It is often grown on steep slopes.  Bird/birding info for Rwanda.

Tanzania Grows both arabica (70%) and robusta. When coffee is grown in shade, it is under banana trees. Most arabicas are grown in the north, near the Kenyan border, on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru (they may be called Kilmanjaros, Moshis, or Arushas).  Coffees called Mbeyas or Pares are Arabicas grown in southern Tanzania, between the rift lakes of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa.  With snow caps on the mountains diminishing (global climate change is a factor), farmers are struggling with irrigation issues.  Quality has been declining, but some organizations are working at reviving Tanzania’s coffee industry. Full post on Tanzanian coffee here.  Bird/birding info for Tanzania.

Zambia — All arabica, of variable quality.  Some avoid buying Zambian (and Zimbabwean) coffee because proceeds have been known to end up fueling the bloodshed in the Congo. Bird/birding info for Zambia.

Zimbabwe — Mostly Arabicas, grown on medium to large farms, mainly in eastern Zimbabwe bordering Mozambique, in the Chipinge region. Some avoid buying Zimbabwean (and Zambian coffee because proceeds have been known to end up fueling the bloodshed in the Congo. Bird/birding info for Zimbabwe.

Extensive information on African birds can be found at the African Bird Club web site.

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Revised on October 22, 2016

Posted in Coffee regions

JC Dealy April 3, 2007 at 6:42 pm

Good point about the neo-tropical migratory birds. But there is a lot of mis-information about cultural practices in Africa.

Agreed, the coffees from these sources are likely to be of lower quality, but this is more about post harvist proceedures. And the idea that there is much acreage grown in a non-sustainable manner is rubbish.

In areas where tropical forest are found it is often shade for the coffee.

And you should note the in Liberia we grow liberica (Big delicious berries!)as well as robusta.

J. Carl Dealy
Grower and Natural Resource Specialist
Pres. of EarlyBird Foundation

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