Explore The Journey Of Specialty Coffee In Liberia: Challenges And Potential

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Specialty coffee in Liberia

Specialty coffee in Liberia, a West African nation bordering Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as the Atlantic Ocean, holds the distinction of being the oldest republic in Africa, having declared independence in 1847 and gaining international recognition in 1862.

According to Index Mundi, Liberia’s coffee production peaked at 209,000 60kg bags in 1985. However, since then, coffee output has significantly declined due to various complex reasons. As part of this decline, many farmers have shifted to cultivating crops that yield higher profits, such as cocoa and natural rubber.

Nevertheless, when it comes to coffee production, Liberia is perhaps best known for Coffea liberica: a species of coffee known for its large fruits. This characteristic enhances the sweetness of Liberica coffee and prolongs its aftertaste. In recent years, these qualities have bolstered the presence of Liberica in the specialty coffee sector.

To delve further into whether Liberia’s coffee industry can thrive in the years ahead, I spoke with two local experts. Read on to gain insights from their perspectives.

A historical overview of coffee in Liberia

To grasp the dynamics of Liberia’s coffee industry, it’s essential to delve into the intricate tapestry of its history. The presence of indigenous communities in West Africa, including Liberia, dates back millennia, with archaeological evidence tracing human activity to the Lower Paleolithic era.

However, Liberia’s demographic landscape underwent significant shifts in the early 19th century. Guided by the American Colonization Society, former slaves from the United States migrated to Africa, albeit some under coercive circumstances.

Established in 1816, the society aimed to persuade liberated slaves to depart the US, primarily driven by prejudiced and discriminatory motives. Understandably, this initiative faced staunch opposition from many African Americans, Specialty coffee in Liberia: while others saw migration as a means to escape social and legal oppression.

Numerous ex-slaves, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, resettled in Liberia. In 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected as the country’s inaugural president, yet it took another 14 years for global recognition of Liberia as an independent nation.

However, a palpable division emerged between US migrants and indigenous Liberian communities, such as the Kru and Grebo peoples. Specialty coffee in Liberia: This schism stemmed from various complex factors, including the establishment of plantations and the forced labor of indigenous peoples. Driven by coerced labor and substantial investments from the US, Liberia’s exports surged. While rubber dominated the export trade, the country also engaged in modest coffee exports.

However, the trajectory of Liberia’s coffee sector was disrupted by internal strife. Following a military coup in 1980 and an insurrection in 1989, the nation plunged into decades of civil unrest and conflict, profoundly impacting its coffee industry and resulting in significant human casualties.

A concise history of coffea Liberica

While Liberia predominantly cultivates robusta coffee, its reputation extends beyond this variety to another notable species: Coffea liberica. According to a 2022 research paper titled “The re-emergence of Liberica coffee as a major crop plant,” liberica is native to the tropical regions of West and Central Africa.

Historically, liberica grew wild for centuries before its seeds were distributed for wider commercial coffee production in the 1870s from regions like Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This dissemination occurred as several Southeast Asian countries turned to liberica cultivation amid threats to arabica caused by coffee leaf rust outbreaks.

Between 1880 and 1900, global production volumes of liberica rivaled those of arabica in certain regions. Specialty coffee in Liberia: This was primarily due to liberica’s resilience, high yields, and ability to thrive at lower elevations, producing large cherries—a characteristic favored by farmers.

However, the allure of liberica was short-lived. Concerns regarding poor quality emerged, leading to a significant decline in demand. This decline was largely attributed to the challenges posed by the large size of liberica cherries, making processing cumbersome.

Gaiming insight into coffee production in Liberia

Robert Kollie, serving as the Board Chair at Green Future Agro Inc. in Liberia, sheds light on the coffee production landscape in the country.

“Coffee producers in Liberia cultivate robusta and liberica,” he affirms.

Robusta predominantly thrives in central and northern Liberia, with key coffee-producing regions encompassing Nimba, Lofa, Bong, Grand Cape Mount, River Gee, and Margibi. “At our cooperative, we supply farmers with seedlings and essential planting materials,” Robert elucidates. Specialty coffee in Liberia: “Additionally, we offer technical assistance to farmers, aiding those interested in managing their own farms or launching coffee enterprises by helping them estimate costs.”

However, due to years of conflict, many farmers abandoned their coffee plantations. In an effort to rejuvenate Liberia’s coffee sector, the International Trade Centre (ITC) distributed approximately 4,400 seedlings to farmers. Yet, it’s evident that further efforts are warranted.

Tyler Papula, the co-founder and CEO of Liberica Coffee Company in Liberia, collaborates with Save More Kids as a Campaign and Project Coordinator, alongside the SMK Agricultural Cooperative. Specialty coffee in Liberia: The latter organization focuses on providing agricultural training to farmers and supports farm rehabilitation and infrastructure enhancements, aiming to enhance both the quality and quantity of coffee production.

Tyler notes the prevalence of wild coffee growth in Liberian forests, particularly liberica. However, harvesting the cherries proves challenging, if not impossible, due to the towering height of the plants. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Regarding coffee processing, Robert underscores a substantial gap in technical expertise and access to resources.

“Processing facilities in Liberia are scarce, and those that exist lack adequate equipment,” he reveals. “As a result, many of our farmers resort to exporting their coffee to neighboring countries like Ivory Coast or occasionally Guinea.”

The process and trade of coffee in Liberia

Following harvest, the majority of coffee cherries are sun-dried on patios. Subsequently, some farmers opt to export their cherries to Ivory Coast, where they undergo dry milling. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Robert from Green Future Agro highlights efforts to empower more farmers to conduct their own coffee milling, thus retaining greater value. “After attending a training session in Togo, we imported a coffee milling machine capable of processing dried cherries,” he explains. “Our intention is to purchase the machine to better assist our farmers.”

He further elaborates, “Farmers will contribute a nominal fee monthly for us to process their coffee.”

Prior to the First Liberian Civil War, the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) oversaw the country’s agriculture sector, including coffee. Specialty coffee in Liberia: The organization managed various tasks such as providing farming inputs, conducting quality control checks, inspecting farms, and overseeing coffee exports.

However, in the aftermath of the Second Liberian Civil War, the LPMC encountered challenges in reclaiming full control over coffee exports. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Consequently, some Liberian farmers opt to cross the border into Cote d’Ivoire or Guinea to sell their dried cherries.

Alternatively, other producers sell their dried cherries to agents, who then transport the coffee to Ivory Coast, Guinea, or Sierra Leone for sale. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Consequently, a significant portion of the coffee produced in Liberia is not consumed domestically.

Is coffee roasted and consumed locally in Liberia?

Robert reveals that Liberia lacks significant commercial roasting facilities.

“We aspire to change this,” he asserts. “Encouraging farmers to sample their own coffee is part of our initiative.”

He continues, “The International Trade Centre (ITC) conducted a workshop on roasting and coffee shop operation to support this endeavor.”

The bulk of coffee consumed in Liberia is imported from neighboring nations. Specialty coffee in Liberia: While formal coffee shops are absent, select hotels and restaurants do offer coffee. Instant coffee, particularly Nescafé, dominates the market. “We are planning to establish our own coffee shop,” Robert discloses. Specialty coffee in Liberia: “This venture will enable Liberian farmers to experience the taste of their own coffee firsthand.”

Tacking obstacles

Tyler underscores the multifaceted nature of the challenges confronting Liberian coffee farmers. “The coffee sector in the country suffers from a degree of disorganization,” he observes. “Furthermore, there’s a perception that Liberian coffee lacks high quality.”

Specialty coffee in Liberia: “The most significant hurdle lies in altering producers’ mindsets,” he emphasizes. “While some farmers are enthusiastic about enhancing coffee quality and yields, others remain hesitant.”

Additionally, many coffee farmers grapple with limited access to financial assistance, making it challenging to obtain essential inputs such as fertilizers. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Ultimately, without improved access to resources and financial support, the potential for enhancing coffee quality and yields remains constrained.

Enhancing access to resources and support

Tyler underscores the dearth of government assistance in coffee production, making it an arduous endeavor. Specialty coffee in Liberia: Farmers require access to loans and a greater number of cooperatives providing them with seedlings.

“Improvements to Liberia’s overall infrastructure are imperative,” he stresses. “This would foster entrepreneurship and help mitigate corruption.” For instance, inadequate road infrastructure in certain producing regions hampers farmers’ ability to transport coffee to processing facilities or to the capital city of Monrovia for export.

Although interest in liberica from the specialty coffee sector has surged recently, driven notably by 2021 World Barista Championship finalist Hugh Kelly’s routine, production volumes remain insufficient to meet burgeoning demand.

Robert advocates for empowering farmers to add value to their coffee, primarily through processing and roasting. Specialty coffee in Liberia: “For farmers, processing and roasting coffee themselves, then tasting it, fosters greater engagement in coffee cultivation,” he remarks. “However, ensuring access to high-quality farming inputs and seedlings remains paramount.”

Liberia’s history is marked by profound complexity, and its coffee farmers persist in grappling with numerous challenges. Specialty coffee in Liberia: For tangible improvement to occur, there must be a substantial increase in access to financial support, infrastructure, and resources.

“We possess ample land ideal for coffee cultivation,” Robert emphasizes. “Numerous mountainous regions offer fertile ground for cultivating high-quality coffee, yet a robust support system for farmers remains sorely deficient.”