Forgotten for half a century, this rare bean could save Sierra Leone’s coffee industry

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(CNN) – About 200 miles southeast of the capital of Sierra Leone, agricultural researcher Daniel Sarmu has discovered a life in the steep, damp hills of Kambui.

In 2018, Sarmu and two researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew in the UK were on a mission to find the long-lost Sierra Leone coffee stenophylla. The rare West African coffee tree had not been seen there in the wild since 1954, although it has been sporadically spotted in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire over the years.

The rediscovery of Sierra Leone’s highland coffee has renewed hope that this rare crop could be grown and produced commercially – and help revive the struggling coffee industry in the country, decimated by 11 years of civil war.

“Coffee could change the narrative of our farmers,” Sarmu told CNN.

A rediscovered plant

After discovering a wild garden of about 15 stenophylla plants growing in the hills, the research team collected samples to test them.

In their new study published this month, stenophylla coffee was confirmed to be of high quality and great flavor, comparable to the best Arabica beans.

“The coffee markets are very interested in anything that is different – especially if it has good flavor attributes,” says Jeremy Haggar, an agroecologist at the University of Greenwich in the UK and one of the researchers who rediscovered stenophylla coffee with Sarmu. “Chances are, the specialty coffee market will take an interest in it, and they could be paying very high prices.”

The Stenophylla coffee plant was rediscovered by Daniel Sarmu (right) and researchers Aaron Davis (left) and Jeremy Haggar in 2018.

Courtesy of Jeremy Haggar

Stenophylla coffee also grows in warmer temperatures, which means it could help the industry in its battle against climate change. Stenophylla can comfortably grow at temperatures up to 6.8 ° C higher than Arabica, which Haggar says could offer the industry a potential lifeline in a warming world.

This is good news for Sierra Leone, which is at the forefront of the stenophylla renaissance. But there is still a long way to go before this rare bean enters our coffee cups. The wild plant needs to be domesticated and studied further to develop better strategies for growth and management.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, so adding a high-value market could be a boon for its agricultural sector, which employs 75% of the population. One of the biggest challenges is funding, Sarmu says, but he’s committed to seeing stenophyll in Sierra Leone’s coffee plantations again.

A coveted coffee

“Coffea stenophylla” has not always been a scarce commodity.

While researchers claim that 99% of the coffee we consume today is made up of Arabica and Robusta, there are actually 124 species of coffee. There used to be a lot more diversity in the types of coffee, and coffee from the Sierra Leone highlands was in high demand.
Despite coffee production, Sierra Leone is not known for its local coffee culture.  Many people opt for instant coffee from brands like Nescafé instead.

Despite coffee production, Sierra Leone is not known for its local coffee culture. Many people opt for instant coffee from brands like Nescafé instead.

Michael Duff / CNN

“In the 1890s, it was Stenophylla coffee that dominated the market,” says Sarmu. It was the favorite coffee of the French, and frequently traded until the 1920s.

But in the 1950s, Robusta coffee was introduced to Sierra Leone by the British. Robusta is a more productive plant but is generally considered to be of lower quality. As both coffees sold for the same price, farmers began to replace the old native culture. Over time, the stenophylla was forgotten.

At this point, coffee was more important to Sierra Leone’s economy than cocoa (today one of the country’s main exports). Until 1991, Sierra Leone exported up to 25,000 tonnes of coffee per year.
But that year, conflict in neighboring Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, spread to Sierra Leone, sparking an 11-year civil war. Farmers have abandoned the fields, Sarmu says – and the coffee industry is gone.

These local women-run businesses seek to revitalize Sierra Leone’s coffee culture, while reviving its coffee industry with a local bean that is highly prized for the international market.

A new coffee culture

When the civil war officially ended in 2002, many agricultural industries in Sierra Leone had to restart. The coffee sector has never recovered, with annual exports falling to around 2,000 metric tonnes – while Ethiopia, the continent’s largest producer, exported 234,000 tonnes last year.
Perhaps because of this, Sierra Leone has not developed its own coffee culture like some other coffee producing countries. Rather than drinking local produce, locals can be seen drinking instant coffee from imported brands like Nescafé in the street market on their morning commutes.

However, that culture is starting to change, says Hannah Tarawally, founder of Coffee Courier, a coffee producer and café in the country’s capital, Freetown.

“Before, my friends didn’t drink coffee, but because I introduced it to them, they can see and taste the difference,” she says. “So I think it will change for Sierra Leoneans to start using our own local products.”

More and more local coffee producers are entering the domestic market, including Coffee Courier, Aromatic Coffee and Nina's Coffee.

More and more local coffee producers are entering the domestic market, including Coffee Courier, Aromatic Coffee and Nina’s Coffee.

Michael Duff / CNN

Tarawally started hand roasting her own beans in 2015 and says she was one of the first in the country to do so. Her brand, Salone Coffee, now exports to Liberia and she hopes to enter the European market soon. In 2020, Coffee Courier opened its first café in Freetown – one of the country’s first dedicated cafes, an indication of the change in attitude towards local produce.

Tarawally is not alone in creating an internal market for craft breweries. Aromatic Coffee, a stall in a Freetown market, was one of the first in town, and Nina’s Coffee, another Freetown café, hand roasted its beans on site.

When it hits the market, the rediscovered stenophylla coffee could reinforce this burgeoning coffee scene – a scene Tarawally hopes all Sierra Leoneans will participate in.

“We’re not just aiming for an international market, but we have to target our country,” Tarawally says. “We need to target the layman in Sierra Leone who can drink coffee and make it a part of all of us.”



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