July 15, 2021

Exploring the Nigerian coffee sector

Coffee was first introduced to Nigeria in the late 19th century, with the first recorded exports taking place in 1896. It was a major cash crop for farmers in the country for decades.

However, through the 21st century, the country’s coffee production has started to decline. While Nigerian farmers grew some 89,000 60kg bags of coffee in 2006, this figure has fallen by more than 50% in just 15 years. 

To learn more about the state of Nigerian coffee production, I spoke to two experts. Read on to find out what they said.

coffee production in nigeria

Coffee production in Nigeria

In the 1930s, just a few decades after coffee was first introduced in Nigeria, the government started to promote its cultivation by making both arabica and robusta seeds available to farmers across the country. 

Now, less than 100 years on, coffee production in the country faces a number of issues. The amount of land being used to cultivate coffee is falling, many farms have nutrient-depleted soil, and there is a widespread skills gap forming as many coffee farmers belong to older generations.

Today, robusta accounts for 90% of all coffee exports in Nigeria. Robusta is grown in 14 states across the country, including Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara, Kogi, Edo, Delta, Abia, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Taraba, Bauchi, and Jos. 

Princess Adeyinka is the founder of Happy Coffee, a Nigerian brand that promotes domestically grown coffee. 

She says: “We have over 10,000 smallholder farmers spread across 14 states in Nigeria. They have managed to congregate into small co-operatives where they bulk their produce and process it as a group. 

“It’s important to note that most of these farms have been depleted over the years.”

The bulk of the country’s coffee trees are aging and less productive. Furthermore, crop diseases such as coffee berry disease make cultivating coffee an unattractive prospect.

Princess tells me that Nigeria is not a production powerhouse because of a wider lack of awareness.

She says: “If you talk about Nigeria, you hear of oil. Up until ten years ago, agriculture had not really taken shape [in the same way], although that is slowly changing.”

Coffee production in Nigeria has had a few peaks over the years, including in the late 1960s, mid-1980s, and even as recently as 2006. Since then, however, figures have started to steadily decline.

“Most cash crops have not gotten any sort of momentum. We want coffee to go back to its former glories such as in the 60s and 70s.”

Then came oil. 

“When oil became the major national commodity, production dwindled and eventually many farmers abandoned coffee.”

green coffee beans

Arabica production in Nigeria

While robusta makes up most of the coffee in the country, a handful of smallholder farmers in Nigeria have started to grow higher-quality arabica. However, thanks to a lack of awareness, limited market access, and very small harvest figures, there is little reason to cultivate it.

Arabica is cultivated in just two states: Cross River and Taraba. According to one source, around 110 different varieties of arabica are currently being tested on the Mambilla Plateau in Taraba, although the exact varieties being used are unknown.

Because there is such a limited amount of information about Nigerian arabica, there is no commonly-attributed flavour profile. However, Princess says that Happy Coffee’s “Nigerian Blend”, grown in Taraba, has flavour notes of chocolate and fruit, with floral aromas. 

Mai Shayi is another coffee brand on the up in Nigeria. It sells a range of high-altitude coffees, many of which exhibit sweet and fruity flavours. 

Interestingly enough, the seed stock used by the producers Mai Shayi buy from was introduced to the Nigerian highlands from Jamaica as far back as the early 1900s.

map of nigeria
Key:1. Bauchi State; 2. Kogi State; 3. Ogun State; 4. Oyo State; 5. Taraba State; 6. Plateau State; 7. Ondo State; 8. Ekiti State; 9. Kwara State; 10. Delta State; 11. Edo State; 12. Abia State; 13. Akwa- Ibom State and 14. Cross-River State.

Coffee trading and marketing in Nigeria

Unlike in major African coffee producing countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, Nigeria does not have any kind of centralised coffee exchange, and no formal system for trading coffee. 

Furthermore, the small number of buyers of Nigerian coffee are often unable to commit to buying one farm’s entire harvest, which only creates further instability. This has been compounded by a lack of government support for the coffee sector.

During the harvest season, this handful of buyers (often representing larger corporations) visit the farms and buy off some of the coffee. The prices that the farmers get are by no means sustainable, but ultimately they are irresistible.

Dr. Balbir Singh is an agronomist based in Abuja, Nigeria. He says that although there are more than 800ha of Arabica farms scattered around Nigeria, the lack of government involvement does not bode well.

“This makes the sector unsuitable for many smallholders. A small area for coffee production means there can be no meaningful tonnage. You need high amounts to make any real impact.”

A lack of any kind of national coffee policy in Nigeria is one of the major challenges that hurts local coffee farmers. Even the larger coffee businesses in the country import beans from other surrounding countries to manufacture instant coffee – which remains popular with domestic consumers. Ultimately, a lack of commitment from large coffee businesses has had a negative effect on the entire value chain.

At present, Nigeria has no established national coffee body or farmer’s association, either.

Dr. Singh adds: “A lack of buyers for export hurts the farmers the most. Most of the produce goes to waste because there are simply no buyers to take the harvest from the farmers.”

He also notes that there are only a small number of mills and washing stations in the country, many of which he describes as poorly managed. This, he says, leads to poor quality coffee, which further dissuades potential buyers.  

nigerian coffee

What about coffee consumption in Nigeria?

Although historically, Nigerian consumers have drunk tea, cocoa, and instant coffee, things are beginning to change.

Princess says that the demand for good coffee in Lagos is very high. The problem, she says, is that access to good quality products is limited.

Another issue for Nigerian coffee consumers is the cost of coffee. Cheap forms of instant coffee are still the only truly accessible coffee products on the market.

Most of the coffee available for sale in Nigeria is soluble, which has been made popular by mobile coffee kiosks found across major cities, including Lagos. 

These kiosks generally sell a cup of instant coffee for around 100 Nigerian naira (roughly equivalent to just US $0.24).

This means that the coffee industry in Nigeria has been dominated for some time by one brand: Nescafé.

According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), Nescafé holds a 60% share of Nigeria’s coffee market. The company’s products are all manufactured in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and are made with non-Nigerian coffee.

“Most of the coffee Nigerians drink is imported,” Princess explains. “Some 95% of what is consumed here comes from other countries. This leads to a high level of waste for the local farmers.

“We don’t mind drinking coffee from Kenya or other places because Nigeria is a big country with a high population. If we didn’t grow coffee, we wouldn’t mind drinking imports, but the fact that we [do] grow coffee makes it wrong.”

However, despite this, Princess does note that coffee culture in Nigeria is evolving – if slowly. Independent cafés are emerging, some of which are starting to produce ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages.

She adds: “The local coffee roasting sector is not well-developed. There is only one major commercial roaster, Kaldi Coffee. Then there are some small scale roasters in other regions.”

Princess also believes Nigerians need to be more aware about café culture to be able to reap the full rewards of a coffee industry rejuvenation. She wants people to learn about filter coffee and how to use the French press so that they can better enjoy locally-grown coffee.

However, until then, she says local entrepreneurs will simply be unable to generate interest in their products. This, she says, is something that needs to change urgently. 

happy coffee

The future of coffee in Nigeria

Princess starts by noting that there has to be government intervention for the sector to make any real progress.

Without a coffee association to encourage and drive up standards in production, she says things will not change.

“We hope to see more farming centralisation and women producers’ empowerment,” she says.

There is, however, some progress on the horizon. An act to establish a National Tea and Coffee Development Council has been making its way through the Nigerian National Assembly. If passed, it could potentially be the push that the Nigerian coffee industry needs.

Princess tells me that she has also been actively involved in the development of a new data platform that will support local coffee farmers. The platform is being built in partnership with African Exchange Holdings (AFEX), a private commodities exchange firm based in Abuja.

According to its website, AFEX specialises in setting up commodity exchanges online, and also provides warehousing for African farmers. In time, perhaps an initiative like this could lead to the development of a centralised commodity exchange and a formal system for marketing and trading Nigerian coffee.

happy coffee café

It’s clear that change is necessary if the Nigerian coffee sector is to grow and thrive in the future. Entrepreneurs like Princess are leading the way, but government intervention remains essential.

She concludes by saying: “We should invest in Nigerian coffee because there is a future in it. There is work that needs to be done.

“Once we have a roadmap with players from the private sector and a national policy, things will begin to shape up.”

Enjoyed this? Then you’ll like this article on coffee production in Zimbabwe.

Photo credits: Peter Gakuo, Happy Coffee

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