A guide to South Sudan’s coffee sector
Despite its long history, South Sudan only became independent in 2011 – making it the newest internationally recognised country in the world. As well as Sudan, South Sudan borders Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya – three of the top five coffee-producing countries in Africa.
While many believe Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, a 2021 study actually found that arabica coffee could have also originated from South Sudan. However, surprisingly, coffee was only first exported from the country in 2015.
As a result of ongoing conflict and civil wars, the country’s coffee sector has struggled in the years since its independence. Thankfully, there are signs that the coffee industry in South Sudan is coming back to life, although the country still faces a number of challenges.
I spoke with several local and global coffee experts to learn more about the genetic history of coffee in South Sudan, as well as the country’s wider coffee sector. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on the origins of coffee in Africa.
South Sudan: Another origin for arabica?
As its export volumes have been negligible for some time, many people are unaware that coffee is grown in South Sudan. Most of the coffee grown in the country is consumed domestically.
However, a recent study entitled Validating South Sudan as a Centre of Origin for Coffea arabica: Implications for Conservation and Coffee Crop Improvement published in the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems journal has found there is historic evidence of arabica coffee growing in South Sudan.
Christophe Montagnon is the CEO of RD2 Vision, an agronomic research and development consultancy focused on coffee. He also contributed to the research paper.
“There is very little information available on the genetic diversity of arabica coffee,” he explains. “There are indications in historic literature that there were some arabica trees growing wild in South Sudan.”
Despite this, Christophe says that it has been widely accepted that Ethiopia was the sole origin of arabica coffee. He notes that DNA testing has proven that this claim is oversimplified.
“When we tested and compared the DNA of some leaves from coffee trees in South Sudan with the leaves of coffee trees in Ethiopia, we found that the DNA was completely different,” he tells me.
According to Christophe and his colleagues, arabica has also grown wild in South Sudan for some time without human intervention.
“This is proof that coffee trees in South Sudan were not introduced from Ethiopia,” he explains.
Sarada Krishnan is the Executive Director of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). She also contributed towards the research paper on South Sudanese coffee.
She says that despite the country only establishing its borders over a decade ago, its coffee is genetically unique.
“As a result of isolation from Ethiopian arabica populations, South Sudanese arabica has become genetically distinct,” she tells me. “However, some varieties were brought into South Sudan for cultivation, such as Sudan Rume.”
This variety is now grown in other parts of the Bean Belt, including Colombia.
A profile of South Sudanese coffee production
South Sudan has a unique and distinctive climate which makes it ideal for growing both robusta and arabica.
The drier regions in the north are better suited for growing robusta coffee, as this species is better able to tolerate higher temperatures and lower altitudes. However, in the southern parts of the country, there are higher levels of rainfall and higher humidity, which are more favourable for growing arabica.
Some arabica coffee grows naturally in the Boma Plateau, which is located in the east of South Sudan near the border with Ethiopia.
Sadly, despite its capacity to grow potentially high-quality coffee, South Sudan’s coffee sector collapsed as a result of continued conflict.
Delphine Bourseau is Nespresso’s Global Relations Manager. She explains how external parties have helped to revitalise the country’s coffee industry.
“Following on from gaining independence in 2011, Nespresso, in partnership with the non-profit TechnoServe, initiated programmes to support smallholder coffee farmers in the southwestern Yei County,” she says. “The programmes aim to revive the country’s coffee industry, which was nearly destroyed by decades of conflict, with a focus on sustainability,” she adds.
Yei County is close to the country’s borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and has subsequently served as something of a prominent hub for trade between the three countries. It has also seen a resurgence in coffee production over the past few years. Furthermore, while the climate here is more suited to growing arabica, robusta is actually more common.
How is coffee traded and consumed?
Coffee has been growing in Yei County since the 1920s. Currently, there are an estimated 1,000 smallholder farmers in the area who grow and sell coffee.
Historically, natural processing has been popular in South Sudan. However, a number of newly-constructed wet mills in recent years have supported farmers to produce more washed coffee.
Paul Stewart is the Global Coffee Director at TechnoServe. He tells me that since 2016, ongoing conflict has hindered wet mill operations in South Sudan.
“Co-operatives have not been able to operate wet mills, so farmers sun-dry coffee instead and sell it on the local market,” he says. “Fortunately, the prices that farmers are able to get at this moment are good, mainly because it is so difficult to import coffee into South Sudan.”
The country’s coffee trade system is relatively simple. Farmers sell their coffee to traders, before it is then sold across the country. The market is “free”, meaning farmers can sell their coffee to anyone with minimal restrictions.
While some of South Sudan’s coffee is exported for international consumption, this is a miniscule volume. For approximately four years from 2012 to 2016, Nespresso purchased all the coffee produced for international export in the country, and sold it across Europe and the US as part of the “Limited Edition Grand Cru SULUJA ti South Sudan” capsule line.
As far as domestic consumption is concerned, South Sudan has a unique historic culture of consuming coffee. Guhwah coffee is prepared and served in a jebena – a flask made out of red clay. This ceremony is somewhat similar to those which are popular in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
“South Sudanese people do drink coffee,” Paul says. “However, most coffee is imported from Uganda.
“All of the coffee produced in South Sudan is consumed locally, most of it at home. People buy green coffee and roast it themselves,” he adds.
In this case, people will roast the coffee in a large pan over an open flame. After the roasted beans have cooled, they are ground using a pestle and mortar. Black pepper or ground ginger is often added to the coffee before it’s boiled.
Robusta coffee grown in South Sudan is aromatic, with mild, woody flavours and a balanced body.
Threats to genetic diversity
Like most aspects of life in South Sudan, coffee production has suffered as a result of continuous conflict and political instability.
“The wild population of arabica is at risk of extinction,” Christophe tells me. “It is a paradoxical situation, because at the same time that we’re discovering the genetic diversity of the country’s arabica, we are also at risk of losing it.”
Christophe adds that this is also a result of the effects of climate change and deforestation. Because of these factors, researchers are unable to acquire more genetic information on South Sudan’s wild arabica trees.
Sarada says that one of the goals of their research was to establish a gene bank, which could increase local arabica production. However, she explains that she and the other researchers have not been able to return to the country.
“It is very important that we go back and collect more gene samples from these plants, so that they are preserved and their genetic diversity is not lost,” she tells me.
Sarada explains that the research team is attempting to preserve South Sudanese arabica populations in forests and gene banks. Collections in gene banks allow the researchers to study the characteristics of this coffee, such as flavour profile, and resilience to climate change, pests, and diseases.
“We need to have more collections in gene banks for these species, as well as more policies from the government to protect coffee forests, such as the Yayu Reserve and the Kafa Biosphere Reserve,” she says. “We don’t know how resilient South Sudanese arabica is, therefore we have to protect and preserve these wild populations.”
Overcoming challenges in South Sudan’s coffee industry
As a result of the ongoing conflict in the country, there has not been a focus on developing infrastructure, land access, and improving farm practices in South Sudan. Co-operatives also struggle to restart operations at wet mills, which makes it more difficult to process or export coffee.
What’s more, the lack of public and private investment in South Sudan’s coffee sector has prevented any further development.
“The main challenge today is the unstable political situation, which does not allow most global markets to source coffee from South Sudan,” Delphine explains. ”We are hopeful that once the situation stabilises, we will be able to restart our programme.”
Many farmers have fled coffee-growing regions because of violence, which means coffee production has almost completely stopped. This labour shortage is also exacerbated by young people migrating to cities in search of work opportunities which they view as more economically significant.
However, there is some promise for the country’s coffee sector. In remote areas, information on planting coffee trees and mulching (applying a layer of material to the surface of soil) is freely shared with farmers via radio stations. This is especially helpful for less experienced farmers who have not received any kind of formal training.
“We’re keen to return and help farmers restart the wet mills so they can export coffee,” Paul says. “There is a big opportunity for the sector to grow.
“We continue to provide advice and support to nurseries which are run by farmer groups and local entrepreneurs to produce coffee seedlings,” he concludes.
The South Sudanese government is open to coffee production as a way to diversify and boost the country’s economy, especially as it seeks to move away from oil exports.
Furthermore, with ongoing peace negotiations in the country, farmers could end up restarting exports in the years to come. In the future, the country could fulfil its potential and coffee production could provide job security and a livelihood for thousands of people.
Ultimately, while it is currently inaccessible, if things improve, South Sudan could become a more prominent coffee origin in the years to come. For that to happen, however, conflict in the country will almost certainly need to come to an end.
Enjoyed this? Then try our article on understanding coffee & direct trade in East Africa.
Photo credits: TechnoServe
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