Exploring coffee production in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone, a West African country which borders the Atlantic Ocean, Liberia, and Guinea, is mostly known for its cocoa production, rather than growing coffee.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, Sierra Leone produced around 20,000 tonnes of coffee per year. However, following a civil war in 1991, most coffee farms were abandoned, and subsequently, production volumes sharply declined.
Despite the conflict ending in the early 2000s, coffee production unfortunately never reached the levels seen in previous decades. Furthermore, low coffee prices at that time meant many producers had little incentive to continue growing coffee.
According to Index Mundi, Sierra Leone is expected to produce around 50,000 60kg bags of green coffee in the 2021/22 harvest season – more than a 33% decrease on the previous year. But is there hope of the country’s production volumes increasing in the coming years?
To find out, I spoke with Wahlid Basoon and Dr. Jeremy Haggar. Read on to find out what they had to say about Sierra Leone’s coffee sector.
You may also like our article on Coffea stenophylla.
An overview of coffee production in Sierra Leone
Dr. Jeremy Haggar is a Professor of Agroecology at the University of Greenwich. He also co-wrote Lost and Found: Coffea stenophylla and C. affinis, the Forgotten Coffee Crop Species of West Africa with Dr. Aaron Davis of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
He tells me about the history of Sierra Leone’s coffee industry.
“Prior to the civil war in 1991, coffee production volumes were higher than cocoa,” he says. “Now, there are many abandoned coffee farms, mostly in the northeastern province of the country.”
Walid Bahsoon is an entrepreneur in Sierra Leone.
“Most of the coffee plants in Sierra Leone today were planted before the war,” he says. “A lack of funds means farmers aren’t able to buy fertilisers, so their yields have dropped.
“However, there are some initiatives which support farmers to plant new seedlings and increase production,” he adds. “There is more than enough arable land in Sierra Leone [to accommodate for more coffee plants]”.
Jeremy says that in 2013, an EU-funded programme was launched in Sierra Leone in an attempt to rehabilitate abandoned coffee farms. The project involved carrying out intensive pruning of ageing coffee plants, as well as providing producers with more farm inputs (such as fertilisers). While there may have been some levels of success from the initiative, production volumes still remain low.
Coffee in Sierra Leone is mainly grown in the Eastern province, which covers Kenema, Kailahun, and KonoKono. Other notable coffee growing areas in the country include the districts of Pujuhem, Koinadugu and Tonkolili, Moyamba, and Bo.
The majority of coffee production is carried out by third or fourth-generation smallholder farmers. The average size of a coffee farm in the country is 4ha, according to the International Coffee Organisation.
“Harvesting is mostly done by hand,” Walid tells me.
Coffee is harvested between December and March in Sierra Leone. After picking, the cherries are placed on patios to dry. However, because of higher levels of rainfall in late March, cherries harvested during this time are not able to reach the optimal moisture level (between 10% and 12%) for export.
As a result of this, as well as other complex reasons, Sierra Leone isn’t known for producing high-quality coffee – despite its potential to do so.
“Most of the country’s smallholder producers grow coffee on small parcels of land, so productivity is low,” Jeremy explains. “The co-operative model for coffee in the country is not fully developed because the market for cocoa is bigger.”
For example, Sierra Leone earned US $47.3 million in cocoa exports in 2020, compared to US $4.79 million in coffee earnings in the same year.
Most coffee grown in the country is naturally processed, as most farmers pick the beans and dry them as cherry on their farms. There have been attempts to establish washing stations, but many have been unsuccessful. Jeremy says this is because it would require significant restructuring of the country’s coffee market, as well as training and providing resources to farmers
“Producers would have to invest a lot more in harvesting,” he explains. “There would need to be a big incentive for them to do this successfully, [but currently there isn’t because coffee prices remain low.]”
Sierra Leone’s “lost” coffee species
However, despite the fact that coffee production in Sierra Leone faces its own share of challenges, some believe there are signs that it could help to offer diversification in the specialty coffee industry.
This is largely thanks to the rediscovery of Coffea stenophylla, a wild-growing coffee species which is native to West Africa.
The species was first scientifically described in 1834. It’s widely believed that it was cultivated at scale as early as the late 19th century, along with liberica, another species native to West Africa.
Between 2017 and 2019, a research team from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew travelled across Sierra Leone to find wild-growing stenophylla plants. Prior to their trip, the last official sighting of the coffee species was in 1954.
Although initial fieldwork was unsuccessful, the researchers eventually found a small population of stenophylla plants growing at a low elevation. Researchers concluded that stenophylla was more resilient than arabica, mainly because it could withstand higher temperatures.
There has been little sensory or agronomic evaluation of stenophylla. However, in the years since discovering more stenophylla plants, a small sample of green beans were sent to Union Hand Roasted Coffee in London, who roasted and cupped the coffee. Their Q graders scored the coffee as equivalent to specialty grade on an arabica scale, although the exact score hasn’t been confirmed.
Today, Sierra Leone primarily produces robusta, but stenophylla is still grown on a small number of farms – although production volumes are negligible.
How is coffee marketed and traded?
Compared to other West African countries, Sierra Leone’s coffee market is significantly less developed.
In previous years, the country’s coffee exports and farmgate prices were regulated by the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board. Unfortunately, the country’s farmgate prices were lower than the global average price at the time – which was another reason for the widespread decline in coffee production. Today, it is believed that farmgate prices in Sierra Leone are around 40% to 50% of the global average price.
Wahlid says up to 80% of the country’s coffee is exported, and can now be directly purchased by private companies. International traders buy between 70% and 75% of annual production volumes, while the remaining volumes are purchased by local traders or “unofficial” exporters.
The latter are traders who don’t officially (or legally) declare where the green coffee is being shipped to. Walid tells me that most of this coffee is smuggled to neighbouring countries, such as Liberia and Guinea – where it most likely cannot be traced back to Sierra Leone.
Exporters sometimes have buying agents visit farms around three to four months prior to harvest. These agents can lend money to producers, usually based on the premise that the farmer will provide them with a certain volume of coffee.
It’s also common for buying agents from neighbouring countries to visit farms before the harvest period begins. However, these agents are only allowed to purchase up to 25% of the total harvest.
During the harvest season, buying agents will collect coffee from farms, pay the producers, and then transport the coffee to a consolidating agent. This agent will combine all the coffee together into trucks and ship it to exporters – which can result in less of a focus on quality control.
Coffee consumption in Sierra Leone
Despite its long history of coffee production, consumption remains low in Sierra Leone. For most people in the country, coffee is seen as a luxury item.
Those who do drink it usually prepare coffee by boiling roasted whole beans or ground coffee in a large pot. Street vendors often sell this from kiosks in larger cities and towns.
Walid says instant coffee products are also popular.
“Instant Nescafé products imported from the Ivory Coast were first introduced to Sierra Leone in 2010,” he tells me. “These products are affordable and convenient, [so more people are buying them].”
However, Jeremy says that coffee consumption is starting to develop in the country.
“There is a developing coffee culture in Sierra Leone,” he tells me. “There are two or three roasters and coffee shops in Freetown, which is the capital city,” he says.
“They also brew and sell coffee grown in the country,” he adds.
Walid explains that consumption of coffee typically increases significantly during Ramadan, when Muslim people pray for extended periods. This is mainly because coffee can be used as an appetite suppressant during fasting periods.
Addressing challenges in the sector
There are many difficulties which face coffee farmers in Sierra Leone, but one of the most significant issues is child labour.
A 2021 report from the US Department of Labor found that more than 35% of children aged between five and 14 in Sierra Leone are being forced to work. And while the report stated that the country’s government had made “‘moderate’ advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour”, there is still much progress to be made to end child labour altogether.
Beyond child labour, Jeremy says that low production volumes and interest in coffee production remains key issues, too.
“There is plenty of demand for cocoa, so production volumes are high for this cash crop,” he says. “The cocoa market receives more investment and has higher standards of quality control, but this has not happened for the coffee sector.
“There is the capacity to grow Sierra Leone’s coffee sector, but current market conditions can’t support the growth,” he adds.
Despite this, Jeremy tells me that the country’s government is interested in developing the industry.
Wahlid, meanwhile, agrees, but says the government needs to provide further support.
“In previous years, the government set a universal farmgate price that was calculated in a way to maximise its revenue,” he says. “However, the government currently does not dictate farmgate prices, so the market regulates itself.”
While this market model may work in other coffee-producing countries, it’s clear that both investment and policy are needed if Sierra Leone’s coffee industry is to develop. At present, there are no policies in place encouraging banks to provide long-term loans to farm workers. While short-term credit facilities are available, interest rates can often exceed 25%.
Some NGOs and overseas governments are doing what they can to support coffee production in the country. For instance, earlier this year, the European Union launched the Boosting Agriculture and Food Security (BAFS) project. Among other pledges, the programme aims to provide more support to supply chain actors in Sierra Leone’s coffee, cocoa, and cashew agricultural industries.
In addition to this, the World Bank is currently running several initiatives in the country. These include a Smallholder Commercialisation and Agribusiness Development Project which hopes to “foster productive business linkages between smallholder farmers and selected agribusiness firms and other commodity off-takers”.
Following decades of conflict and political instability, Sierra Leone’s coffee sector continues to struggle. While there is certainly potential for it to grow higher-quality coffee, a lack of adequate finance, legislation, and government oversight means more support is essential.
Furthermore, while there is interest from the specialty coffee sector in Coffea stenophylla, any attempts to scale coffee production will certainly require more investment and interest.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring coffee production in Ghana.
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!