How is specialty coffee produced in Liberia?
Liberia is a West African country which borders Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. The country is the oldest republic in Africa, and declared its independence in 1847 – which was internationally recognised in 1862.
According to Index Mundi, Liberia’s coffee production peaked at 209,000 60kg bags in 1985. But in the years since, coffee production has dropped considerably for a number of complex reasons. As part of this decline, more farmers are growing more profitable cash crops instead, such as cocoa and natural rubber.
However, when it comes to its coffee production, Liberia is perhaps best known for Coffea liberica: a coffee species that produces large cherries. In part, this helps to enhance the sweetness of liberica, as well as prolonging its aftertaste. In recent years, these qualities have helped to increase liberica’s presence in the specialty coffee sector.
To learn more about whether Liberia’s coffee sector can grow in the coming years, I spoke to two local experts. Read on for more of their insight.
You may also like our article on Coffea liberica.
A history of coffee in Liberia
In order to understand the Liberian coffee sector, we first need to take a look at the country’s complex history.
Indigenous people have been living in West Africa for millennia, including in Liberia. Archaeologists have found clear evidence that human activity dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period in the region.
However, Liberia’s population increased significantly in the early 19th century. Under the guidance of the American Colonisation Society, former slaves in the US migrated (albeit some of this was forced) to Africa.
The organisation, which was founded in 1816, was designed to encourage liberated slaves to leave the US – but mainly for prejudiced and discriminatory reasons. Understandably, many African Americans strongly opposed the organisation, however, others believed that migrating out of the US could result in them facing less social and legal oppression.
Many former slaves who migrated (whether willing or unwilling) settled in Liberia. In 1848, the country elected Joseph Jenkins Roberts as its first president, but it took another 14 years to globally recognise Liberia as an independent state.
However, there was clear division between US migrants and indigenous Liberian communities, such as the Kru and Grebo people. This was for a number of complex reasons, including establishing plantations and forcing indigenous people to work as slaves.
As a result of forced labour, as well as receiving significant investment from the US, Liberia’s exports began to increase. While most of these exports were rubber, the country also traded small volumes of coffee.
Following a military coup in 1980 and an insurrection in 1989, however, the country entered decades of civil unrest and conflict. As well as the devastating impact on the country’s coffee sector, thousands of people died.
A brief history of Coffea liberica
Although Liberia mostly grows robusta, it is arguably more well-known for another coffee species: liberica.
According to the 2022 research paper The re-emergence of Liberica coffee as a major crop plant, liberica is indigenous to most of the tropical regions in West and Central Africa.
It’s believed that after growing wild for centuries, liberica seeds were disseminated from Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in the 1870s for wider commercial coffee production. In turn, several Southeast Asian countries started to grow liberica instead of arabica, which was under threat because of coffee leaf rust outbreaks at the time.
The paper also states that between 1880 and 1900, global production volumes of liberica were similar to that of arabica in some countries. This was mostly because liberica is a robust, high-yielding plant which can grow at low elevations and produce large cherries – which made it favourable among farmers.
However, liberica’s popularity proved to be short-lived. Following concerns over poor quality, there was a significant drop in demand for liberica. This is was mostly related to the large size of the cherries, which made it difficult to process them.
Understanding coffee production in Liberia
Robert Kollie is the Board Chair at Green Future Agro Inc. in Liberia.
“Coffee producers in Liberia grow robusta and liberica,” he says.
Robusta mostly grows in central and northern Liberia. Some of the biggest coffee-producing regions include Nimba, Lofa, Bong, Grand Cape Mount, River Gee, and Margibi.
“At our co-operative, we sell seedlings and planting materials to farmers,” Robert explains. “We also provide technical support to farmers, and if a producer wants to manage their own farm or start a coffee business, we help them to estimate costs.”
However, because of years of conflict, many farmers abandoned their coffee farms.
In an attempt to revitalise the country’s coffee sector, the International Trade Centre (ITC) helped to disseminate some 4,400 seedlings to farmers. However, it’s clear that more work needs to be done.
Tyler Papula is the co-founder and CEO at Liberica Coffee Company in Liberia. He also works in partnership with Save More Kids as a Campaign and Project Co-ordinator, as well as with the SMK Agricultural Co-operative. The latter helps to provide agricultural training to farmers, as well as assisting with farm rehabilitation and infrastructure improvements, with the aim of increasing coffee quality and quantity.
He tells me that it’s common to find coffee growing wild in forests in Liberia – especially liberica. However, it can be anywhere from difficult to impossible to harvest the cherries because the plants grow so tall.
When it comes to coffee processing, Robert explains that there is a significant gap in technical knowledge and access to resources.
“There are only a very small number of processing facilities in Liberia, but even they aren’t well equipped,” he says. “Most of our farmers send their coffee to the Ivory Coast or sometimes Guinea.”
How is coffee processed and traded in Liberia?
After harvesting, almost all cherry is left to dry in the sun on patios. Following this, some farmers then export their cherry to the Ivory Coast, where it will be dry milled.
Robert tells me that Green Future Agro is working to enable more farmers to dry mill their own coffee, thereby retaining more value.
“After a training session we attended in Togo, we imported a coffee milling machine which can process dried cherry,” he says. “We plan on buying the machine so that we can better support our farmers.
“The farmers will pay a small fee at the end of every month so that we can process their coffee,” he adds.
Prior to the First Liberian Civil War, the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) was responsible for the country’s agriculture sector, including coffee. The organisation handled a number of tasks, such as providing producers with farming inputs, carrying out quality control checks, inspecting farms, and managing exports of coffee.
However, in the years since the Second Liberian Civil War, the LPMC has struggled to regain full control of coffee exports. In turn, some farmers in Liberia cross the border over to Cote d’Ivoire or Guinea to sell their dried cherry.
Other producers sell their dried cherry to agents, who then transport the coffee to the Ivory Coast, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, where it is sold. Ultimately, this means most of the coffee produced in Liberia isn’t consumed domestically.
Does Liberia roast and consume coffee?
Robert tells me that there are no real commercial roasters in Liberia.
“We want to change this,” he says. “We try to encourage farmers to taste their own coffee.
“As part of this, the ITC held a workshop on how to operate a roaster and coffee shop,” he adds.
The majority of coffee consumed in Liberia is imported from neighbouring countries. And while there are no coffee shops, some hotels and restaurants serve coffee. For the most part, people drink instant coffee, including Nescafé.
“We plan to open our own coffee shop,” Robert says. “This means Liberian farmers will be able to taste their own coffee.”
Tyler says that many of the issues which Liberian coffee farmers face are complex.
“The country’s coffee sector is somewhat disorganised,” he says. “Moreover, people don’t see Liberian coffee as being high quality.
“The biggest challenge is changing the mindset of producers,” he adds. “Some farmers are excited at the prospect of improving coffee quality and yields, but others are still hesitant.”
Moreover, there is a distinct lack of access to financial support for many coffee farmers, which means it’s difficult to acquire farming inputs like fertilisers. Ultimately, until access to resources and financial support improve, coffee quality and yields can’t increase.
Improving access to resources and support
“There is little support from the government,” Tyler explains. “This makes coffee production very difficult – farmers need access to loans, as well as more co-operatives providing seedlings to them.
“There also needs to be improvements to Liberia’s overall infrastructure,” he adds. “This way, we can encourage more entrepreneurship and mitigate corruption as well.”
For instance, the road infrastructure in some producing areas is poor, which means farmers can’t transport their coffee to processing facilities or to the capital city of Monrovia for export.
And while interest in liberica from the specialty coffee sector has increased recently – notably as a result of 2021 World Barista Championship finalist Hugh Kelly’s routine – production volumes are still too low to meet rising demand.
Robert believes that the way forward is to encourage farmers to add more value to their coffee – mainly through processing and roasting.
“For farmers, processing coffee themselves, and then roasting and tasting it, will allow them to be more engaged in growing coffee,” he says. “However, first and foremost, we need to provide high-quality farming inputs and seedlings.”
Liberia’s history is deeply complex, and the country’s coffee farmers continue to face a number of challenges. Ultimately, if things are to improve, access to financial support, infrastructure, and resources need to increase considerably.
“We have lots of land available for coffee production,” Robert concludes. “There are a lot of mountainous regions which are suitable for growing high-quality coffee, but a support system for farmers is seriously lacking.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee production in Sierra Leone.
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