August 23, 2023

Could Sri Lanka produce more specialty coffee in the future?


Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island nation in South Asia situated off the southern tip of India. As far back as the late 1800s, Sri Lanka was a prominent producer of coffee. In fact, it was one of the biggest coffee-growing countries in the world during the 1860s. 

Sadly, however, production volumes began to decline shortly after for a number of reasons. Today, although the country is not widely recognised for its coffee, its unique tropical climate is well suited for coffee production. Moreover, as a result of climate change, coffee cultivation is becoming more widespread in Sri Lanka. 

Over the past few decades, yields have been steadily increasing. According to data from the Sri Lanka Export Development Board, coffee exports rose by a staggering 84% between 2017 and 2019.

At the same time, the quality of Sri Lankan coffee is also improving. This is largely attributed to industry stakeholders and supply chain actors establishing better connections with producers. In turn, this helps them to implement farming best practices and develop more formal training programmes. 

So how could Sri Lanka start growing more specialty coffee and unlock the full potential of its coffee sector? To find out, I spoke to several industry professionals at the Market Development Facility, as well as three local coffee companies. Read on to find out more.

You may also like our article on specialty coffee in Sri Lanka: from production to consumption.

A female farmer harvests red coffee cherries.
A female farmer at UpCountry Brothers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka harvests red coffee cherries.

When was coffee first grown in Sri Lanka?

Coffee was first introduced to Sri Lanka in the early 16th century, but only the plants’ leaves and flowers were used (largely for culinary and ceremonial purposes). It was during Dutch colonial rule (which lasted until 1796) that coffee was grown for consumption, but first attempts were relatively unsuccessful.

However, under British colonial rule, the country’s coffee sector began to expand. It was around 1864 that production peaked – with around 111,289 ha used for growing coffee. Unfortunately, this success was relatively short-lived.

In 1868, a major outbreak of coffee leaf rust devastated Sri Lankan coffee production. This forced many producers to grow tea instead. By the 1890s, the area used for coffee cultivation had shrunk to around 4,609 ha

The following century was somewhat of a slow path to recovery for Sri Lanka’s coffee sector, but progress was made. In the 1980s, farmers were growing coffee across 12,140 ha – resulting in the country’s exports reaching a record 3.3 million kg.

Over the past decade or so, there has been significant investment in the Sri Lankan coffee sector, which has helped to steadily increase both yields and quality.

An overview of Sri Lankan coffee production

Today, Sri Lanka grows both robusta and arabica. But production of the latter has grown in recent years – largely due to the efforts of the Department of Export Agriculture in Sri Lanka, which has been actively encouraging arabica production in the central highlands. This area includes the main arabica-growing regions such as Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Kandy, and Matale.

Rinosh Nasar is the founder and CEO of Soul Coffee Company, which exclusively sells Sri Lankan coffee. 

“Today, while most coffee produced in Sri Lanka is robusta, arabica planting has increased significantly in recent years,” he says. “It’s soon expected that arabica production volumes will surpass those for robusta.”

The main reason for this has been the extensive development of and investment in planting arabica varieties. During the 1980s, the San Ramon variety (which is related to Typica) was intercropped with tea, followed by Catimor in the 1990s and Lakparakum in the 2000s.

The Lakparakum variety in particular is preferred by farmers because of its high yields, uniform ripening patterns, and tolerance to coffee leaf rust, as well as its potential for high cup quality.

Other common arabica varieties grown in Sri Lanka include S9 and HDT.

When it comes to exports, the country’s Export Development Board states that the US, Middle East, Maldives, Australia, China, and Japan are some of the major markets for Sri Lankan coffee.

What about processing methods?

Post-harvest activities, including processing techniques, are believed to be responsible for up to 60% of final cup quality. This means they are vital to consider.

Kushan Samararatne is the general manager at Colombo Coffee Company, a total coffee solutions provider in Sri Lanka.

“Washed and natural processing methods are the most common,” he says.

However, in the early 2010s, there were only a few processing facilities (as well as roasting companies) across the country. In turn, most producers process coffee on their farms.

Subraja Subramaniam is part of the Research, Impact, Measurement, and Inclusion (RIMI) team at the Market Development Facility. Funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, MDF is a multi-country initiative that promotes sustainable economic development throughout the Pacific region, including in Sri Lanka.

“Most of the country’s coffee that is exported is processed on farms, and producers generally use natural sun-drying processing techniques,” she says. “The country’s centralised processing system also uses washed processing methods, which tend to receive higher cup scores and better cup quality.”

Farm workers dry coffee cherries.
Staff at UpCountry Brothers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka dry coffee cherries.

Opportunities to improve coffee quality

Like in many other coffee-growing countries, Sri Lankan producers face certain challenges when it comes to scaling yields and improving quality.

MDF defines four key opportunities to invest in Sri Lanka’s coffee sector:

  • Scaling coffee-growing areas
  • Expanding coffee smallholder groups and improving quality on farms
  • Developing processing facilities
  • Improving industry coordination and promotion

It’s estimated that up to 80% of the island nation’s total coffee production comes from smallholder farmers, who are more likely to require additional support and improved access to financial resources.

Additionally, women represent about 60% of the workforce, so ensuring gender equity initiatives are in place is essential. This is particularly important because closing the gender gap in coffee production could increase global output by 4%. This equates to around 30 billion extra cups of coffee per year.

Deshan Wickremasinghe is the Business Advisor for the Coffee Unit at MDF

“The main barriers to the growth of the Sri Lankan coffee sector are low yields, inconsistencies in quality, and limitations to producer knowledge,” he says. “While there are 23 large regional plantation companies in Sri Lanka, they are mainly focused on producing tea and rubber. 

“However, they are actively diversifying their crops, and coffee is one of the major crops that producers are considering growing,” he adds.

Around 200,000 ha is currently used for tea cultivation in Sri Lanka, yet marginal and unproductive land has been left abandoned. Converting small parcels of this land to coffee cultivation could help boost production levels significantly.

With a focus on processing methods in particular, there is also huge potential to develop the country’s centralised processing facilities. In theory, this would help to better maintain uniformity of green coffee, as well as preserve quality and minimise waste.

A focus on training and education

Vishan Rajakaruna is a Business Advisor for the Coffee Unit at MDF. He emphasises how farming best practices are integral to growing higher-quality coffee.

“Farmers need to be educated on plant maintenance, such as pruning and applying nutrients, to ensure healthy plant growth,” he mentions. “They also need to be trained on selective picking techniques to harvest only ripe cherries, while also understanding how certain harvesting and post-harvest management practices can impact quality.

“To enhance farmer knowledge, we must also share information with them about how the specialty coffee market functions,” he adds.

Kushan agrees, saying: “Developing overall coffee quality in Sri Lanka requires a multi-faceted approach which focuses on implementing best practices, raising awareness about the financial benefits of complying with these practices, increasing knowledge sharing, and investing in better infrastructure and equipment.”

Beyond production, however, there are other ways to support the Sri Lanka coffee industry – as increasing domestic consumption is crucial, too.

For instance, local roasters need to know how to source high-quality coffee, as well as how to best roast and store coffee. At the same time, coffee shop owners and baristas need to receive formal training and have access to high-quality equipment. Eventually, this could lead to more Sri Lankan baristas competing at an international level, including at the World Coffee Championships.

Female farm workers mill coffee cherries.
Processing centre workers at UpCountry Brothers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka mill coffee cherries.

Could Sri Lanka become a more renowned specialty coffee origin in the future?

Considering its history and the recent level of investment in farmer training, it’s certainly evident that Sri Lanka has plenty of potential to grow higher-quality coffee – as long as producers receive the right support.

Tharanga Muramudali is the founder and Chairman of Helanta Coffee, a coffee farm and processing facility in Sri Lanka. 

“There is a clear production gap when it comes to Sri Lankan specialty coffee,” he says. “Harvest volumes are too low, so we need to encourage farmers to plant new trees.

“There is also a knowledge gap regarding harvesting and processing techniques,” he adds. “Baristas also need to be upskilled as they have the potential to be the face of Sri Lankan coffee on a global scale, especially at events and competitions.”

Along with other industry stakeholders, MDF has played an important role in supporting these areas of the country’s coffee sector – including publishing the Sri Lanka Arabica coffee value chain analysis report and Sri Lanka’s Coffee Renaissance: A Guide to the Specialty Coffee Industry.

“MDF has been a key player in the Sri Lankan specialty coffee sector over the past few years,” Rinosh explains. “The organisation has been actively partnering with supply chain actors in the Sri Lankan coffee industry, and has been championing its growth. 

“Today, MDF is a pivotal stakeholder in developing the sector even further by providing funding for projects, sharing technical knowledge, and offering specialised support services,” he adds.

Increasing the market for Sri Lankan specialty coffee

Vishan explains that MDF attended the 2022 Melbourne International Coffee Expo, where it showcased Sri Lankan specialty coffee on a global scale. 

“There was a very positive response – people enjoyed the unique flavour profiles,” he tells me. “Sri Lankan coffee usually has notes of orange with pleasant acidity and a very good body.

“The expo generated a lot of interest in Sri Lanka as a specialty coffee origin, with Sri Lankan coffee receiving cupping scores as high as 86 points,” he adds.

Female employees at Upcountry Brothers in central highlands of Sri Lanka sort and separate coffee cherries.
Female employees at Upcountry Brothers in central highlands of Sri Lanka sort and separate coffee cherries.

Given its history, Sri Lanka has plenty of potential to keep growing higher-quality coffee. Moreover, with improved access to resources and more formal training opportunities, the future seems promising.

However, for production to grow sustainably, the country’s coffee sector needs ongoing support – most notably when it comes to scaling coffee-growing areas and improving best practices for processing methods.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on micro lots & Monsoon Malabar: India’s future as a coffee origin.

Photo credits: Market Development Facility, Upcountry Brothers

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Please note: Market Development Facility is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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