Wild Ethiopian Coffee: Harvesting the Perks of an Indigenous Crop

Pin It

By Matt Styslinger

It is hard to imagine modern life without coffee. But one thing that rarely crosses our minds as we sip our morning cups is that coffee is an African native.

Wild Arabica coffee naturally occurs exclusively under the shade of trees in the isolated highland forests of Southern Ethiopia. (Photo credit: Paola Viesi)

Worldwide coffee is a $90 billion a year industry, there are 125 million people whose livelihoods depend on it, and 25 million of those are small-scale farmers in developing countries whose sole source of income is coffee production. Of the two globally cultivated coffee species (Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora)—commonly known as Arabica and Robusta—Arabica is the most admired and dominates 70 percent of all coffee production. The species naturally occurs exclusively in the isolated highland forests of Southern Ethiopia.

For thousands of years, people living in the Ethiopian highlands have traditionally been roasting coffee berries and grinding them in a mortar. Coffee is often served with hot water and sugar to guests as part of a ritual of hospitality and respect. It was not until around the sixth century that coffee spread to the Arabian Peninsula, and eventually throughout the world.

In the past 30 years—as a result of poverty and a growing local population—Ethiopia’s highland forests have been shrinking from deforestation for farmland, timber extraction, and the growing size of human settlements. Biodiversity is rapidly being lost in this delicate ecosystem. Recent research indicates that the natural diversity among the wild coffee cultivars in Ethiopia is high. Some of them have shown resistance to drought conditions—a trait that could become increasingly valuable. Many coffee growing regions across the continent and the world are becoming drier from climate change, and the livelihoods of millions of coffee growers are at stake. But as Ethiopia’s forests degrade, wild coffee—and a valuable genetic resource—is becoming endangered.

Hoping to improve diets and livelihoods by preserving indigenous foods around the world, Slow Food International is compiling a database of indigenous crops or  the Ark of Taste.  The ark is helping to rediscover, catalog, and popularize endangered crops that Slow Food believes have real commercial potential. Slow food has recently added wild coffee from the Ethiopian highlands—which it calls Harenna wild coffee after the forest where it grows—to the list.

The Harenna forest is located at an elevation of 1,800 meters in Ethiopia’s Bale National Park. Wild coffee gatherers typically harvest the berries by hand, competing with baboons who also eat them. They dry them in the sun on suspended nets and then sell them in local markets for low prices.

In 2007, Slow Food began training 64 gatherers on improved harvesting and drying techniques. Gatherers are also trained in organizational and business skills. The goal is to help locals produce a consistent, quality product that can then be marketed worldwide as a specialty product. Slow Food believes that wild coffee can sell for premium prices by emphasizing its natural and eco-friendly qualities. A certification process would be needed to authenticate the product’s origins and sustainable harvesting, although that process does not yet exist. The added economic value would not only improve the incomes of local people, it could also help slow deforestation as gatherers become better stewards to preserve their product.

The prices of coffee exported from Africa have steadily declined over the years, in part due to lack of competitiveness in the global market and limited access to premium sellers. Further development of a wild coffee industry—as well as research into the development of cultivars that are better suited to various coffee growing regions on the continent—could enhance the quality of African coffee and contribute to poverty alleviation.

To read more about crops indigenous to Africa see: Black Plum: Fruit, Timber, and Agroforestry, Safou: the “Butterfruit” , Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, Monkey Oranges: Mouthwatering Potential, The Green Gold of Africa, Fonio: Africa’s Oldest Cereal Needs More Attention, The Locust Bean: An Answer to Africa’s Greatest Needs in One Tree, and Lablab: The Bountiful, Beautiful Legume, Moringa: The Giving Tree, Black-eyed Peas to the Rescue.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Similar posts:
  1. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste: Harenna Wild Coffee
  2. The Taming of the Dika: West Africa’s Most Eligible Wild Tree
  3. Tsamma Melons: Watermelon’s Wild Cousins
  4. Black Plum: Fruit, Timber, and Agroforestry
  5. Breeding Respect for Indigenous Seeds
  6. Nourishing the Planet in the Ethiopian News
  7. Indigenous Farming Methods: Mitigating the Effects of Climate Change While Boosting Food Production
  8. Monkey Oranges: Mouthwatering Potential