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Central African Republic Coffee Production: A Rich History and Current Challenges

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a landlocked country in Central Africa possessing significant natural resources and large amounts of arable land. Despite this, it ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world and is, unfortunately, a typical example of ‘the natural resource curse’: whilst coffee and other crops once provided an income for hundreds of thousands of people, the direct and indirect impacts of long-standing conflict have had a severe impact on the sector and the Central African Republic’s two coffee-growing regions.



The History of Coffee Growing in The Central African Republic


In 1910, the French government took control of land in Central Africa, including what is now known as the Central African Republic. They leased large swathes of land to private European companies who, in exchange for rent, were given free rein to use both the land and its people. These concessionary companies relied on forced labour to turn rapid profits. Initially the focus was on wild rubber, but the mid-1920s saw a shift towards plantation agriculture as wild rubber vines became scarce and global rubber prices collapsed. Forests were cleared for cash and food crops, such as tobacco, palm oil, cassava and coffee. Various coffee species, including excelsa, robusta and arabica, were already known to grow across the region, having been discovered by French botanists several years earlier.


Excelsa was the species of choice on coffee plantations. This potential was short-lived however as coffee wilt disease was discovered in a plantation near Bangui in 1927. Whilst the disease developed slowly at first, by the 1940s, it had withered almost all of the Central African Republic’s excelsa production. New plantations cultivating robusta were then established in the west and in the Ubangui valley. By the time of the CAR’s independence in 1960, as much as 94% of land under coffee cultivation was robusta, with 4% under arabica nana and 1.7% under excelsa.


After gaining independence, the Central African Republic’s coffee production remained an important contributor to the economy, though it fluctuated wildly. Coffee farmers often found it difficult to compete on the international market with their coffee, and because the country signed the 1962 International Coffee Agreement, coffee exports were limited to strict quotas.


In the latter half of the twentieth century, the coffee sector in the Central African Republic received substantial support from international donors, which led to various improvement initiatives being established. However, although production increased for a period, the potential of long-term improvement was constrained by the weakness and limited capacity of government institutions.


The Central African Republic’s coffee sector also went through several crises between the late 80s and early 90s. Internally, decades of economic mismanagement had resulted in soaring national debt and severe economic decline. Neoliberal economic reforms were imposed and the bankrupt coffee sector went through restructuring and liberalisation. CAISTAB, the marketing board responsible for fixing coffee prices and purchasing coffee, was disbanded in 1990 and arrears owed to farmers were not paid for several years. Compounding this was the fall in world coffee prices, ongoing political instability and the withdrawal of donor support for the sector. Many farmers had little option but to abandon the coffee sector.


Life in the Central African Republic remains unstable. Civil war has been ongoing since 2013 and waves of violence and displacement are common. The current state of the coffee industry in the Central African Republic appears to be one of paradox; on the one hand, the sector has been severely impacted by ongoing violence. On the other, armed groups purposely seek to maintain demand, generating significant income from extorting those involved in the coffee sector.



Coffee Farming in The Central African Republic


During the colonial era, most coffee in the Central African Republic was produced on relatively large plantations of 50 to 500 hectares. Nowadays, very few of these remain, and the vast majority of production comes from smaller family farms of 1 to 10 hectares. At peak production, the Central African Republic’s coffee provided a livelihood for more than 400,000 people, and land utilised for coffee cultivation amounted to around 65,000 hectares.


Coffee plants now cover an estimated 40,000 hectares in the CAR, though a large part is not farmed. Whilst reports from the early 2000s made reference to around 70,000 coffee farmers in the country, the figure is likely now much lower due to the escalating violence over the last few years. Very few processing cooperatives are still operational.



Where is Coffee Produced in The Central African Republic?


Coffee cultivation in the Central African Republic has primarily been concentrated in two regions: the southwest and the southeast.


Coffee-growing southwestern provinces can be found within the Northwestern Congolian lowland forests. Spanning several countries (including the CAR) the ecoregion forms part of the wider Congolian rainforests. Average annual rainfall is between 1,400 and 2,00mm and the climate is midway between a tropical rainforest and a tropical savannah. Temperatures range between lows of 18 degrees and highs of around 30 degrees, whilst much of the terrain sits on nutrient-poor oxisol soil.


The region is also home to the Bayaka people. Traditionally a nomadic hunter-gatherer group, the Bayaka peoples’ lifestyle has been permanently altered by the expansion of industry in the forest region, with many working for wages on coffee farms during the harvest season.


Many farmers in the southwest have abandoned their coffee crops since the start of the 2013 civil war. Although less directly impacted by the violence, government agencies stopped providing financial and technical support and the region’s crops have been affected by disease. European and Lebanese export companies also withdrew and road infrastructure has majorly deteriorated, effectively isolating the region from previous trade routes.


The coffee industry in the southeast of the Central African Republic continues to thrive as armed groups prop up demand. They are estimated to generate over £2m annually from predatory taxation. Coffee from southeastern CAR traditionally has been split between the international export market in Bangui and an ancient regional trade route with Sudan. Sudanese traders bring trucks filled with sugar, flour, oil, and plastic goods to local markets and return with coffee and other goods, such as sesame seeds and bamboo. As regional instability cut road routes to Bangui, armed groups stepped in to control the Sudan route.


The southeast is also home to forests although they are not as dense as in the southwest. Average low temperatures are around 20 degrees whilst average highs can reach up to 35 degrees. Average annual rainfall is around 1,700mm.



Coffee Types and Varietals in The Central African Republic


Several known coffee species have historically been known to grow wild in the Central African Republic, including robusta, liberica and excelsa, although the latter was recently reclassified as a variety of liberica. Because of the decimation of excelsa plantations in the twentieth century, the Central African Republic produces exclusively robusta coffee.



What is The Flavour Profile of Coffee From The Central African Republic?


With the predominance of Robusta in the country, it can be assumed that coffee from the Central African Republic shares a profile similar to the traditional Robusta profile, that is to say, full-bodied, with a flavour that can sometimes border on earthy and bitter.



Central African Republic Coffee Harvest Date


The coffee harvesting season in the Central African Republic starts in November and carries on through December.



Annual Coffee Production of The Central African Republic


Coffee production in the Central African Republic peaked at over 20,000 tons during the 1988/1989 coffee season. Since then, production has fluctuated depending on crop cycles, but has overall decreased significantly. Between 2010 and 2019, production was as low as 1400 tonnes, or 23,000 bags in 2012 and rose to as high as 6000 tonnes, or 100,000 bags in 2015.



Annual Coffee Export Volume of The Central African Republic


The Central African Republic exports exclusively robusta coffee. According to the International Coffee Organisation, just over 2100 tonnes, or 35,100 60kg bags, were exported in crop year 2021. This is a slight increase on the 2040 tonnes, or 34,000 bags exported in crop year 2020. Overall though, the ICO reports that coffee exports from the country have fallen by over 60% since the 90s.


More recently, coffee exports in the Central African Republic have been significantly impacted by ongoing conflict. The Sudanese trade route is the main means by which coffee from the conflict-ridden southeast is exported to serve the strong domestic market in Sudan. Armed groups have generated millions of pounds from extorting locals and traders by controlling roadblocks and striking deals with the agriculture board to take a percentage of taxes. Much of the coffee trade is believed to circumvent official government controls which explains such low official export figures.


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