Officially known as the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, this relatively unknown Portuguese speaking country is located in the Gulf of Guinea. It can be found just off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa, consisting of two archipelagos - São Tomé and Príncipe.
With a population of 201,800 as of 2018, it is the second smallest and least populated African sovereign state after Seychelles. After gaining peaceful independence in 1975, it has remained one of Africa’s most stable and democratic countries.
With volcanic soil and proximity to the equator, all the ideal elements are in place for coffee cultivation in São Tomé and Príncipe. In fact, the country has a history of plantation farming, sharing its land with other cash crops such as sugar and cocoa. Its history is also complicated and tragic, having unfortunately been concerned with the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The history of Coffee in São Tomé and Príncipe
São Tomé and Príncipe was unknown until the 15th century, when it was discovered by Portuguese explorers. What they found were uninhabited islands covered with dense jungle and volcanic soil. Over the next hundred years, the islands were turned into trading posts, making for a great checkpoint in relation to mainland bases which were being discovered around this time. Over time, it was to become and vital trade center for the Atlantic Slave Trade.
It was also during this period of establishment that sugar plantations were beginning to be established on the island. They were found to be lucrative. As the plantations were organised with foreign slave labour, this offered an even cheaper prospect for the plantation owners.
The origin of coffee on São Tomé and Príncipe may have been through arrival with Portuguese settlers in 1470. Similar to the sugar plantations, slaves were brought over from Angola and Cape Verde to work. The Portuguese settlers brought coffea arabica seedlings from Brazil, but it was not successful from the outset. It would, however, be a much more established crop on the island over time.
Coffea robusta found much more success from its outset. After planting, it became more adaptable to the local topology and climate. It is not known how robusta was introduced on the island, though one common theory is that it was brought over by slaves from Angola and Uganda.
While coffee was being farmed on São Tomé and Príncipe from 1470, it was mainly grown on small plots of land up until the 19th century, when larger plantations were established. This was due to the growing competition from other sugar-producing countries in the Western Hemisphere. Because the success of the sugar crop was at risk, the country focused on other cash crops to bolster its economy.
Since the island offered excellent conditions for coffee farming, extensive coffee plantations were established by Portuguese companies and absentee landlords. These individuals occupied the majority of good farmland in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Coffee, along with cacao and sugar offer painful memories for natives as these crops serve as reminders of the countless years of suffering for slaves. Nowadays however, coffee in São Tomé and Príncipe can serve as a source of income for the poorer communities, which can improve local economies and livelihoods.
Coffee farming in São Tomé and Príncipe
São Tomé and Príncipe is part of a volcano chain featuring an abundance of rock and coral formations, tropical rainforests, and beeches. This results in excellent growing conditions for cash crops such as coffee. The rich volcanic soil offers excellent nutrients for seeds to grow, and the country’s location in the equatorial zone allows the sprouted plants to thrive.
The island’s vegetation is lush and green due to high humidity and constant presence of clouds. This results in a hot, tropical, humid climate throughout the year. Temperatures remain at an average of 30 ºC between January to April, it lessens to around 26-27 ºC between June to August.
Plantations are situated with cocoa farms, lying at elevations averaging between 600-100 m.a.s.l. While this altitude is good for growing coffee, it is not great for growing high grade produce, since the crops would be unable to produce the preserving sugars that provide extra sweetness and lusciousness to the final product.
The one downside to São Tomé and Príncipe’s abundance of tropical weather is that it has a nine month rainy season. This results in an average of about 1,500mm of rainfall per year. This abundance of rainfall means that coffee beans need to be carefully monitored. Too much moisture will ruin them. When the beans reach moisture levels of 10-11%, they are removed from drying beds and placed into grain pro bags for storage.
Farmers need to be very careful when harvesting and storing the coffee in São Tomé and Príncipe. They are evenly distributed on beds to dry and are rotated up to 4 times a day. It takes three days for the cherries to dry on these beds. They are covered to avoid excessive water contact.
The farmers growing cash crops on São Tomé and Príncipe have a very specific farming philosophy that places a focus on working closely in harmony with the environment and its inhabitants. While output may be small, the organic quality of coffee grown on São Tomé and Príncipe is no doubt extraordinary.
Where coffee is grown in São Tomé and Príncipe
Monte Café is the area of most coffee production in São Tomé and Príncipe. It is close to the capital and the area also features a coffee museum, built with the support of UNDP in 2008.
There is also the region of Nova Moka to the southwest of the region, owned by Claudio Corallo, who is well known across São Tomé and Príncipe for being the country’s main proponent of coffee farming, having almost single-handedly revived the practise in São Tomé and Príncipe.
The region of Nova Moka can reach altitudes of around 1500 m.a.s.l, and has about 12 hectares of farmable land. It also functions as an organic farm with cultivated organic soil. Climate here is mild with a fresh breeze from the gulf of Guinea, overall making it a great region for producing coffee. Arabica, robusta, and even liberica is cultivated at Nova Moka alongside cacao. Produce is grown beneath the shade of ancient island trees, and is processed on site, where both natural and washed methods are used.
Coffee types and varietals grown in São Tomé and Príncipe
Although small, São Tomé and Príncipe offer a space for growing three types of coffee crops: arabica, robusta, and even the lesser known liberica.
Robusta seems to be the predominant crop grown, since arabica was initially difficult to cultivate when first introduced on the island. The three specific varietals used are Caturra, Red Bourbon, and Novo Mundo.
Liberica is also grown, mainly in the area of Príncipe. The almost extinct liberica trees grow very tall with huge cherries that concentrate on the top of the tip area. This not only makes yield hard to pick, but each bean needs to be peeled by hand. The added intensity of liberica farming therefore means that it is not a desired cash crop to grow. Even more so, it is not known to taste exceptional - instead known as bitter and not very flavoursome. Liberica is mainly used in the creation of chocolate products, working in harmony with the nation’s cacao farming. It can be an interesting product for specialist consumers to try.
What does coffee from São Tomé and Príncipe taste like?
Coffee grown on São Tomé and Príncipe is known to be very balanced. Its flavours are not commonly aggressive or woody. Instead, subtle, soft, and slightly fragrant notes can be found in a perfectly brewed cup.
Due to being full-bodied and with above average acidity and harmony, this coffee is excellent for blends.
When is coffee harvested in São Tomé and Príncipe?
Coffee from São Tomé and Príncipe is usually grown toward the end of the country’s nine month rainy season. Harvesting usually begins from mid-May until August.
How much coffee is produced in São Tomé and Príncipe?
São Tomé and Príncipe does not show up on official ICO statistics. However, according to sources such as Knoema’s World Atlas Data, they produced 8 tonnes of coffee in 2021.
It is evident that this country does not have a huge production output for their coffee. On the other hand, thanks to local work ethic, it seems certain that production will remain at consistent levels. Due to the rarity of this coffee, prices are expected to be higher than coffee from other countries, since this product is considered exceptionally exotic and unique.
How much coffee is exported from São Tomé and Príncipe?
Since São Tomé and Principe has very low coffee production numbers, exports are even lower. According to the same source, the country only exported 1 tonne of coffee in 2018. Since there are no more widely available figures for the proceeding year, it is likely that export figures have remained only a small fraction of the country’s coffee production. This would likely be around the area of 1 tonne or less.
With low production and even lower export figures, the small island nation of São Tomé and Principe offers some rare and exotic coffee. Geographically, this country is situated at an ideal location to grow coffee beans, proven by the possibility of growing arabica, robusta, and liberica. The excellence of this location is aided by environmentally biodiverse farming but small amounts of land to work on. Its final product, however, is a unique experience for customers seeking a distinct cup of coffee.