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South Sudanese Coffee: A Tale of Resilience and Potential

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Are you curious if South Sudan produces coffee? As the world's newest country, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan is located adjacent to some of Africa's top coffee-producing nations. In fact, it's even considered a centre of origin for Arabica coffee! However, despite its potential, South Sudan's coffee industry is not well-known on the global market.


Unfortunately, decades of conflict and civil war have had a devastating impact on the local coffee production. As a result, the industry struggles to gain recognition, despite efforts to revive it through investments. With ongoing conflict and the impact of climate change, the challenges to the coffee industry's revitalisation are significant. Nonetheless, South Sudan's unique position as a potential source of high-quality coffee means it's worth keeping an eye on in the years to come.


The history of coffee in South Sudan

Arabica coffee has been present in the Boma Plateau of South Sudan since 1929, when the country was still known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. There are records of botanists and researchers observing wild Arabica coffee growing abundantly across the Plateau, particularly on the slopes of Nelichu in the areas of Barbuk and Rume.


In 1941, during an expedition, seeds were collected from these areas and sent to various East African research stations. These seeds are believed to be the source of the Arabica varietals Rume Sudan and Barbuk Sudan, which are currently being cultivated in other countries.


You may be surprised to learn that South Sudan has been recently confirmed as a centre of origin for Arabica coffee, alongside the more renowned Ethiopia. The largest and most diverse populations of wild Arabica are found in the cloud forests of South-West Ethiopia's highlands, but a smaller population does spread across the border to the Boma Plateau of South Sudan. While the climatic conditions in both regions are similar, a small stretch of low-lying land exists between the two areas where Arabica doesn't grow. It was therefore previously assumed that the Arabica in South Sudan had been introduced by people travelling from Ethiopia to the region. In 2012, however, the first assessment of Arabica in the Boma Plateau since 1941 was carried out during a research expedition. Using DNA sequencing, researchers were able to confirm that the wild coffee growing in the region is genetically distinct from wild varieties found in Ethiopia and cultivated varieties from around the world.


Sadly, the research also found the wild Arabica population in South Sudan to be in poor health. Compared to 70 years ago where wild Arabica grew in abundance, large areas of land have suffered deforestation and, in some areas, there is no forest cover left at all. Taking climate change into consideration, wild Arabica in South Sudan would be considered critically endangered according to the criteria established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and it is likely that the Boma Plateau will lose climate suitability for Arabica in the next decade if it has not already done so. This situation is a reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainable practices in the coffee industry. It's essential to preserve the unique genetic diversity of wild Arabica in South Sudan and work towards its restoration, to ensure a bright future for coffee in the region.



Coffee farms in South Sudan


There is a small history of commercial coffee cultivation and farming in South Sudan. Alongside other cash crops such as tea and tobacco, Robusta coffee plantations were first established in the Equatorial region in 1932 by the Haggar family. The family employed contract farming to ensure supplies of coffee for their agribusiness company. However, growth of the sector was majorly impacted by the civil war which broke out between the northern and southern regions of Sudan in the mid-20th century. Though South Sudan received independence decades later, violence, insecurity and displacement has continued. Many farmers have been forced to flee coffee-growing regions and to abandon their crops. Yei region, which has been the source of attempts to revitalise coffee production, experienced an upsurge in violence in 2016 leaving many coffee farmers fleeing to neighbouring countries.



What regions in South Sudan produce coffee?


The Boma Plateau has traditionally been home to wild Arabica. However, climate change has drastically reduced the region’s suitability for Arabica to grow well. Research shows that average daytime temperatures have increased and humidity has decreased, making it likely that Arabica will cease to exist in the area in the decades to come.


Equatoria, South Sudan’s most southern region which lies close to the borders of the DRC and Uganda, has been the main area of focus for coffee cultivation initiatives in recent years. Coffee plantations also existed there in the mid-20th century and there was a strong history of production prior to the outbreak of civil war. Comprising of Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria, the region is also known as the country’s greenbelt zone owing to the state’s high agricultural potential. It has two reliable rainy seasons and fertile soil. Areas of note include Nzara, Yambio, Yei country and the Imatong mountains.



South Sudan's coffee varietals


Though the widely cultivated Robusta of South Sudan is well tended to, the country's wild coffee is in jeopardy. Rume Sudan and Barbuk Sudan, two wild varieties of South Sudanese origin, exist at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre (CATIE) in Costa Rica after having been transported from Kenya. Both originating from the Boma Plateau, neither is cultivated widely although several plantations in Colombia cultivate Sudan Rume on a small scale. They are instead primarily preserved and used as gene stock for new hybrid varietals.


A 2021, a public private partnership has seen excelsa coffee introduced to the areas of Nzara and Yambio in the state of Western Equatoria. Although previously regarded as a species of its own, excelsa was reclassified in 2006 as a variety of the liberica species, the least well known of commercial coffee species. Cultivated primarily in Southeast Asia, excelsa requires extensive care. It is, however, grown at lower altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,3000 metres and some scientists suggest the variety may become more popular in light of the impact of climate change on the coffee sector. Nevertheless, at present, the market for excelsa is miniscule and there is little international demand.



What is the flavour profile of South Sudan Coffee?


Robusta coffee grown in South Sudan is said to be balanced and rich with an intense aroma of dried cereal and subtle notes of wood.



Nespresso and South Sudan


SULUJA, which means "Beginning of South Sudan" in the dominant Kakwa language spoken in the Yei region, is a coffee-growing area that has been revitalised after decades of conflict nearly destroyed the coffee industry there.


To achieve this, coffee corporation Nespresso partnered with non-profit organisation TechnoServe to work with South Sudanese farmers. The program included teaching farmers the best practices for coffee farming as well as building up production infrastructure. Over 700 farmers were directly assisted by this initiative, resulting in the establishment of the first five coffee cooperatives in South Sudan, and the construction and operation of six wet mills in Yei.


By improving the coffee industry in South Sudan, farmers have been able to earn more money and contribute to the economic development of the region, bringing hope to the future of coffee production in South Sudan.



How much does South Sudanese coffee cost?


If you're interested in purchasing South Sudanese coffee, you may be wondering how much it costs. In 2023, the estimated cost range for South Sudanese coffee is around $3 to $13 USD per kilogram, which is equivalent to US$ 1.36 to US$ 5.9 per pound (lb). It's important to note that the actual cost may vary depending on factors such as the quality of the coffee, the location of the buyer, and the market demand.



Coffee produced in South Sudan


A USAID document published in the late 1980s estimated domestic production in South Sudan at the time to be around 1,000 tons. However, there is a strong local tradition of drinking coffee and the same paper estimated local coffee consumption in South Sudan to be around 16,000 tons. Domestic coffee production has tended to be supplemented by imports, often from Uganda. People will often buy green beans and roast the coffee themselves.


Known locally as guhwah, South Sudanese coffee is prepared in a manner similar to the coffee ceremonies of Ethiopia and Eritrea. To make the local brew, green coffee beans are first roasted over a fire. They are then ground using a pestle and mortar and spices such as cardamom, black pepper and ground ginger are added. The coffee and spice mix is then boiled with water in a clay pot known as a jebena before being strained and served in small cups.



What is the annual export volume for South Sudan Coffee?


Coffee was first exported from South Sudan in 2013 when 1.8 metric tons were air freighted to Nespresso in Europe. Although the quantity of coffee exported was tiny, it was viewed as a big step forward for the country and was classified as its first non-oil export to Europe in a generation. At present, oil accounts for over 99% of South Sudan’s exports. The following year, in 2014, 10 metric tons were exported across the border into Uganda, similarly destined for Nespresso.


In 2015, a limited batch of South Sudanese coffee was made available for sale in France in the form of Nespresso capsules. In 2016, a second batch was released for sale in France and an additional four European countries. However, operations have frequently been halted due to the ongoing instability across the country.



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