Hundreds of coffees pass through the roastery in a year, but it’s the African coffees that continue to amaze and excite us. Some of the most astonishing coffees we’ve ever tasted are from Ethiopia and Kenya, but generally, speciality grade African coffee is grown in the Eastern and Central regions of Africa including Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. Coffee is also grown in Yemen, Uganda and Ivory Coast.
What we love about African coffee is the hugely diverse flavour profiles coming out of one continent. Despite struggles with civil war, political turmoil, humanitarian crisis and extreme poverty, African coffee is still known for being excellent quality and industry-leading.
Kenya is known for big, juicy and fruity coffees with bold acidity, whilst neighbouring Ethiopia is celebrated for its light, bright and floral coffees. Although geographically close, each country has its own particular varieties, processing methods and distinct flavour profiles, which is what makes coffee from Africa so interesting.
Below we’ll talk about each of the speciality coffee growing countries in Africa and the types of coffees we’d expect them to produce.
Ethiopia Coffee Production
Let’s start off with Ethiopia which is supposedly the birthplace of coffee, but is most likely where it first flourished as a crop. It was here that coffee was first consumed by humans, but as a raw fruit in the form of the cherry, rather than a hot beverage. Ethiopia is one of the few countries who consume their own crop. Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is a thousand years old and is still an important part of everyday life in Ethiopia. Ethiopia cultivates a huge variety of individual cultivars – many still growing wild and undiscovered, unnamed and uncategorised. This makes Ethiopia a very interesting coffee origin for many of us.
Coffee was first exported approximately in the 1600s when coffee production was primarily the harvest of wild coffee trees that grew in the districts of Kaffa and Buno. Ethiopia’s production systems are made up of ‘forest coffees’, ‘garden coffees’ and ‘plantation coffees’, ranging from wild coffee trees in the South West of the country, coffee trees planted in homesteads to large scale coffee farms. Coffee runs in the lifeblood of Ethiopians, employing an estimated 15 million people and making up almost 70% of the country’s export revenue.
Growing regions in Ethiopia include: Sidamo, Limu, Jima, Ghimbi/Lekempti, Harrar, Yirgacheffe. Read more details about Ethiopia’s coffee growing regions.
We love Ethiopian coffees and when someone new to speciality coffee tries an Ethiopian coffee it’s guaranteed to blow their mind. Ethiopia produces some unusual floral and fruity coffees with notably diverse flavour profiles, including citrus and bergamot, florals and fruit. Washed coffees from Ethiopia can be super complex, whilst naturally processed coffees from Ethiopia can be wild, fruity and unusual, often an absolute blueberry fest, causing lots of gasps and wows amongst newbies on the cupping table.
We have two Ethiopian coffees, Ethiopia Negele Gorbitu, a very unique coffee with a soft acidity and notes of apricot, jasmine and a hint of Earl Grey accentuating a light, tea-like finish. If you’re a fan of naturally-processed Ethiopian coffees, then try our Ethiopia Kayon Natural. As you’d expect with a natural Ethiopian, it’s bursting with notes of blueberry, apricot jam and florals. A real game-changer.
Kenya Coffee Production
Kenya did not start coffee production until relatively late in comparison to other African coffee growing countries. Commercial coffee was initially grown on large scale British-owned farms during colonial rule and it was not until the Mau Mau uprising in 1954 that Kenyans would begin to control the coffee sector, including production, in Kenya.
Despite being late to the party, Kenya is known for producing some of the most excellent coffees in the world. Coffee research and development is excellent in Kenya with many farmers highly educated in producing and selling coffee, which is why this country is renowned for smashing out absolutely excellent coffees that amaze and excite coffee people like us.
The Kenyan coffee industry is noted for its democratic auction system – a weekly, government-run auction which makes the trading of coffee fair and transparent for all. 85-95 percent of Kenya’s coffee is still sold in this way, however some farmers have set up trading routes directly with coffee buyers. Also in Kenya you’ll find the grading system which mostly measures bean size. You may have seen PB, AA, AB (and so on) when we talk about Kenyan coffees, and these letters are assigned as part of the country’s grading system.
As with most African coffee growing countries, there is a generation gap in Kenyan production, with many complex factors combining to make coffee production an unpopular pursuit for young Kenyans. Many young families are moving away from the family coffee farms where they grew up in favour of educating their children and raising them in urban settings.
The country’s location on the equator allows for two harvests per year. Central Kenya is the region which produces the most and best-quality coffees. Coffee growing regions in Kenya include: Nyeri, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Embu, Meru, Kiambu, Machakos, Nakuru, Kisii, Trans-nzoia, Keiyo, Marakwet.
Kenyan coffees are known for their bright, complex berry fruit qualities, particularly blackcurrant, as well as their intense sweetness and acidity. In the 1950s, Scott Laboratories were responsible for many successful experimental hybrids which have largely replaced the original French Bourbon crop which had been brought to Kenya from neighbouring Ethiopia. Kenyan varieties which get people excited include SL-28 and SL-34, both of which are from Scott’s Laboratories. They are Bourbon varieties and give Kenya the distinctive bold body and big blackcurrant notes which it is known for. These varieties make up the majority of high-quality coffees produced in Kenya but are susceptible to leaf-rust, which is something Kenya has worked hard to overcome.
Our Kenya Kigutha is an outstanding example of a Kenyan coffee. It has an incredible juicy acidity and a serious hit of blackcurrant and rhubarb with a rich cocoa-like body.
Try our Kenya Kigutha Nespresso Compatible Pods available in a pack of 10 or 60.
Rwanda Coffee Production
The first Rwandan coffee variety is a natural mutation of Bourbon. Like neighbouring Burundi, by the 1930s the Belgian colonial approach meant it was compulsory for farmers to grow coffee around the country. Farmers were forced to produce large amounts of relatively low-grade coffee and due to strict control of exports by the Belgians, much of it was staying in Rwanda.
By 1990 coffee was Rwanda’s most valuable export, but the horrific widespread genocide in Rwanda in 1994 meant the industry completely collapsed. Following the genocide, foreign aid helped Rwanda to recover and a lot of emphasis was placed on the country’s coffee production. Rwanda has regenerated from this tragedy in an extraordinary way, in part thanks to strong government support for the coffee sector, trade rules that help farmers export, as well as international investment. A National Coffee Strategy was developed that reinvented their coffee industry – there was now a drive for farmers to create higher-quality, speciality coffee with better return for farmers.
The majority of Rwanda’s coffee is grown by small-scale farming families with coffee trees grown at high altitude, focusing on producing the highest quality Rwanda bourbon coffee variety. Modern efforts to invest time and resources into developing communal washing stations across Rwanda have played a key role in the modern success of the country’s coffee production.
Rwanda’s journey hasn’t been easy. Genocide aside, coffee leaf rust, coffee berry disease and ‘the potato defect’ have also had an impact on Rwanda’s coffee industry growth. To tackle this, the country has heavily invested in processing with many rounds of sorting and quality checking to ensure output is kept of the highest quality. The current coffee farming workforce is heavily lacking the young generation as Rwanda’s youth are turning away from coffee production, posing further threat for the origin.
Growing regions include: Southern & Western Region, Eastern Region.
Today, most of Rwanda’s output is fully-washed Arabica coffee and we see some truly excellent coffees from Rwanda – amazing for a country that has been struck with relatively recent turmoil. More than a quarter of the national harvest is speciality-grade coffee.
Rwandan coffees tend to have a fruitiness and freshness like red apple or grape. Berry fruit and florals are also quite common flavour profiles.
Try our Rwanda Huye Mountain, a wonderfully sweet coffee with a distinctive raisin character complemented by notes of red berries with black tea on the finish.
Burundi Coffee Production
Burundi is a mountainous country, providing the ideal conditions of high altitude, volcanic soil and climate needed to grow coffee. Coffee arrived in Burundi in the 1920s when the country was under Belgian colonial rule. From 1933, every peasant farmer had to cultivate at least fifty coffee trees.
Burundi’s civil war in 1993 caused a huge drop in coffee production. In the early 2000s, inspired in large part by neighboring Rwanda’s success rebuilding the country through coffee, Burundi’s coffee industry saw an increase in investment. Time, money and effort invested into coffee production created more opportunity and stability for the country, and has helped it establish itself as an emerging coffee-growing country.
There are no large-scale coffee estates in Burundi, coffee is produced by a large number of smallholder farmers centering around one of the many washing stations in the country. Because of this small-scale farming, it is almost impossible to arrive at single-producer, single-farm, or single-variety lots; instead, farmer’s coffees are typically sold under the name of the washing station. The construction of washing stations in rural areas led to the first stage of industrialization, and the development of rural access roads to the washing stations which are also used for other purposes.
2008 saw Burundi really back specialty coffee when direct and traceable purchasing became more important and was prioritised across the industry. The coffee sector in Burundi continues to play a vital role in the country’s economy and accounts for up to 80 percent of foreign currency earnings. Today, 650,000 families are dependent on the crop throughout Burundi.
Growing regions include: Bubanza, Bujumbura Rural, Bururi, Cibitoke, Gitega, Karuzi, Kayanza, Kirundo, Makamba, Muramvya, Muyinga, Mwaro, Ngozi, Rutana.
We await the arrival of Burundi samples with giddy excitement in the roastery.
The best coffees from Burundi are fully-washed and usually made up of the Bourbon variety. Burundian coffee tends to be juicy and sweet with a bright sparkling acidity, big body, and citrus, berry fruit flavours and “wild” notes.
There are similarities between Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda with similar altitudes, coffee varieties and geographical constraints. Coffee grown in Burundi is often double washed/double fermented. This is a unique processing method that results in very clean, bright flavor profiles.
Malawi Coffee Production
Coffee was introduced to Malawi in the late 1800s, after a single coffee tree was brought to the country from Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. By 1900 annual coffee production was at 1000 tonnes. Mismanagement, poorly maintained soils, pests, climate issues, diseases and political unrest gave the country a slow start and after several peaks and troughs, production has shrunk back to around 1500 tonnes a year.
The country’s production is split in two – the south is made of large-scale commercial estates, whilst the central and northern regions by smallholders. The Misuku coffee region grows Arabica (largely Agaro and Geisha) that is sold for premium prices. This is Malawi’s principal coffee growing region and is where 48% of its farmers cultivate their crops. The country grows a lot of Geisha variety which is rare for African growing countries, plus lots of Catimor, which is a disease-resistant variety but isn’t good quality. Specialty coffee is gaining steam here, as producers plant and differentiate varieties.
Growing regions include: Chitipa, Rumphi, North Viphya, South West Mzimba, Nkhata Bay Highlands.
Malawan coffees can be quite sweet, soft and smooth with chocolatey hints, but for us, Malawan coffee is underwhelming in comparison to its neighbouring countries.
Tanzanian Coffee Production
Following a century of various colonial rule, war, coffee wilt disease, declining economy and low industry growth, like many other coffee growing countries in Africa, Tanzania has had a turbulent coffee history. Today, Tanzania’s coffee production is about seventy percent Arabica and thirty percent Robusta, and like with many smaller African countries, around ninety percent of Tanzania’s coffee production is produced by smallholder farmers, with the rest from estates.
As with Rwanda, Tanzania has only recently become recognised for producing specialty coffee. With better infrastructure in place, access to washing stations and improved farmer organisation, Tanzania is now producing high-quality specialty-grade coffees.
Growing regions include: Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Ruvuma, Mbeya, Tarime, Kigoma.
Tanzanian coffee tastes bright and complex with a lively acidity with juicy berry or fruity flavours as well as delicate, floral coffees.
Zambian Coffee Production
Little historic interest from speciality buyers has meant there’s been little investment in coffee production and quality in Zambia. Coffee production started relatively late in Zambia (1950s) which means the estates have good access to modern equipment and are run well. However, the lack of access to water and decent post-harvest processing has further hindered coffee production in this country. Zambia has the potential to produce delicious coffees.
Great high-quality Zambian coffees are rare, but delicious ones are bright, complex and floral.
10% off African coffee all this week
For Africa Day this week, we’re giving you 10% off our range of African coffee with the code AFRICA10 including coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. We hope this will encourage you to explore African coffee origins and experience some of the formidable and diverse flavours coming out of this continent. Featuring the following African coffees: