West Africa: ‘Rediscovered’ Coffee Could Boost Farmers’ Livelihoods

Freetown — Scientists have rediscovered rare wild coffee species in West Africa with tolerance to high temperatures and fine taste, potentially setting the region on course to staging a comeback in the global coffee industry, a study says.

The rediscovery of ‘lost’ Coffea stenophylla in Sierra Leone after years of searching, the scientists say, could be a game changer in an industry currently dominated by Coffee arabica species, which faces threats from climate change. C. arabica is popular because of its superior taste but, not only does C. stenophylla has an equivalent taste, it can also grow in harsher temperatures.

After rediscovering wild populations of C. stenophylla in two forest patches in central and eastern Sierra Leone in late 2018, researchers obtained samples in May 2020 for testing to evaluate its qualities such as fruits, flowers and taste.

The species was once widely farmed in West Africa until it was forgotten and replaced by higher yielding varieties. Before the 2018 discovery, it had not been seen in the wild since 1954, according to the UK-based Kew Gardens.

“The key findings are two-fold. First, that stenophylla coffee has very good quality, equivalent to a specialty Arabica coffee,” says Jeremy Haggar, a co-author of the study and a professor of ecology at the UK-based Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich. “Second, that stenophylla coffee naturally grows in a much warmer climate than Arabica coffee, [and consequently] if Arabica coffee production becomes affected by climate change, it may be that stenophylla can replace it.”

Researchers from France, Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom, say that the rediscovered coffee crop has a “unique combination of tolerance to high temperatures and a superior flavour”, which could serve as a lifeline to the multibillion-dollar industry that has been vulnerable to climate change, according to the study published last month in Nature Plants.

Out of about 124 coffee species worldwide, C. arabica and C. robusta comprise 99 per cent of consumption, according to the researchers.

C.arabica is grown mostly in East Africa and in South Arabia, which are experiencing hotter climatic conditions and this in the long term could “significantly” affect production and quality, says the study.

According to Haggar, the objective of the study was to determine the potential of the rediscovered coffee to provide an alternative for local farmers and as possible replacement for C. arabica as it faces a threat from climate change.