YOU wouldn’t immediately make the connection between coffee and South Sudan, a country that is better known for its oil. But the country had a long coffee tradition before production was interrupted by a decades-long civil war.
Like neighbouring Ethiopia, coffee was entrenched in local culture, with families often growing a few bushes in their back gardens. But most were abandoned when the civil war broke out in 1983.
The fighting stopped with the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, only for it to start up again in 2013, two years after South Sudan became an independent country.
But something else was happening in those long years of abandonment. The coffee bushes in places like Yei – the country’s agricultural heartland, near the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – had been naturally cross-pollinating, without human intervention.
The cross-pollination was happening both among cultivated bushes, and with wild coffee varieties (South Sudan is one of the only places in the world where coffee still grows in the wild, in a distinct, dry climate).
DISTINCT AND UNUSUAL
The result was something special – Robusta coffee with a very distinct and unusual taste profile. Combined with the rich soil and perfect climate for coffee, it means that South Sudan is uniquely placed to become a leader in the production of specialty coffee in Africa.
Nestlé Nespresso and non-profit organisation TechnoServe have been working to revive high-quality coffee production in the country since 2011, primarily in the Yei region.
As of January 2016, the project has enabled a group of 500 smallholder coffee farmers in Yei to establish six coffee wet mills, and last year – even as conflict raged in the north of the country – export the country’s first ever batch coffee.
Sold in Paris as a very limited edition exclusive to Nespresso Club members in France under the brand name Suluja ti South Sudan, it is the country’s first significant non-oil export in a generation, and represents a positive step towards rebuilding the economy.
Suluja ti South Sudan means “Beginning of South Sudan” in the local language Kakwa.
But one of the project’s biggest challenges is labour; fertile land is abundant in South Sudan, but coffee is a labour-intensive crop.
50% of its arable land mass is prime agricultural land, but only 4% of this area is cultivated continuously or periodically. This very low ratio of cultivated to total land compares with 28% in Kenya and 8% in Uganda, according to data from the African Development Bank.
With just 12 million people, South Sudan has one of the lowest population densities in the region. The average population density for South Sudan is estimated at 13 people per sq. km. compared to 166 in Uganda, 70 in Kenya, 83 in Ethiopia. The average for sub-Sahara Africa was 36 people per sq. km in 2009.