[Loving Africa 11] The Bittersweet Irony of African Coffee

As a typical Melbournian, I am a faithful disciple to my coffees. The coffees in Melbourne are not only one of the best in the world, it carries also a unique culture denoting an admirable social experience. At the cafe one can have a chat to their barista who will remember what you drink, your children’s names or if you just broke up with your partner.

Inspired by the Melbournian renowned coffee culture, I arrived in West Africa hoping that my obsession for quality coffees could be satisfied by an exotic African scene offering much more than the ordinary Nescafe coffee sachets.  However, whilst sub-Saharan Africa produces some of the world’s finest coffee beans (and we often drink them in Melbourne!), I could not even spot one cup of locally produced coffee in my West African coffee hunt.

In my first week in Togo, I hassled our local driver zealously to bring me to the authentic cafes in town. He pondered for some time and no doubt he had thought long and hard about my demand. In the end, he took me to the only place where he had come across caffeine in Lomé – our local petrol station. Inside the rugged Shell station, he pointed out to me the “all-too-familiar” Nestle instant coffee tin.

Whilst my Belgian colleague have subsequently taken me to Togolese French cafes serving premium European Nespresso’s, I never came across any African-made coffees. Although I was determined to find a local cup of coffee heaven, all the local expats continued to assure me that this was mission impossible. The sole way to find a descent cup of coffee is to source your own coffee beans and roast them at home.

Indeed, with the exception of Ethiopia, Africans drink very little coffee. As a historical cash crop, the bulk of coffee beans has been grown predominantly for export.On the global scale, the African continent accounts for approximately 12% of the world’s coffee bean production. Ivory Coast,Togo’s close neighbour, is the third largest coffee producer in sub-Saharan Africa. If one was to venture into the rural farmland of West Africa, it will won’t be difficult to spot raw coffee beans and its natural fruit form. However, there is no adequate machineries and skills to roast and process the coffee beans into a finished product.As a result, West Africans can only turn to import finished products – instant coffee. For me, this is one of the greatest ironies faced living in a developing nation.

Furthermore, prices for coffee beans within Africa is driven almost only by coffee connoisseurs around the world, rather than by the domestic consumption of coffee. The rare West African domestic coffee producers continue to suffer from sub-optimal agricultural value chains, high cost of production, and a small local market. These challenges have impelled African coffee producers continue to export raw beans as opposed to extracting the full value.Only 20% of Africa’s exports are manufactured or value-added products (i.e. 80% of exports are sold in raw form).

Sadly, such irony is not limited to coffee production in Africa but other cash crops including cotton, tea, cocoa, fruit and rubber. The potential for African exports to remain competitive is further challenged by high import tariffs and protection in local agricultural sectors in developed countries. Whilst it is expected that domestic coffee consumption will increase, today the bittersweet trading irony prevails – Africans remains producers of what they cannot consume and consumers of what they cannot produce.