A More Climate-Resistant Coffee Rises in Africa

The coffee growers in Uganda are trying to grow a type of coffee that can resist global warming.

A More Climate-Resistant Coffee Rises in Africa

The bad news first. In the age of climate change, both Arabica and Robusta coffees -- which are what most of us consume -- are in grave danger.

The good news is now. Farmers in one Africa's largest coffee exporting nations are now growing a new variety of coffee that is better able to withstand the heat, disease and drought exacerbated by global warming.

Since years, they have been adding it to bags of cheap robusta. Liberica excelsa is the name they are trying to use to market it this year.

Golooba John is a coffee grower near Zirobwe, in central Uganda. He said, "Even when there's a lot of heat, the plants do fine." In the last few years, he replaced his robustas with Liberica trees as they succumbed pests and diseases. Mr. John has only 50 robusta trees on his six acres, but 1,000 Libericas.

He claims it is more aromatic and "tastier" than robusta.

Catherine Kiwuka is a coffee expert at the National Agricultural Research Organization. She's part of an experimental effort to introduce Liberica excelsa to the world.

It could be a valuable lesson for other small-scale coffee farmers, showing the importance of wild varieties in an increasingly warming world. Liberica excelsa comes from tropical Central Africa. The plant was briefly cultivated in the late nineteenth century, but then it died out. Climate change caused a lot of damage. Growers resurrected Liberica once more.

Dr. Kiwuka stated that "climate change is forcing us to consider other species which can sustain the industry globally."

At this time, the main goal is to export high-quality Liberica Excelsa.

Volcafe is a global coffee trading firm that hopes to export up to three tons of coffee this year, to speciality roasters in Britain and America.

More than 100 coffee species are found in nature. While Arabica is the most widely cultivated, robusta is the second. In Southeast Asia, one Liberica variety is farmed for over a hundred years.

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Liberica excelsa is another variety that's native to Uganda's lowlands. Liberica is slower to mature and produces more fruit than robusta, the dominant coffee variety in the region and also native to Uganda.

Libericas tower above robustas. Farmers must use bamboo ladders in order to reach the trees, which can grow up to eight meters tall. They can also prune the trees to make their branches grow outwards and not upwards.

Around 200 farmers are growing Liberica in small patches, selling it together with their harvest to local traders, and receiving robusta prices. Dr. Kiwuka felt that the farmers were "cheated."

She said Liberica is stronger in aroma and a better quality of coffee; the farmers should have received higher prices.

She invited Aaron Davis from the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew in England to Zirobwe. At first, he was sceptical. He said he had tried Liberica in other places and it tasted like "vegetable broth."

The next morning, he ground Zirobwe beans in his hotel. A coffee researcher will always pack a portable grinder with them when they travel.

He remembered thinking, "Actually this isn't bad." It was a good idea.

Dr. Davis has a good understanding of the coffee risks. In his research, Dr. Davis found that deforestation and climate change are putting half of the wild coffee species in danger of extinction.

Dr. Kiwuka teamed up with Dr. Davis. They would encourage farmers improve harvesting and drying their Liberica crop. They would not mix them with robusta beans but sell Libericas separately. They would receive a higher price if they met certain criteria.

In Nature, a scientific journal published in December, they stated that "in a world warming and an era of supply chain disruptions, Liberica could reemerge as one of the major crop plants."

Deogratius Ocheng's orchards already have a large amount of this crop.

The robusta on his two acres suffered when the rains were paltry. The leaves began to wilt. The cherries did not form correctly. In Uganda, robusta is a dominant species.

According to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, exports will be lower than last year. The main causes are pests and drought. If Mr. Ocheng had relied solely on robusta, he said, "I'd have been in extreme poverty."

He had two more acres of Liberica.

What does Liberica taste like when dried, hulled, and roasted. Dr. Davis described it as "smooth and easy drinking". It has a strong aroma but is lower in caffeine than robusta.

He said, "It is the Beaujolais nouveau." It's very soft.

Musinguzi Blanshe reported from Kampala.