A crop of hope
A South Sudanese coffee worker tosses drying beans.
South Sudan’s robusta coffee is thick, black and strong, flavored at times with cardamom or ginger, and served Turkish style. The region is one of the few where wild coffee can be found. It is a crop of hope in a land that has suffered immense misfortune.
Western multinationals, led by Nestlé-Nespresso, last year brought the first washed South Sudan coffee to market in decades. Nespresso fittingly named its product Suluja ti South Sudan (in the Kakwa language Suluja ti means beginning). Quantities were small but farmers there receive 40-50% more for their coffee than in the local market.
Nespresso has invested $2.5 million since 2011 in a collaborative venture with TechnoServe, a non-profit organization (NGO) that has organized six coffee co-operatives and built wet mills at six locations near Yei. The mills are operated by a local entrepreneur. Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable Quality Program assists 700 farmers and anticipates adding a couple thousand more through 2020. Together the co-operatives have raised more than 27,000 coffee tree seedlings at several nurseries.
Once a major coffee producing region, and home to 12 million people, today it is rare to find green coffee exported from Sudan due to social strife that has resulted in the deaths and injuries to and estimated 2.5 million people. Sequential civil wars displaced four million within its boundaries and sent 400,000 fleeing to nearby countries.
South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 but remains desperately poor and entirely dependent on oil for foreign exchange currency. Funds from less volatile sources are needed to invest in improving the welfare of its citizens who earn an average $1,886 per year.
The destruction of the nation’s infrastructure is massive. Only 40 miles of paved road remain in the entire country. Modern essentials from banking and transportation to security are fragile. Yet the coffee remains, growing abundantly on abandoned farms.
Five years ago Nespresso dispatched Alexis Rodriguez to assess the region’s coffee quality potential. He returned with enthusiasm, reporting that coffee farmers were returning to their land but lacked a market. The company identified promising growers and began advising and training them to reach a high level of excellence. Getting the green coffee out of the country was an adventure and test of endurance.
Once it was roasted, cuppings attested to the quality. But quantities were so small the coffee was only distributed in France. The yield in the latest harvest improved and the company will be able to offer the coffee in five European countries this year.
“In South Sudan, coffee will be the second export after oil,” predicted Nespresso c.e.o. Jean-Marc Duvoisin. “There is always conflict linked to oil revenues, but you never have that with coffee because people have to work at it every day to get their rewards,” he told GreenBiz.
TechnoServe has constructed six coffee processing mills and is building an additional three. The NGO plans to train 1,500 South Sudanese coffee farmers by 2019 with at least 25% of the trainees women. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) joined the partnership in April, committing $3 million.
“We wanted to help smallholder farmers have a business opportunity around the existing coffee, to switch the thinking from, ‘I’ve got a couple of coffee trees in my yard,’ to, ‘I can really work on this and make a living’,” said TechnoServe c.e.o. William Warshauer.
Political instability makes the situation fragile, but no less worthy, according to Warshauer who was forced to withdraw many of TechnoServe’s foreign workers for their safety last year. Fortunately the Yei region was not affected by fighting. Warshauer anticipates much larger employment in the years to come.
1 of 2
A crop of hope
Coffee drying in South Sudan.
2 of 2
A crop of hope
TechnoServe agronomist Jennifer Poni.
In the souks of Khartoum the aromatic resin myrrh is often presented on a tray of coffee. This scent of this sweet ancient incense symbolizes service to others.
Nespresso’s Duvoisin writes that “we do not expect to make a return on investment for the next few years” but reviving the coffee industry holds the greatest promise. Suluja as one giant r&d project which won’t become profitable until the country is producing large enough volumes to service multiple markets. “We make these bets because we want to deliver new coffee experiences,” he said.
Actor George Clooney, a spokesperson for Nespresso, has traveled five times to South Sudan and worked for many years to bring attention to the plight of Darfur. He told Bloomberg News that he very much favors the initiative.
“Coffee farms have a great history of building peaceful pockets in very volatile areas. We drank our first cup this summer and it tasted just a little bit better knowing that it was from people who have worked so hard for normalcy and peace,” he said.