From the Field, Resources for Roasters

Monday, February 13, 2023

What Can We Learn from Stenophylla?

By investing in research into the recently rediscovered coffee species, Coffea stenophylla, Sucafina is investing in farmers and the future of coffee. With more extreme weather impacting coffee crops and affecting producer incomes, stenophylla could be an important building block of a more sustainable, climate change-proof coffee supply chain.

Photo from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

We’ve been supporting the work of Dr. Jeremy Haggar, Professor of Agroecology at the University of Greenwich, and Dr. Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research and Senior Research Leader of Crops and Global Change at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London, who, along with Daniel Sarmu, a development specialist from Sierra Leon, have identified several wild populations of stenophylla in Sierra Leone and are studying their potential.

“We are encouraged by the research so far and believe that stenophylla will offer new opportunities for producers, importers and roasters alike,” says Dave Behrends, Managing Partner & Head of Trading at Sucafina. “Investing in research into stenophylla is investing in the future of coffee farming, producers and the coffee industry as a whole.”

What Is Stenophylla?

“Stenophylla is a really compelling species, mainly because it has this reputation of having a flavor quality equal to or surpassing Arabica. The problem was that we couldn’t find it,” says Dr. Davis. Based on reports up to the 1920s, stenophylla had the potential for high cup quality at lower elevations and higher temperatures than Arabica. In their literature review, Dr. Davis and his research partner, Dr. Jeremy Haggar, found that Stenophylla was cultivated widely in Sierra Leone in the 1890s and exported to France, where it received an “exceptionally favorable market price,” they write. But stenophylla hasn’t been grown commercially or recorded on a coffee farm by scientists in several decades. No one knew where in Sierra Leone it could be found. Drs. Davis and Haggar weren’t deterred, and in 2014 Dr. Haggar and Daniel Sarmu set out to find a population of stenophylla on farms in Sierra Leone. They were unsuccessful but then, in 2018, Davis, Haggar and Mr. Sarmu sought stenophylla in the wild, initially at one site and then later they found several small wild populations.

Finding Stenophylla

“We know that [stenophylla] was produced and exported from Sierra Leone about 100 years ago, but we hadn’t been able to find it on any coffee farms in Sierra Leon,” Dr. Haggar says.

Sierra Leone used to produce up to 20,000 tons of coffee each year, but in 1991, a deadly civil war led many people to abandon their farms. Combined with low prices, coffee production fell out of favor among smallholder producers and was replaced with cacao production. Today, coffee production in Sierra Leone pales in comparison to the scale of cacao. In 2020, Sierra Leon exported $47.3 million worth of cocoa and just $4.79 million of Robusta coffee.

All this meant that when Drs. Davis and Haggar and Daniel Sarmu went looking for stenophylla in the coffee fields, they couldn’t find any growing in domesticated coffee gardens. “In order to find it, we had to go to the forest reserve – the remaining forest patches – to look for it there,” Dr. Haggar says. And that’s where the research team found a couple of small, wild populations.

Stenophylla’s Potential

When they first found the wild populations of stenophylla growing in a rapidly diminishing forest in Sierra Leone, “we were able to get a preliminary cupping sample, and from this we were able to get a good idea of the cup [flavor] tasted rather like a high elevation Rwandan Arabica. On the climate resiliency side, we realized that it can produce an Arabica-like flavor at temperatures that are much higher than Arabica…up to 7 degrees Celsius higher,” Dr. Davis says.

In late 2020, CIRAD hosted a blind cupping, with sensory experts and coffee professionals tasting stenophylla alongside an Ethiopian and Brazilian arabica sample. When polled, 81% of the 30 tasters considered the stenophylla sample to be arabica-like.

The rediscovery of stenophylla could mean better opportunities for farmers in Sierra Leone and beyond. Currently, coffee farms in Sierra Leone are trapped in a downward production spiral. Their trees are aged and they don’t often use inputs, so yields are low. Commercial coffee prices have been low on average for the past two decades, so the small yields they’re selling aren’t generating much money. Without adequate income, they’re unable to invest in the improvements and inputs needed to increase their yields and, thus, they continue to make low income from coffee. Since farming family incomes are small and coffee competes with the more lucrative cocoa, “We’re looking for high value products that provide profitability under low management,” Dr. Haggar says. “We hope that stenophylla may provide an opportunity there for Sierra Leone.”

Preserving Wild Stenophylla Populations

Stenophylla and its other wild coffee relatives may hold the genetic keys to making coffee more resilient to pests, diseases and climate change while still maintaining cup quality. But these wild species are under threat. The stenophylla that Drs. Haggar and Davis are currently testing comes from small wild populations in dwindling forest preserves in Sierra Leone. Pressures from a rising human population, soil degradation and climate change all threaten forested areas in Sierra Leon and other countries where wild coffee currently grows.

In fact, at least 60% of all wild coffee species (there are currently 130 known species) are at risk of extinction. These wild species could provide the genetic resources for new climate change-resistant coffee. The extinction of coffee species and erosion of genetic diversity in coffee would severely limit the long-term sustainability of the global coffee sector.  

Therefore, it’s important that we work to protect – and learn more about – these wild species and the benefits that they could bring to coffee cultivation, not to mention their important ecosystem services like soil retention, carbon sequestration and their function as a habitat for local wildlife as part of their role in forests.

The Future of Stenophylla

Now that viable seed sources of stenophylla have been identified, we’re excited about the potential of Stenophylla in the wider coffee industry. The effects won’t be immediate, Dr. Davis and Dr. Haggar caution, but they offer hope.

Since the rediscovery of stenophylla in 2018. Drs. Davis and Haggar and Mr. Sarmu have found about 300 wild Stenophylla plants in Sierra Leone. They’ve been working with several actors, with support from Sucafina, to propagate more than 3,000 stenophylla seedlings in nurseries. Sucafina directly supported the out-planting on farms of 1,300 of these seedlings by German NGO Welthungerhilfe, who developed the first nursery of stenophylla in Sierra Leone. The hope is to get farmers to start planting these seedlings on their land and bring them into production. Since stenophylla hasn’t been grown commercially at scale in over half a century, we’re not entirely sure how long it will take the trees to start bearing fruit. It can be anywhere from 2 to 7 years, Dr. Davis reports, but they think 3 to 4 years is most likely.

“Going from nurseries to commercial farms is one of the most critical steps in the process. It is not risk free.  That is why, for Sucafina, it was important to not place a financial burden on farmers, and rather, to cover all costs associated with planting and growing the first crops. Once the economic viability of growing stenophylla has been proven, I expect entrepreneurial farmers will take things from there,” Dave says.   

While the first year or two of harvests are likely to be small, they will hopefully produce enough material to more fully evaluate the taste and agronomic potential. While at first processing will likely be Natural, since that’s what producers in the region are familiar with, Drs. Davis and Haggar think that Honey process might be the best way to draw out stenophylla’s unique characteristics, meaning that some investment in pulpers and other infrastructure may be necessary further down the road, as well as the training to accompany new equipment.

At the end of the day, while stenophylla has the potential to make an impact for coffee producers in Sierra Leone and beyond, it’s neither a silver bullet nor a quick fix. “What we need is a range of adaptation strategies. It’s not just about changing the crop. We need to do other things as well,” Dr. Davis says. “I don’t think there’s any single solution to this problem (climate change), but stenophylla presents us with what I consider a unique opportunity because it has these specific traits that I don’t see present in any other of the 129 wild coffee species.”

Interested in learning more about stenophylla and the project to reintroduce cultivated trees to Sierra Leone? Get in touch with us.