African Coffee: A Beginner’s Guide

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

Our review process | Our team

Africa prides itself as the birthplace of coffee. It's no surprise, then, that African coffee dominates the global map. These brews compete with some of the best world coffees in terms of quality and flavor.

Africa prides itself as the birthplace of coffee. It’s no surprise, then, that African coffee dominates the global map. These brews compete with some of the best world coffees in terms of quality and flavor.

However, the term “African coffee” can be confusing. There are so many premium brews from the continent, so which makes the cut?

African coffees boast exquisite flavors and aromas. Each cup tells a story of rich histories, vibrant cultures and enduring traditions.Come with me as I take you on a coffee trip around this intriguing continent. I promise you a world of diverse flavors, surprising stories and deep, deep passion.

A Brief History of African Coffee

Coffee has a rich and storied history in Africa, which began in 9th century Ethiopia. Legend has it that Kaldi, a goat herder, discovered coffee cherries. Their energizing effect on his goats intrigued him. On giving these cherries to monks nearby, they extracted, roasted and brewed the beans. The rest, as they say, is history.

From its humble beginnings, coffee spread, fueled by cultural exchanges and trade routes. By the 15th century, Arabica beans reached the Yemeni port city of Mocha. From there, thanks to the Dutch, British and French, they took over the world!

Fast-forward to the 19th century colonial era. European powers introduced the crop on a commercial scale, skyrocketing Africa’s coffee industry. As a result, colonialism brought previously non-existent economic opportunities for native populations.

Unfortunately, after independence these benefits largely failed to translate. Farmers suffered various challenges, including political corruption and a lack of infrastructure. Farmers couldn’t even pony up the cash for farm inputs and other resources, driving up coffee prices.

But you can’t keep a good man down! Despite all the challenges, African coffee farmers persisted and the industry survived.

African Coffee Production Today

Coffee Processed in Rwanda

Today, African coffee production is at the forefront of the global industry. It has specialty coffees to thank for that. These single-origin coffees command high prices. So high, in fact, that they rival those from Asia, Oceania, South America and Central America.

Currently the largest block coffee producer, Africa accounts for 12 percent of world production, after Brazil. Interestingly, 60 percent of that output comes from Ethiopia, Uganda and Ivory Coast. Coffee does so well for Africa that it earned the continent an impressive $15 billion in 2023 alone!

Most of Africa’s coffee ends up in the US, Japan and Europe. Not surprisingly, smallholder farmers drive this industry. They play a crucial role in the supply chain. How, you may ask? By forming cooperatives! These collective efforts make it easy to process, market and sell beans to international markets.

In addition, these structures emphasize quality-focused coffee processing and milling. The result? Only the finest African coffee makes it to market. That’s the secret behind Africa’s coffee success!

Beyond its role as an everyday beverage, coffee has become a vehicle for social and economic empowerment. Consequently, African producers have greater control over their livelihoods. Through initiatives such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and direct trade, the future looks bright!

What Does African Coffee Taste Like?

African single-origin coffees dance on the palate with vibrant and complex flavor profiles. They vary in flavor, body and acidity depending on the varietal and origin.

Ethiopian Arabica, the “queen of coffees,” boasts floral notes of jasmine and bergamot. It also has bright, citrusy undertones that titillate the palate. Similarly, Kenya AA beans show vibrant acidity with juicy berry undertones. These coffees are excellent as drip or pour-over.

Notably, African coffees can also have earthy, chocolaty and spicy undertones. Medium-bodied Tanzanian Peaberry is full of spice and grassy notes. In contrast, Ugandan Robusta boasts a rich, full-bodied character. What a difference a few miles make!

African coffee also has exceptional balance to counteract its acidity. This is thanks to the meticulous processing techniques. For instance, Rwandan and Burundian coffees have a unique caramel sweetness that neutralizes their fruity acidity. Meanwhile, most African Robustas have a smooth sweetness, balancing out the bitter, earthy undertones. This quality makes it perfect for blends.

Another hallmark of African coffee is its smooth finish and aromatic richness. On drinking, it leaves a lasting impression on the nose and palate. All these factors help make African coffees a connoisseur’s favorite!

African Coffee Producing Countries

Naturally, not all African countries are coffee producers. Only certain countries have the optimal climate conditions to grow coffee. To that end, here are some of my favorite African coffee-producing countries.

Ethiopia

Ethiopian woman grinding coffee

Ethiopia introduced Arabica coffee to the world. This mystical country features a landscape as diverse as its Arabica beans. It boasts rugged highlands to the north and lush forests to the south.

This East African coffee boasts exceptional quality, complexity and depth of flavor. Yirgacheffe is full of floral and citrusy notes. In contrast, Sidamo brims with bold, sweet and spicy flavors. Other notable Ethiopian Arabica coffees come from Harrar, Kaffa, Limu and Djimmah.

Today,Ethiopia is Africa’s largest coffee producer, ranking fifth globally.It exported an impressive 8.3 million 60-kilogram bags in 2023.

What truly sets Ethiopian coffee apart is the centuries-old natural processing methods. These impart the beans with refined acidity, complex sweetness and velvety finish. 

No wonder Ethiopian beans are much sought-after! Every step of the coffee journey prioritizes quality, care and craftsmanship.

Uganda

Coffee has deep roots in Uganda, dating back to the 19th century when British settlers introduced the crop. What makes this coffee stand out is its remarkable versatility and flavor. This “Pearl of Africa” is famous for Robusta coffee, brimming with a bold flavor and high caffeine content. These beans thrive in the lowland regions full of rich volcanic soils, high humidity and abundant rainfall.

But Uganda isn’t just about Robusta. It also produces high-quality Arabica beans in the foothills of Mount Elgon and Mount Rwenzori. These coffees are smooth and full-bodied with fruity, chocolaty and spicy undertones.

Today, coffee more than bolsters Uganda’s economy. It provides livelihoods for over 1.5 million smallholder farmers. This resulted in the country exporting 6.8 million 60-kilogram bags in 2023, ranking it sixth globally. Impressive!

Kenya

Besides stunning landscapes, beaches and wildlife, Kenya is also famous for its coffee. British settlers introduced the crop in the 19th century. From there, the country embraced it and made it its own.

Kenya ranked 19th globally in 2023, exporting 800,000 60-kilogram bags. In recent years, production has declined due to mismanagement of the sector. But the good news is, there is a renaissance.

The coffee here thrives on the slopes of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and Mount Elgon. Coffee also grows in the Western counties of Nyanza, Bungoma, Kisii and Kericho.

Dubbed the ultimate “breakfast coffee,” Kenyan AA coffee is smooth and full-bodied. They also show bright wine-like acidity, complex berry notes and exceptional clarity. This coffee also shines as an espresso blend.

What makes these African coffee beans stand out is the meticulous processing. Smallholder farmers nurture their plants, hand-picking only the ripest cherries. Then, these cherries undergo the rigorous “Kenya-washed” process. At milling cooperatives, cherries and beans undergo pulping, fermentation in water, a second wash and sun-drying.

Notably, Kenya’s high altitudes and temperate climate are perfect for slow bean development. The result is a vibrant, addictive coffee much sought after in specialty markets.

Rwanda

Rwandan Coffee Production Today

Rwanda, the “Singapore of Africa,” got into the coffee game in the 19th century thanks to German missionaries. Highland regions like Lake Kivu, Virunga and Kizi Rift proved ideal for growing the crop.

Sadly, due to war and civil strife the coffee sector stagnated. It was only after the tragic 1994 genocide that Rwanda’s specialty coffee sector took off. Coffee emerged as a beacon of hope and a path to economic recovery.

Today, Rwanda is one of Africa’s premier producers. In 2023, it ranked 29th globally, producing a decent 250,000 60-kilogram bags. Its Caturra, Catuai, and Bourbon coffee beans boast bright acidity, delicate floral notes and fruity undertones. These tastes reflect the country’s terroir and commitment to quality.

Like many African coffee-producing countries, Rwandan coffee farmers work under cooperatives. These ensure the promotion of Fair Trade practices and environmental conservation. As a result of these measures only world-class beans make it to market.

Tanzania

Tanzania coffee beans embody the true taste of the East African savannah. This coffee thrives on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. It also grows in the Southern Highlands bordering Lake Malawi.

Tanzania has world-class coffees that have put it on the global map. It’s Peaberry, in particular, boasts citrusy and bright flavors with delicious notes of honey and fruit. Similarly, its Bourbon captivates the palate with sweet, berry-like flavors. There’s also the country’s Robusta. This variety thrives in the lowlands by Lake Victoria. It’s sweet and nutty with notes of chocolate and honey.

I must stress that Tanzanian coffee isn’t just about taste; it’s also about heritage. Like the philosophy of Ujamaa or “fraternity,” farmers join cooperatives to ensure they produce the best beans. In addition, most coffee is shade-grown. This practice protects natural habitats and creates a sweeter, smoother bean.

In 2023, Tanzania ranked 16th worldwide for coffee production. It exported a whopping 1.35 million 60-kilogram bags. It just goes to show, growing climate-friendly coffee pays!

Burundi

Burundi Coffee Growing Regions

Burundi, like its neighbor Rwanda, is famous for its unique specialty coffees. This landlocked country boasts a vibrant but niche coffee culture. In 2023, Burundi ranked 30th worldwide for green bean production. It exported 215,000 60-kilogram bags, a decent effort.

Coffee first came to Burundi courtesy of the Belgians. Despite challenges, Burundi has emerged as one of Africa’s niche producers. This coffee is rich and fruity with unique berry aromas. It also boasts bright acidity and blueberry, pineapple and floral notes.

All of Burundi’s Bourbon coffees grow around highland regions, including Kayanza, Ngozi, and Bugesera. It is deliciously exquisite and stands out for its curious notes found nowhere else on the continent.

Ivory Coast

Ivory Coast may not come to mind when it comes to African coffee. Better known for cocoa, this country is also a giant of coffee production. In fact, it exported an impressive 1.3 million 60-kilogram bags in 2023.

Coffee in Ivory Coast traces its roots to the French and the 19th century. The country grows quality Robusta beans in the Cavially, Daloa and Yamoussoukro regions. Apart from exceptional flavor, these beans are bold and full-bodied. They shine with distinctive chocolate and fruit notes.

Yet, beyond Robusta, Ivory Coast also cultivates high-quality Arabica. These beans thrive in the Hauts-Basins region, which has higher altitudes and cooler temperatures. The favorable terroir yields smooth, nutty, full-bodied coffees with delicious caramel and chocolate notes. Ivory Coast is also famous for a curious Arabica-Robusta hybrid (Arabusta). This unique variety grows in and around the western city of Man.

Like Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast also produces Coffeastenophylla, a rare West African variety. The diversity of its coffee is what really puts this country on the map.

Madagascar

Slap bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean lies Madagascar. This island nation is famous for its biodiversity, spices and vanilla.

What few people know is that Madagascar also produces some excellent African coffee. Indeed, this former French colony is a burgeoning specialty coffee superstar.

Malagasy coffee benefits from a unique island terroir. The coffee here thrives in the Maromizaha forests, Vatovavy-Fitovinany, Sava and Nosy Be.

A majority Robusta producer, Madagascar offers a smooth and medium-bodied coffee. It’s full of chocolate, citrus and spice notes. In contrast, Malagasy Arabica is full-bodied, floral and sweet. This coffee also has unique notes of coconut, pineapple and citrus.

Madagascar is fast gaining popularity in world coffee markets. In 2023, the country exported 300,000 60-kilogram bags, ranking it 26th globally. Quite an achievement!

Guinea

Papua New Guinea Coffee Beans

Coffee in Guinea took off in the 19th century when French settlers first introduced the crop. The country mostly grows Robusta. This coffee thrives in fertile soils, low altitudes and high humidity.

Guinea also produces a tiny amount of Arabica. Farmers grow Bourbon and Typica varieties, which do quite well. They also grow a Timor-Arabica hybrid, Hibrido de Timor, which thrives in the tropical environment. Like Sierra Leone, Guinea also grows the rare variety Coffeastenophylla.

Guinea’s coffee-growing regions encompass Mount Nimba, Fouta Djallon and Ziama Massif. Here, coffees come out smooth and medium-bodied. They shine with fruity, floral, nutty and chocolate notes.

But Guinean coffee isn’t just about taste. It’s also about preserving the environment. Like in Tanzania, most of the coffee here is shade-grown. This makes it very marketable, especially to third and fourth-wave eco-conscious consumers.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2023, Guinea exported 200,000 60-kilogram bags, ranking it 31st worldwide. I expect this West African country to improve exports in the coming years.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a hidden gem of African coffee, famous for its rare coffee varieties. Besides Robusta and Arabica, it grows the rare Coffea stenophylla, also known as Highland or Sierra Leone coffee. This native West African coffee is fast gaining in popularity worldwide.

Sierra Leone’s main coffee regions include Koinadugu District, Kenema, Bo, KonoKono and Kailahun.

Stenophylla, Sierra Leone’s best coffee, dominates production. It boasts a complex sweetness and medium-high acidity. Next comes Sierra Leone’s Robusta. It’s equally as flavorful, with hints of chocolate and fruit. The country’s Arabica also makes the cut. It’s fruity and floral with hints of peach, lemon and apricot.

All these unique coffee varieties have brought this war-torn country much-needed income. In 2023, Sierra Leone exported 60,000 60-kilogram bags of coffee, ranking it 37th globally. Not bad for an emerging producer facing crippling challenges.

How to Buy African Coffee

Coffee enthusiasts know each cup tells a story from origin to cup. Africa, with its rich biodiversity and unique terroir has several winners.

So, how do you navigate the world of African coffee and buy beans that suit your taste preferences perfectly?

Degass Coffee Beans Without Airscape Plunger

Here are some pointers to help you buy African beans like a seasoned pro:

  • Know your origins: Before making a purchase, familiarize yourself with African coffee-producing regions. This will help you understand the various flavors and make informed choices.

  • Explore coffee varieties and processing techniques: African coffee is diverse. Arabica coffees dominate East African production. In the West, Robusta, perfect for dark roast blends, rules the roost. You may even strike lucky and get your hands on more expensive varieties like Kenyan Nandi Coffee (Coffea eugenioides). Such rare coffees offer unique tastes.

  • Freshness matters: Freshly roasted coffee beans from roasters or specialty shops offer the best flavors. Always try to buy recently roasted, whole African beans for maximum freshness.

  • Source ethically: Always opt for ethically sourced African coffee beans. These focus on Fair Trade, direct trade and sustainable cultivation methods. As such, they ensure superior quality and protect the well-being of coffee-growing communities.

Final Thoughts on African Coffee

No matter where it’s from, every bean has a unique story. African coffees weave an enchanting tale full of flavor, culture and tradition.

Whether you’re sippin’ on a bold and floral Yirgacheffe or bright and fruity Kenyan AA, each cup highlights the land it hails from and the hands that grew it.

But beyond a caffeine fix, African coffee beans offer a genuine connection to the continent. I urge you to try an African coffee at least once on your coffee journey. You’ll for sure get a unique flavor experience like no other!

Have you tried any African coffees before? Which was your favorite? As always, I await your views in our Coffeeness community section! 

African Coffee FAQ

African coffee boasts unique tastes and distinctive flavors because of the favorable terroir, encompassing year-round sunshine, abundant rainfall and fertile soils. Coffee growers hand-pick harvests and process coffee right, ensuring only the best beans make it to market.

African coffee is also called specialty coffee. It comprises mainly Arabica, Robusta and Peaberry coffees.

There are many excellent African coffees, but I would have to go with Ethiopian coffee. It’s sweet, bold and complex with unique floral, sometimes fruity aromas. It also has a refined acidity and velvety finish.

Kenyan AA coffee benefits from the unique high-altitude terroir and meticulous washed processing. Every cup delivers a fruity flavor, bright acidity, clarity and a smooth finish. Besides, all coffee beans are hand-picked, ensuring only the best beans make the cut.

Your coffee expert
Team Image
Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Table of Contents