When Daniel Sarmu was growing up in eastern Sierra Leone, his family relied on two sources of revenue: diamond mining and coffee cultivation.
Both jobs were strenuous and uncertain. Diamonds were, well, diamond-like in their rarity. In comparison, coffee thrived in the region’s steamy, tropical rainforest climate. However, farmers such as Mr. Sarmu’s family could only grow one type of coffee: robusta. This is the less expensive, lower-quality cousin of arabica coffee, which requires a more temperate climate. Sierra Leone, on the other hand, was simply too hot.
“The price of robusta fluctuated wildly – at times, you couldn’t even recoup your harvest costs,” Mr. Sarmu recalls. Climate change is making it more difficult for coffee farmers to survive. This flavorful but long-forgotten West African coffee variety thrives in warmer climates, suggesting a possible solution.
He had no idea he would one day join a team hunting for a “forgotten” coffee species that some believe could change the game for farmers: stenophylla.
Stenophylla has the same smooth, rich flavour as the highly prized Arabica coffee but grows at much higher temperatures. Since the search began in 2018, it has resembled a botanical detective drama, with the team slashing their way through the Sierra Leone rainforest with machetes in search of the elusive variety.
Scientists and development experts hope that as the climate warms, hardier coffee species such as stenophylla will aid farmers in coffee-growing nations in adapting and prospering.”This is a unique offering that Sierra Leone can make to the world,” Mr. Sarmu, who is now a coffee expert and development worker in Sierra Leone, explains.
Aaron Davis (left) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and John Brima of the Sierra Leone Forestry Department rediscover stenophylla coffee in Sierra Leone’s wild habitat. For more than a decade, researchers have been attempting to climate-proof coffee. And the project’s stakes extend beyond coffee.