Coffee beans
Coffee beans

Your Ghana, My Ghana: Sweet robustness of good Ghanaian coffee

Coffee culture is fast becoming ingrained in Ghana’s hospitality industry. Locally roasted brands like Jamestown Coffee Roasters, Gold Coast Roasters, Kawa Moka, Coffee Magnifico and Asili Coffee are all making their mark on consumers and exerting a pull on small and large businesses along the coffee value chain.

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Time was when Labone Coffee Shop was the only place that went by the name of a coffee shop in Accra. Now new coffee chains and speciality hangouts are opening all the time in shopping malls and other discerning spaces of cities like Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi.

Diversifying

An important stimulus for this new trend is the country’s need to diversify away from its over-reliance on cocoa, which has been the mainstay of the Ghanaian economy for the past 100 years and more.

While cocoa income largely stays in Ghana and works to stabilise the economy, as distinct from gold and other important commodities, the threat of illegal mining, known as galamsey, has raised the alarm about the need to have other sources of income and economic stability.

And already Ghana’s Robusta coffee is proving itself more resilient than cocoa to the ravages of galamsey. Currently, the Ghana Cocoa Board manages coffee development and only licensed exporters can sell raw, green coffee beans outside the country. But coffee roasters face no restrictions on exporting their finished products. 

‘Robusta is Ghanaian’

Coffee production has long been a Ghanaian economic activity and Robusta coffee is grown in 10 of Ghana’s 16 regions. One company, Kawa Moka, founded and run by Emi-Beth Quantson, even claims on their website that “Robusta is Ghanaian”.

Underpinning this claim is the idea that “Native robusta coffee originated in Central and West Africa and has been growing in Leklebi [Volta Region] since the 1930s.” Kawa Moka sources its coffee beans from 250 farms, many of them run by women farmers, across three coffee enclaves in the Volta Region.

Coffee trees are intercropped with cocoa, plantain and food crops, which Kawa Moka acknowledges as contributing to the complex notes of its speciality artisanal coffee flavours. 

Remember Bongo coffee?

During the heady days of the 1980s, when the economy was on its knees after a decade of unstable military rule in the 1970s, Bongo coffee, grown in Brong Ahafo, was a cheap and readily available source of comfort during a challenging period of economic stagnation, drought, bush fires and foodlessness.

But coffee died out from Ghanaian culture until quite recently. It was brought back to life through the efforts of companies such as Jamestown Coffee Roasters, whose founder, Kwasi Osei-Kusi, is the current president of the Coffee Roasters Association of Ghana (CRAG).

The association exists to promote the interests of coffee roasters and navigate government policy as a group. “Quality, price, transparency and volumes are the issues that concern us,” says Osei-Kutu. “There are not enough volumes to support our needs, hence we need to work together,” the CRAG president told Your Ghana, My Ghana. 

New trends

Jamestown Coffee Roasters has been in business since 2018. Seven years before that, Osei-Kusi had started a lesser-known brand called UpCountry Coffee with Canadian business partner Dorinda Steward-Kline.

Jamestown Coffee started with volumes of 200-300 kg in its first year and is now roasting 6-7 tons a year. Because of COVID, its Osu café only opened in 2021. A second branch was opened in East Legon last year.

All the coffee it roasts is sourced from the Volta Region, where the high altitude around the regional capital Ho and the border with Togo border, combined with the type of processing and training given to small-scale farmers, result in “the picking of more ripe cherries and a better quality and more flavoursome coffee,” says Osei-Kusi.

Favourable high-altitude conditions have facilitated the development in Togo of a new hybrid variety, Arabusta, a cross between arabica and robusta. 

Value chain

One roaster who grows his own coffee is Cillian Walsh, the owner of Gold Coast Coffee Roasters, currently the single largest producer of Robusta coffee in Ghana. “It’s a huge advantage to grow our own coffee so we can control the value chain,” says Walsh.

Walsh sold his first bag in January 2019, right at the start of the current coffee surge. At that time he says there was one coffee shop opening a month, whereas now there are up to four.

“It took me 6-8 months to get a roast profile that didn’t have a bitter taste. In the end, people couldn’t believe it was Robusta,” Walsh told Your Ghana, My Ghana, adding “Now we’re doubling in size every year”.

Arabica

“I tried to grow Arabica in Aburi but it’s very difficult, very precious and sensitive. There’s a lot of acid in Arabica and the insects love it. Usually there’s no insect threat at altitude. But in Aburi the insects devoured it. We didn’t get the same response as with Robusta.”

Gold Coast Coffee Roasters have two farms, in Aburi in the Eastern Region and Jasikan in the Oti Region (formerly part of Volta Region). Because supply from the two farms cannot keep up with the growing demand for coffee beans, the company also sources from small-scale farmers. 

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Challenges

Coffee roasters are confident about the future of coffee in Ghana. As Osei-Kusi says, “Consumers understand the coffee culture. We have unique recipes popular with folks. The customers are not a problem at all.

But roasters are worried about the problems of cost and quality. As Osei-Kusi points out, “Two years ago, coffee was GH¢11 a kg. Now it’s GH¢50 a kg. It’s going to become way too expensive. And the challenge is that there’s no price-to-quality ratio happening.

There’s a lot of smuggling. And the impact on pricing is driven by currency fluctuation rather than the quality of beans.” For his part, Walsh worries about the increasing use and impact of inorganic fertiliser, subsidised in Ghana, on the habitat of bees, which on his farms provide an indication of the health and quality of coffee trees.

With coffee shops providing an important complement to highly-priced city restaurants, price and quality will also certainly be of concern to the consumers driving Ghana’s coffee culture surge. 

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For a discussion of these issues, join us at 10am on Thursday on Graphic Online TV’s YouTube channel. 

The writer is a journalist and economic historian specialising in economic development. 

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