Ivory Coast's Presidential Coffee May Soon Become Extinct

(Bloomberg) -- A rare West African coffee variety may soon become extinct.

The arabusta, a hybrid of the better-known robusta and arabica varieties, was developed in the 1960s in Ivory Coast, currently the world’s biggest cocoa producer. Under its first president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, researchers were told to look for an alternative to robusta, deemed too strong and bitter. The finer arabica needs high altitude and can’t grow in the West African nation.

“The arabusta is a high-quality blend,” said Andre Braud-Mensah, 51, founder of the Ivoryblue coffee brand and the first to produce capsules from local coffee. “It has the strength of the robusta but also the lightness and floral taste of the arabica.”

While output has barely reached 100 metric tons since its inception, it’s now dropped to almost zero, according to Braud-Mensah. Once the biggest grower of arabusta, the cash-strapped national agronomic research center has all but abandoned its 100 hectares (247 acres) set aside for the variety. The government said last month it plans to take over and restructure the organization. With small-scale producers, it’s always been a bit of a wallflower: the arabusta tree has much lower yields than its robusta counterpart. Only a handful of farmers in the mountainous western region grow it.

“There’s never been significant investment in promoting the variety,” said Braud-Mensah. “It’s like having a gold mine in the back of your garden that you keep hidden.”

Yet, arabusta is Ivoryblue’s bestseller, even though ground arabusta is double the price of ground robusta. But Braud-Mensah fears he may run out of stock next year. Production plunged to 20 tons in 2016 and then further to 7 tons in 2017. This year, there’ll be 2 tons at best. To compare, farmers produced 78,000 tons of robusta beans this season.

It’s no wonder, then, that Braud-Mensah is hoping to revive arabusta by persuading the research center to let him take over the management of its plantations or by purchasing land to start his own plantation. Either way, there’ll be very little arabusta until 2020.

“It would be such a shame if the arabusta disappears,” Braud-Mensah said. “It’s a wonderful coffee.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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