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A guide to the East African bean basket

The East African bean basket includes seven of the world's most successful coffee-growing countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi and Burundi.

Despite the basket being located in just one corner of the world, significant variations can be seen with regard to its coffee, such as at what altitudes it is grown, how it is harvested and processed and the different tastes that come through when the beans are brewed.

Here, we're going to take a look at where exactly and in what conditions some of the world's finest coffee is grown, before companies like us at DR Wakefield sell this on to roasters and blenders to be turned into the aromatic drink we all know and love.

Where is the coffee grown?

Much of East Africa's coffee is grown at high altitudes, with climate conditions in these areas being perfect for its cultivation.

The Ethiopian highlands are where coffee was first discovered thousands of years ago and beans are still grown there at altitudes of between 1,500 m and 2,000 m today.

Temperatures in the highlands make them ideal for coffee growing – in Rwanda for example, average temperatures at around 1,500-2,200 m above sea level vary between 17 and 23 degrees Celsius, making conditions in the country's main bean cultivation areas perfectly suited to the cause.

Ethiopia is the biggest exporter of coffee in the whole of Africa, producing almost four million bags of beans each year in its main growing regions of Harrar, Sidamo and Ghimi.

Kenya is next in line in terms of yield volume, cultivating approximately 1.5 million bags every year, shipping over 1.1 million of these to traders overseas.

Harvesting processes

Beans from the basket are harvested in different ways too, with the wet process – where the cherry is washed away from the bean, which is then cleaned to produce washed coffee – being the main technique used in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Malawi.

However, in Burundi and Ethiopia, the dry method is also used, which involves the entire coffee cherry being left to dry in the sun, which produces a completely different flavour and what is known as unwashed or natural coffee.

Cupping profiles

Arabica beans differ significantly in taste to those of the Robusta variety, with the former tending to be sweeter and higher in acidity, with notes of sugar, citrus fruits and berries.

This type of coffee is the main bean grown in Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia, but it is also cultivated in the other countries – just not in quite such high amounts. Around 97 per cent of all coffee from Rwanda is of the Arabica variety.

Robusta beans contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica coffee, have more of a nutty aftertaste and are often used in espressos, due to their strong flavour.

Significant amounts of these beans are grown in Burundi and Uganda, with 93 per cent and 87 per cent of the countries' yields consisting of this variety respectively.

Yet there are also taste variations between the different nations of the bean basket, as although notes reminiscent of citrus fruits and wine are common throughout East Africa, varying levels of acidity can lead to different cupping profiles.

For instance, Kenyan coffee often features blackcurrant and other forest fruit tones, while beans from Rwanda and Malawi will be a lot more citrus-like in flavour and those sourced from Burundi are well known for their floral notes.

DR Wakefield's relationship with the basket

Here at DR Wakefield, we have been sourcing coffee from the East African bean basket right from the very beginnings of our business in 1970.

Nowadays, a large proportion of the region's coffee is marketed and sold via cooperatives, so we try to make regular trips to East Africa to build and maintain strong relationships between exporters and traders.

We only use trusted and reliable sources to ensure we are supplying our roasters with the finest coffee, at the best price.