When the Portuguese discovered São Tomé and Príncipe in 1470, they found the uninhabited islands covered in the dense jungle that flourished in the rich volcanic soil. The settlers populated the small archipelago with slaves from Angola and Cape Verde, who were put to work on plantations of sugarcane and, from the end of the 19th century, cacao and arabica coffee imported from Brazil.
São Tomé offered the ideal environment for cacao, and the small island soon became the world’s biggest exporter of cacao pods, thanks to the exploitation of the African workers forced to live and work in inhuman conditions. The arabica coffee proved less successful, perhaps because of a shortage of land at altitudes above 800 to 900 meters above sea level, where the plant grows best.
Another species of coffee, Coffea canephora, better known as robusta, had better luck. Hardier and, most importantly, more adaptable to the local topography, the coffee still grows all over the island, from sea level up to the 1,100 meters of São Nicolau. The exact origin of the coffee grown here today is not known, but the varieties were almost certainly introduced from Angola and Uganda by slaves from those countries.
Slavery is still an open wound in São Tomé; though technically abolished in 1875, it was replaced by a system of forced labor which effectively lasted until the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. In the islanders’ collective memory, coffee and cacao are inextricably linked to hundreds of years of suffering.
Today, however, coffee could become a means of liberation for the population, particularly for some of the poorest communities. If processed carefully, São Tomé robusta can aspire to a very high quality. Rich in caffeine, its flavor is neither aggressive nor woody, but balanced, fragrant and soft, with a delicate bitter note.
During two technical missions, the Slow Food Foundation identifi ed an initial group of producers, a community of 12 families from São Nicolau in the Mé-Zochi district. In the coming months, it will work to add value to the hard work of the farmers in the poorest part of the island, in the southeast, home to eight communities of producers: São Lourenço, Caridade, Santa Cecilia, Amparo Primeiro, São Paulo, São Francisco, Colonia Açoriana and São Manuel. The challenge here is to train the families to become successful coffee producers, able to meet the needs of the international market. To further this ambition, a new center for coffee washing was built in May 2015, in Caridade, and another two are planned for the near future. As well as technical support, the Presidium plans to help with the marketing of this coffee, hidden in anonymity for too long.
São Nicolau community, Mé-Zochi district, central-north São Tomé; São Lourenço, Caridade, Santa Cecilia, Amparo Primeiro, São Paulo, São Francisco, Colonia Açoriana and São Manuel communities, Cantagalo district, southeast São Tomé.
Presidium supported by
IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development)
Papac (Projeto de Apoio Pequena Agricultura Comercial)
Luis Mário Almeida
tel. +239 9911670