The next generation of coffee varieties is anticipated to be generated by the East African Breeding Hub (EABH), established in 2018 by World Coffee Research (WCR) and Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB). The EABH is the second breeding hub launched by WCR, geared towards taking a scientific approach to the categorisation and development of coffee plant varieties.
The WCR’s growing network of breeding hubs is part of a global strategy to speed up the creation of coffee varieties that can withstand the 21st century’s unique challenges, especially the effects of climate change. These breeding hubs act as a base location for countries in the region to access materials, data and research results provided by scientific institutes and private sector partners that are closely working with WCR.
In 2020, the EABH identified three key objectives, crucial to their goal. The first is analysing existing varieties of coffee plants in order to assess their qualities with regards to disease resistance, yield, and drought tolerance. The goal is to categorise the molecular make-up of each variety according to the associated traits, to make cross-breeding simpler and more efficient in future.
On the genetic level, specific molecular markers result in specific coffee plant traits, so gathering data on these connections will create a kind of reference guide for analysing and combining future varieties. A range of existing varieties is currently being trialled in various locations to test yield, quality and adaptive capabilities. The varieties include 22 hybrid varieties, 75 of the C. arabica Core Collection, and 28 international varieties. By studying this catalogue of currently available plant types, the organisation hopes to kickstart its database of coffee varieties and better understand the specific benefits and drawbacks of each kind.
The second key objective is the rigorous categorisation of genetic diversity in Arabica and Robusta SNP plant so that farmers — and to a lesser extent, consumers and buyers — know exactly which genetic variation they are getting. This is important, due to the specific climatic challenges each region faces.
At the beginning of the growing process, many farmers are rolling the dice, not entirely sure if the specific seeds they are planting are suited to their climate, soil, and geography. Changes in climate mean they’re being exposed to the increased risk when deciding which specific coffee variety to plant. For example, a farmer in an increasingly drought-prone region would obviously prefer to know their plants will be drought-resistant.
The development of this database of coffee varieties is to authenticate the seeds currently in circulation, with the goal of boosting the circulation of more beneficial varieties, as well as supporting efficient breeding programs in the region.
The final action point for the EABH is gathering breeders from the 8 different countries in Africa to brainstorm and share overviews of the breeding methods at their individual breeding hubs. These workshops give the breeders an opportunity to discuss the challenges faced by the African coffee industry, to refine the future goals of the organisation.
The EABH’s key areas of concern are crucial to the progress of WCR’s global strategy. With the help of the global organisation’s highly scientific approach to coffee categorisation and development, this African breeding hub will be able to significantly contribute to the productivity and quality of the next-generation African-produced coffee, whatever challenges the future brings.