SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: In Central Sao Tome, a visit to the Coffee Mountain (Monte Café) Museum was eye-opening. I drove by coconut oil factories on my way to the museum. Sao Tome provides some of the world’s finest and most aromatic coconut oil. Monte Café is also close to the charming São Nicolau Waterfalls.
The Roça Monte Café used to be one of the country’s oldest and largest coffee farms, located on a hillside settlement in the Trinidade district about 670 metres above sea level and 10 kilometres from downtown Saotome.
The town, which has a population of just over 2000 people, is known for the ruins of a 19th-century coffee plantation, which are still visited by visitors.
The museum’s English-speaking guide gave me a thorough tour of the facilities and passionately discussed the full process of coffee manufacturing, from harvest to final product.
According to him, the weather conditions of Monte Café (Coffee Mountain) hamlet were optimal for cultivating Arabica and, to a lesser extent, Robusta coffee varieties. In 1858, the property became the largest and earliest coffee plantation in So Tomé, thanks to the enormous development of coffee.
Inside the museum, the graphic photographs depicting the slave trade, the colonial coffee processing machinery, and the ruins of the old complex transported me mentally to the coffee plantation run by the Portuguese in the 1860s.
The guide’s evocative explanation revealed that the inhabitants of Sao Tome were originally hesitant to work on the coffee plantation because they were still haunted by traumatic recollections of their previous experiences in sugar fields.
But, with persuasion and the promise of better salary and working conditions, they were progressively brought into the process. As a result, as the number of plantation workers increased, so did the amount of coffee produced.
Delving deep into history, he explained how the local farmers used to bring their produce to the collection point, where they were weighed and paid at a fixed rate by the cooperative per kilo. After that, the seeds were fed into the processing machines to sort them by size and then subjected to multiple rounds of skin removal.
They were then separated by color hues before being roasted. The entire process of weighing a day’s crop through roasting, according to the book, took about a week. The best seeds, it appears, were saved for the Portuguese owners’ consumption.
According to a salary register in the museum, over 1300 workers were pressed into action at one time. The register listed their names, which were neatly scribbled in black ink, as well as the amount due and paid to each employee. The average monthly wage was around 8000 escudos (€9).
However, according to all accounts, Monte Café was one of the few successful plantations that benefited Sao Tome’s farmers.
The guide showed me the dilapidated structures that had formerly held the colonial masters’ dwelling quarters, a school, a hospital, coffee processing sections, and a large eating establishment. They’re all in bad shape right now. The only edifice that has been well-maintained is the coffee museum.
A panoramic view of the entire property revealed a well-connected and self-contained Rocha, complete with a school and hospital. The existence of small gauge rail tracks was depicted in some of the images, which were used to transport the crop to a collection point and send the finished product to market chains outside the plantation.
Naturally, none of the tracks are still in use today. The colonial masters employed only the loveliest of girls in the processing plant, among other interesting tidbits of knowledge muttered by the guide.
The plantation was nationalized after Sao Tome gained independence in 1975. However, it lost its industrial capacity, and the entire complex quickly fell into disrepair. Many other nationalized plantations were in the same boat since the fledgling government lacked the technological and material resources to maintain the pre-independence infrastructure.
Roca Monte is still producing coffee today. Small areas of coffee plants, as well as other agricultural products such as vegetables and fruits, were visible. I also noticed a few Porcelain flower (Sao Tome’s national flower) trees growing carelessly along the sides of rocky mountain roads.
The land is now peppered with small, self-contained hamlets. The scene is completed by cheerful schoolchildren, diligent mothers, and working guys scurrying across motorcycles.
The visit was both a delightful and rewarding experience, providing me with a poignant feeling of history. The museum tour, which cost three euros, added to the area’s strong touristic value. At the end of the museum visit, I was also treated to a cup of strong, delicious Saotomean Arabica coffee.