So far this season, our team has logged well over 10,000 kilometers in Ethiopia, making treks to the communities where we work throughout the country multiple times. It is important for us to check in with each community and when possible, with each producer. Our commitments are mutual, we and the groups we work with. We look out for each other. We work hard to make sure we are all in good positions for sustainability.
One of our closest personal connections is with seasoned coffee veteran Getachew Tefere, who was appointed by the Prime Minister to form the committee which presented cases to support the establishment of new legislation in coffee trade. Last year, we had the privilege of preparing a case study which Tefere shared with the Prime Minister, and which directly influenced the traceability-centered legislation which has recently taken place. Over Habesha beer and with the joy of long term friendship we have discussed with Getachew the implications of this new legislation, and the impact it will have on the producers, washing stations and exporters alike.
Opportunities and Challenges with New Legislation
While the impact of this legislation is far-reaching, some of the biggest opportunities we see ahead are price impact at the farm level and delivery impact at the export level. This dramatically opens the door for more significant buyer engagement/involvement and in general more vertically integrated collaborative projects. For one, producers and washing stations can realize more significantly the impact of premiums. The other major impact is lot-specific delivery to export processing facilities, entirely bypassing ECX offloading. That is to say, buyers can identify specific lots/micro lots at the washing station, and those lots can be delivered directly to the exporter, no ECX accounting or warehousing. We hardly need to emphasize how important this is to all of us who have loved, purchased, and supported Ethiopian coffee for years.
Negative impact will be realized (of all things!) in the recent devaluation of the birr. The idea for this recent legislation was to promote Ethiopian coffees as a legitimate contender on the global commodities market, and to coax buyers away from a more value driven washed, mild like Peru, Mexico or Honduras, of which clean cup commercial grades can be acquired at a significantly lower cost than any Ethiopian coffee. It was intended to impact the market such that if a buyer spends the same 3.50/lb this year on the same coffee type as last year, that same price would provide a $.52/lb greater value. This would be a remarkable improvement for buyers.
However, the local prices in Ethiopia for goods and services has inevitably been raised in order to offset the devaluation. In one dramatic example from one of our friends, powdered milk went from 700 to 900 birr overnight, following the devaluation, which is significantly greater than the actual 15% increase. The overall impact of the devaluation will be measured only at the outcome of the season, but in most reports so far, prices of cherries have been so high that washing stations have been hesitant to purchase. This has made offering premiums for selective harvesting very difficult to implement. It is unfortunate, but in a world of inherently outstanding coffees, the production of upper end Specialty is what will suffer the most, while the lifestyles of the people continues to get squeezed under the weight of regression.
The best way to combat this is for buyers to deepen engagement of collaboration. Come to Ethiopia with us. Learn about the day-to-day challenges each producer faces. Tell your producer about your own daily struggles of paying rent, employees, taxes. This coffee trade thing really is a partnership. It does not have to be relegated to a transaction. Producing high end Specialty coffee is a gift, and Ethiopia has global market domination in producing some of the best—look at 2018’s Good Food Awards, and every year previous for that matter!
Another major potentially negative impact will be felt by exporters racing to get coffees from specific washing stations. Many exporters will attempt to exercise control over the market participation through brokers and monopolizing coffee from specific suppliers. There will be a greater deal of “noise” to work through. Everybody is going to want a slice of the pie, complicating the already-complex system further.
Success in the Gedeo Zone!
We also recently learned that our collaborative article about Gedeo Zone (published in Daily Coffee News) was received very positively in Ethiopia. It was picked up by several Ethiopian newspapers and magazines, translated into Amharic and distributed to a readership audience of multiple millions. We are happy to report now going into this season that there has been nearly 145,000,000 birr invested into rebuilding the infrastructure of the coffee industry throughout the Gedeo Zone as a direct response to our article. We were also very happy to see even the Mahalet Hotel is back to its genial self. There is a great deal of rebuilding that needs to continue, but in our recent visits to Yirgacheffe, Hafursa, Adame, Chelba and Kochere, it is clear that the resolve of the Gedeo people is steadfast and the spirit is set on hope. A couple of kebeles sustain crop damage from the frost that occurred. Unfortunately, this impacts not only coffee production (income), but also food and forage for cattle, since most of the enset in these areas was badly damaged as well.
Gololcha - Tiret Cooperative Update
In one of our recent visits to Gololcha we sat down with several members of the Tiret Cooperative along with local government officials, and had a roundtable discussion. We tackled challenges, limitations and aspirations. This year is not short of hardships for everybody and we find that every time we do this our conversations grow in depth, commitment, and urgency.
The Arabian sector (2nd largest global buyer of Ethiopian coffee) is propping up a false market in Harar. This is fortified by poor and vicious cycle where producers are getting very high premiums for coffee cherries and for already dried coffee cherries, regardless of quality. This year, with the devaluation of the birr in full brutal effect in this area, coffee producers are getting the same prices this year for what Abebayehu was paying last year for coffee producers to implement extremely selective practices. This means that farmers producing commercial grades 4, 5, and 6 coffees from this area are getting the same prices this year as Tiret Cooperative got last year for Specialty grades 1 and 2. This does not mean that those same buyers are able/willing to pay more of a premium for the top quality coffees from Tiret Coop. On the contrary, all the neighbors and producers throughout the district are highly critical of the extra efforts of the Cooperative. This promotes an attitude of laziness, and those attitudes are inherently repulsive to the members of the Tiret Cooperative. Their very name means “best effort/hard struggle”, the antithesis to the lazy mindset.
To make matters worse, the exporters that buy these coffees and sell to the Arab markets are summarily convinced that the coffee business is a losing industry, and so the aim for them becomes generating foreign currency above financial sustainability. To elaborate on this inconceivable concept, one needs to understand the dynamics of Ethiopian economy and where coffee fits in this puzzle. First, Specialty Coffee from Harar does not feature in the least in this picture of Ethiopian coffee. Harare coffee is commercial grade, 99%, and the farmers in Tiret Cooperative are dedicated to producing beautiful coffees, micro lots, nano lots, Grade 1, Grade 2. Think about it, how often do you come across a stellar Grade 1 or even Grade 2 Harar? This dynamic alone creates an impossible scenario for the community, because it is very challenging to place value on such high quality coffee from these areas. Also, the general approach to export preparation of coffees throughout Harar is very poor. Laborers dump coffee on the floor, walk on it, and have an overall lazy approach to sorting. The global market is not accustomed to paying the justifiable prices that top quality Harar coffees can produce, because “top quality Harar coffees” have not existed, mostly since the time of Mohamed Ogsadey and well before the ECX. Instead, Harar coffees have been happily replaced in roaster’s coffee lineups with stunning naturals from Sidama, Kochere, Yirgacheffe, Guji, Keffa, Gesha and so on.
All these issues are at play against the quality mindset in the Tiret Cooperative. Add to this the fact that exporters regularly sell commercial grade Harar coffees at a loss: the allure of generating foreign currency has a higher value than even selling coffee at a profit and fortifying sustainability. This is largely due to the fact that the US dollar is Ethiopia’s “gold bullion”. Generating loads of it for the economy brings lots of favor and benefits, namely, the ability to import goods at a massive markup. Exporters often take their coffee sales contracts to the bank to gain access to funds to invest in imports, which can be sold within Ethiopia at a huge profit. For example, a 2005 Toyota Corolla with 150,000 and in good mechanical/cosmetic shape will set someone back a good 675,000 birr. At today’s (December 2017) birr value, that equals about $25,000 USD. Bring in an entire shipment of those, and who cares if you lose money on coffee? This practice expands to new cars, trucks, fuel tankers, etc., while groups whose primary focus is fixed on specializing in awesome coffees (or who maybe have no choice but coffee), tend to get pushed aside. This creates an impossible scenario, and pulls out all framework for a realistic market expectation.
How is Abebayehu supposed to work with this? How are we supposed to build something impossible and unrealistic in the real world? We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to exhausting all options together with this outstanding community. Discussing these dynamics with members of the Tiret Cooperative, their resolve is to work harder to produce even better coffee. If a model does not exist for this expression, then we simply must create our own models and define our own paths.
Producers in this cooperative are continually committed to trying new practices. Some are implementing parabolic drying into their raised beds. Some are finding creative ways to implement floating tanks. Some farmers are even beginning to separate coffee varieties in sections of their farms. In one case, Tegene, who has an expansive farm, each section implementing different intercropping in order to observe coffee tree performances. He is also experimenting with harvesting under moonlight. Theoretically, coffees harvested at these times would possess greater organic contents and moisture, due to lack of stress imposed by sunlight. We are tasting many samples from different sections of his farm, and the results are quite promising. We will be excited to see the other end of harvest with these lots.
Nansebo Worka, Dale, & Garamba Mountain Washing Stations
We have shared lots of time with Zenebe Genale discussing our shared vision and our goals for quality. He served for years as the Manager for the famous Shanta Golba Cooperative, and now operates 3 of his very own washing stations in Nansebo and Auroresa. His voice carries a gravelly authority, and his hands and arms bear the scars of someone who knows the cost of a hard day’s work. He is no stranger to quality, and we are stoked to expand our collaborations with him for the coming years.
Heading southward into the heart of coffee lands from Awassa, we have hiked and toured several farms throughout Dale. Nigusse used to be district manager for the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. He is now working with a small group of producers, all committed to excellence. The rows of coffee trees, under shade of wanza, eucalyptus and banana is quite a sight. If the coffee from this producing group holds any small reflection of the smiles in the people here, and the natural beauty of this area, we are all in for some very special coffees.
Another growing relationship is past Dale, whirling through Yirgalem town and climbing higher until we perch out on the highest mountain in the area Garambe. Here at 1900+ MASL, we find the beautiful Garamba Mountain Washing Station. Filate is a seasoned veteran in careful pulping and fermentation. The staff here is full of smiles and lots of hard work. We are invited into the parchment storehouse only after careful scrutiny of our clothes for potential contaminants. Remove your shoes, and you can enter too—and we are happy to accommodate and do our part in promoting the preservation of such stellar coffee!
Reko Koba & Semalo Pride washing stations
It is always joyful to bounce our way along the familiar path between Aleta Wondo and Dilla. It was incredible to see the tribal councils coming together for rebuilding peace on one of our recent visits. We had the privilege of seeing people from all tribes throughout Ethiopia, Gurage; Gedeo; Oromia; Keffa; Sheka; Guji; Sidama; Amhara; Tigray cultures were coming together in Dilla to reaffirm that they are all committed to building and sustaining prosperity for each other. Though different tribal cultures and languages, they came together to acknowledge that they are all Habesha (Ethiopian national identity), and more importantly, all humans, and that is most sacred.
Every year we share lots and lots of coffee, tons of stories and hours and hours of training sessions with the staff of Pride and Reko Koba. They are inspired by the hard work that everybody is pouring into their coffees, from Happy Cup carrying the banner of Pride with Happy Heart and Vertical Coffee representing the only existing Peaberry nano lot in the world, to Archetype throwing down Reko Koba screen 13 at Nationals and rolling out the iconic presentation and Van Rossum doing everybody proud in the Netherlands, promoting Reko Koba at the judges’ calibration. These crews are fired up and inspired to keep creating stellar lots this season. We are implementing several new process control points, so we are amping up for some of the most beautiful Kochere and Gelana Abaya coffees we will have tasted yet! We anticipate complex layers of pineapple, jasmine tea, lemon soda, chardonnay, spearmint, sweet herbs and tangerine to thick cherry cordial, passionfruit, peach soda, watermelon candy, raspberry jam and coconut.
Exploring the highland areas throughout Yirgacheffe, we were quite surprised this year to find cherries still green, even into December. While there are exceptions, areas of Yirgacheffe, Kochere, Gelana Abaya and Guji are ripening later this year. This is not a sweeping pattern, however, because Sidama, Limu, Keffa and many other areas followed the expected harvest pattern. Ethiopia is simply quite the cornucopia for diversity in micro climates.
Jimma, Keffa, and Anderacha
Driving from Dilla to Jimma is quite the drive! We pass through Gurage lands, where we climb and climb up a mountain to get a breathtaking panoramic view of the valleys and hills below. We always try to miss the intense heat Jimma city is known for, by using it as a stopping point at night and kick off in the morning. At one time, Jimma was the second largest city in Ethiopia, and it still holds its charm in the mingling of old world and new economy. Nowadays, Jimma is displaced by Awassa as the second largest Ethiopian city.
Past Jimma, we wind into the stunning wild shade canopy that equips Keffa with lush mystique. As we swerve and climbed deeper into the Keffa Biosphere Reserve, we are greeted by families of Baboons, each hoping we would be enamored enough to share an easy meal.
Another 3 hours onward through the jungle, and we pause to take in the layers of cultivated hills with tea, intercropped with banana and local shade trees. We know now we have arrived in Wush Wush. Oh, lovely town, you are so good to us. On our first visit, we were actually trying to find a particular washing station, but we had had no luck reaching the owners. We opted to ask around town. Imagine our utter surprise, when we stop a gentleman and inquire if he knows Dinkalem Ademe. “That’s my son!” he says. Dinkalem is well loved throughout the Bonga, Wush Wush and Chena villages in the Keffa Zone. It is easy to observe why. For one, he treats his workers like family. There are about 130 laborers who earn a living working for Dinkalem, and they are all proud to be part of the team of professionals working to produce exceptional coffees. Secondly, he operates what are perhaps the cleanest and most well organized washing stations we have ever seen. We are experiencing cupping tables bursting with grapefruit, nectarine, angostura bitters, white tea and honeydew. We are trying to implement special prep honey processing with Dinkalem this season. We certainly look forward to experiments and exploring opportunities in the coming years.
Further still into the expansive, wild forest, we venture into the Sheka Forest Biosphere Reserve. The road to Anderacha takes us down to about 900 MASL, the lowest spot I have been yet in Ethiopia, before we climb the grade back up to over 2000 MASL. In this part of Ethiopia, thick greenery hangs over the roads and the trees drip with moist condensation and rainfall. It rains 10 months out of the year here. Rivers cut out deep segments of the land.
We leave pavement behind in the town of Teppi, and then after another 40+ kilometers of gravel roads, we arrive at the farm and washing station site in Anderacha. Not too many visitors make this trek. In fact, recently we were the very first buyers to visit….ever! We're about to take our third trip of the season. It sits near the center of the Unesco World Heritage Forest, and the land here is held as very sacred. From coffee and honey hives to lots of fruits and spices, the farm uses its 540 hectares in the heart of the forest to promote healthy biodiversity.
The farm and washing station provide work to a whopping 400+ people throughout each coffee season, and the washing station provides seasonal housing for many of the workers who live farther from the area. Hopping on the tractor and exploring the different parts of the farm, you can see many people working the harvest and spreading out coffee cherries on blankets for meticulous sorting before delivering them for pulping.
We have been purchasing coffees from these producers for the past couple years, and this year, we are helping implement mechanical floating tanks and parabolic drying for the raised beds. This will allow for much more controlled experimentation for washed and honey processing. Naturals are very challenging to do well in this environment, due to the fact that it is so moist. Still, current samples of both washed and naturals this season give us a taste of bergamot, candied apple, lemonade, and champagne to jasmine, blackberry jam, died fig and tamarind, respectively. This area is absolutely one of Ethiopia’s little known gems, and we are proud to be working alongside such an amazing group of professionals.