To the cradle, and beyond…

ETHIOPIA PRE-HARVEST VISIT 2012

While constantly speaking of relationships in the green coffee trade these days, it is tempting to make an analogy about this relationship. It is like one of those difficult ones. Even if it is far from easy, sometimes plainly painful, you just want it to work, because it just has to. Will love and loyalty one day pay off?

Getting beautiful coffees from Ethiopia has been made challenging, yet you can’t help wanting to get it. She is the mother of all coffees after all. This time we even went to the origin of the origin. We’ve been to Kaffa now; we visited the region, the forests and farms around the town of Bonga, and beyond: the Cradle.

We went in good time. In some places they were only a few days into the harvest. Other places they were about to start a few days later. Thus we had time to sit down with the people, and they had time to sit down with us. We wanted to speak to the management at the cooperatives we have been buying from, and we wanted to get to know new places and new people. The farmer himself is rarely in the picture; that is how it is in Ethiopia. It is all about the coop. Well, actually it’s all about the union. The unions are the ones that actually sell the coffee, on behalf of the coop, on behalf of the farmer. But the unions are not selling coffee yet. The harvest has barely started, and for the specialty coffee they want to see how the market is going before they commit to establishing prices.

Then there are the exporters. So we met with them too. Who is the most knowledgeable, who has got the best people on the ground, who has got the best set up for processing the coffee and who is most trustworthy? Work in Ethiopia, is like everywhere else: it’s work with people. Yet the “system” wants to alienate us from each other. We don’t want that. We want to work with people we know, people we have met, simply people we like! Now we have met many of them again, and we are all preparing for a new season.

We spent time visiting farms and cooperatives in the Kaffa and Illubabor regions in the west, accompanied by the good people of Technoserve (TNS). TNS has been involved with helping coops in this part of Ethiopia since 2009, in bettering their farming practices, improving the processing, solidifying the management and teaching about how to assess the quality of their coffee. How much is the value of a special coffee? Finally Technoserve is facilitating finding a marketplace for their special coffees. The results are sometimes remarkable. We owe them our gratitude, so do the farmers involved.

Then we went south, to the regions we all know, to Sidama and Yirgacheffe. Again with high hopes and anticipation. If Ethiopia is the mother, Yirgacheffe is the fairest of her daughters. The scenery is lusher, the houses are neater, the people are different – and so is the coffee. Here they still practice the traditional fermentation and washing process – at least for now. As of last year, Technoserve is also getting involved down there. That means installing Eco Pulpers and other more or less dramatic changes: helping farmers with book keeping; assisting in coop management and so on. But with the coffees from here they will not get involved with marketing, finding buyers or assisting with sales. That is curious. After all, the quality improvements seen out west come from the interaction between the maker and the market. And at this origin, we all need all the facilitation and help we can get!

Enough has been said about the ECX (Ethiopia Commodity Exchange) working in the opposite direction of what the whole specialty coffee community is craving. We want transparency and to build relationships: the systems calls for the opposite. Fine.
So how do we get around it?

In the west we are working directly with the coops, using the second window. We choose to work with the partners from whom we have bought stellar coffees, but we are constantly looking to broaden our horizons with new relationships. In the west we work with the TNS assisted cooperatives. These coffees are processed by and marketed/sold by the Oromia Union. There is no way around that.

In the south we will work with a different strategy. The second window allows for direct buying from privately owned farms and processing stations. We’ll be looking for traditionally processed washed coffees and meticulously processed naturals, and we’ll make sure the coffee is further dry processed (dry milled) and screened (selected) by the best people in Addis Ababa.

A detailed list of farms and coops visited will follow. Then we’ll go in depth about the stats, the peeps, the outlook and challenges at each place.

It should go without saying that we are soon to follow up on the actual picking, and we will be cupping and assessing the lots as the harvest proceeds. For now, please see pictures and notes from the places visited over the past couple of weeks.

Thank you for reading. Stay tuned.

About the collaborative

We are coffee professionals committed to facilitating a transparent, equitable and quality-focused coffee buying community.
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