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Published, Apr 25, 2016

Ethiopia Sourcing Trip. Part 1 of 3.

By Joshua Tarlo, Coffee Development Manager


Arriving in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was like passing through a storm; one moment I was in a massive bottleneck of people jostling for the exit, the next I was tiptoeing forward in a quiet and seemingly endless line through immigration. Once I cleared immigration, having answered questions about my past trips and reason for being in Ethiopia, I jumped in a van that careered me through Addis. Driving in Ethiopia is a full contact sport with little rules but luckily my driver was on his ‘A-game’. Burning through roundabouts, highways with no lanes and dodging people and pot holes we finally arrived at the hotel.

This was just the start of my Ethiopian coffee adventure.
But before I get into the trip itself, I think it’s worth giving a bit of background to the coffee industry in Ethiopia.

So, first things first, how does Ethiopian coffee work?
The Ethiopian coffee industry doesn't work like anywhere else. It’s complex and fascinating with great intentions at its core. Ethiopia grows some of the best coffee in the world and, quite rightly, the country wants to protect and reward their farmers, using the coffee to economically elevate as many people as possible. So, before we receive shipments back at The Roastery, here’s how Ethiopian coffee production works. From seed to ship. 

The Farmers.
Farmers in Ethiopia grow their coffee on an average of about 2.5 hectares of land. In each hectare there are about 2,000 coffee trees, with each producing between 3 and 5 kilos of red cherries. So roughly around 15,000 to 25,000 kilos of coffee cherry per crop per farmer. This might sound like a lot but is actually very small. So small in fact that the farmers almost never process their own coffee so they have two choices: the co-operatives and the private mills. 

The Co-operatives.
The co-operatives are designed to give more money to the farmer. The farmer receives a payment up front for the coffee cherries, however, they can then receive more after they’ve been processed and sold. The co-ops also usually have stricter standards on working conditions for their employees and work in the communities they buy from to improve social sustainability. 

The drawback with the co-ops from the farmers’ perspective is that they have to wait to receive those second or third payments and that first purchase might be for a lower price than the privates. This is really tough - some farmers need cash immediately so they have to turn to the often higher paying privates. From a buyers stand point the co-ops can be challenging; there is often a really bureaucratic system so things can move slowly and there have been reports of corruption. As a speciality buyer, the further challenge is that quality is not always of paramount importance.

The Private Mills.
Private processors are great from a quality stand point, they are receptive to change and improving their product and often pay farmers a bit more up front for their coffee cherries. The downside of a private is that they aren't as invested in giving more money to farmers and as a buyer you have to work with them to ensure labour laws are being respected and that there is more money flowing back to the farmer. The privates also have to sell their coffee through the ECX which can make tracing your coffee back to the mill you've been working with quite difficult.


The Unions.
Each co-operative is part of a union. The co-operatives they work with are decided based on geographic and ethnic lines. The unions can work with hundreds of thousands of farmers - Oromia has almost 300,000. When we sat down with Tadesse Meskela, the founder of Oromia he talked a lot about its success, from providing health services to 70,000 farmers to building schools for 15,000 children. They’ve certainly done a lot. That being said, the issues of corruption in various unions have come up and the problems of improving quality are as much as part of the union as the co-operative.

The ECX.
The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange changed the coffee game in 2008. Essentially they mandated that all coffee from a private mill must be sold through the government auction house. This makes traceability, which is a key attribute in speciality coffee, incredibly difficult. Also how the auction actually works means you can’t taste the coffee first, you only get the data the government graders provide. On a positive, the ECX has been great for farmers as it provides them with information on the price the coffee is currently being sold at auction (via newspaper, radio and even SMS) enabling them a better position for negotiation. 
So, the Ethiopian coffee industry is complex and full of a lot of grey areas. 
The issue of which is the best way to source coffee is big in our industry. We've tried everything from labels like fair trade to the building of the unions and ECX. The real answer, like so many in coffee, is that it's complicated and there is no ‘best way’. There's only the best way in a given situation. We're working hard to always find the most ethical, best quality coffee and we’re inevitably going to go about it many different ways to do so. 

Read part two here: