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Sailing the Winds of Fair Trade, Part I

Sailing the Winds of Fair Trade, Part I Image

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Derek De La Paz, Peace Coffee Head Roaster

It’s February 2007 and I am on a flight from Washington, DC, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I am a roaster of coffee at Peace Coffee. I still can’t believe that in 16 hours I’ll be standing in the country that gave the world the coffee plant. The birthplace of coffee -- Ethiopia. What could it possibly be like?

I will be traveling from Addis Ababa to Yirgacheffe in southern Ethiopia to visit the areas that produce some of our coffee. Then I will spend a few days in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. In all, a dream trip for any roaster. Since I have a few hours of flying ahead, I think I’m going to sleep.

Oh man, it’s hot! The intense sun blinds and burns my sensitive eyes. It also bakes the earth and creates an enormous cloud of dust. The insects seem to thrive in this inhospitable environment. Feasting on the weakness of other creatures. The ride is becoming very bumpy..."Please fasten your safety belts and prepare for landing." Finally I’ve landed in Addis Ababa. It’s 9:00 PM local time. After a brief trip through customs, I meet our friend and guide. His name is Tilhuan, and he is an employee of the Oromia Cooperative Union, the cooperative from which Peace Coffee purchases 100% of the Ethiopian coffee it roasts. He is a man of gentle stature, very polite, with a warm smile and a smooth accented English voice. I walk out of the airport to the embrace of cool crisp clean air (its 55 degrees with 35 percent humidity). There’s also the sweet and spicy smell of fire. It instantly refreshes my mind and body. In the light of the city I can see the outline of great mountains. What a lovely place, and I’ve only walked out of the airport into the night of Ethiopia. What will the day and upcoming trip bring? I awake the next day to the mosque’s call to worship. What a beautiful sound, paired with the sight of the jagged green mountains shrouded in fog. The soft morning breeze gently stirs the fog and smoke making a gray blue watercolor sky.

The birds of prey circle on hot air currents as the sun begins to climb the horizon. The whole scene is beautiful beyond words. My first day in Ethiopia will be a day I will never forget.

Addis Ababa is a bustling international city. With a recent change in the laws of ownership, many foreign countries are heavily investing in real estate and businesses opportunities. So a third of Addis is under construction. Chinese investors recently leveled an eight square block area for the coming mega mall and condominium complex. High rise condominiums and office buildings are going up everywhere. It is also a thriving coffeehouse and café environment. Many of Addis Ababa’s middle class enjoy social time daily, consuming espresso drinks and chai at their favorite cafés. Addis Ababa is also home to many palaces, museums, malls, restaurants, clubs and Africa’s largest outdoor market. It is diverse city that seduces me into instantly falling in love with it. But my trip will first be taking me over three hundred miles to the south of Ethiopia, through the high plains, the Great Rift Valley, and into the green regions of southern Ethiopia. To areas within Ethiopia that are very famous out of Ethiopia -- the Sidamo area and the famous city of Yirgacheffe, the coffee farming area where many coffee connoisseurs consider the best coffee in the world is grown.

My journey south begins early morning in the rush of Addis, taking the only road south out of Addis Ababa. It’s a two-lane road, on which we probably average forty-five miles an hour. Just south of the capital city, rolling hills give way to a large high plains area at about five thousand feet altitude. The high plain is an agricultural area with herding and tef farming (staple grain used to make Ethiopian bread-injerra) being the main ways of life. Brahma cattle, various types of goat, donkeys, and horses are the herding norms (although I did see a herd of as many as one hundred camels). All along the road, various produce was being sold -- tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, corn, onions, squash, cabbage, garlic, avocados and many more, all grown organically. Another sight on the plains was the above ground tombs, painted with bright beautiful colors depicting horses and the ornate people that rode them. You can’t help but think that the plains have an ancient history.

After driving for about five hours we enter in the Great Rift Valley, a valley with mountain ranges up around it in every direction. Each range is completely different from the others in height, rock, shape, and structure. The area is very sparsely populated, with mostly large cattle ranches.

Eventually we make it to the city of Awasa. The city is next to Lake Awasa, a popular tourist destination. Awasa is a large city at the gateway to the green areas of Ethiopia. The road has finally turned and now we are starting to go up slowly in altitude.

Once you leave Awasa heading south you've entered into the famous Sidamo region of Ethiopia. The road begins to wind up, around, and down this rugged environment. The soil is dramatically darker than the previous areas of Ethiopia, either dark red clay-based soil or a black nutrient rich soil. All plant life thrives in this perfect environment. Southern Ethiopia has a distinct rainy season followed by a longer dry season. It rarely rains through the dry season. The rainy season had just ended the previous month. Even without rainfall, this area of Ethiopia stays green year round. Southern Ethiopia has many lakes and rivers, supplying it with abundant water. The powerful rivers have carved away deep canyons, not easily visible with the abundant plant life. All along the road are small coffee farms, which look very similar to the native forest. The crops are grown under and around the native plants. The diversity of plant life makes a beautiful symbiotic farm. Biodiversity thrives on these farms. The native plants, animals, and coffee plants all work together. The people also intercrop acacia, sugar beet, sugar cane, false banana, and avocado with the coffee plants. Our destination is the fabled city of Yirgacheffe in the heart of the Ethiopian coffee region.

The sun has begun to descend the horizon. The day instantly begins to cool. As we round a corner, we all see Yirgacheffe straight ahead. A small town on both sides of the road, still bustling at day's end. A large mosque and church are the only man-made additions to the skyline. Large eucalyptus trees tower over the city. Groups of ravens fill the branches waiting for day's end. We are staying in the town’s only hotel.

It's been a long drive. Our expectations for the next day are high. Visiting coops, coffee farms, and meeting the people that produce our beloved Ethiopian coffee! It's hard to relax, but the beauty and serenity of Yirgacheffe definitely help. Tomorrow will be another unforgettable day.


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