Sailing the Winds of Fair Trade, Part II
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Derek De La Paz, Peace Coffee Head Roaster
So after traveling half way around the world, making my way thru Ethiopia's capitol Addis Ababa, I've finally arrived in Yirgacheffe, a very sacred place in the ever-changing coffee world. Many connoisseurs consider the coffee that is grown in this area to be the finest in the world. Rugged highlands with an abundance of seasonal rainfall make it an ideal location for the coffee plant to grow. We arrive into Yirgacheffe a little after the six o'clock hour. Checking into the local hotel brings us a friendly welcome, and an invitation to enjoy dinner there. We have been driving since 9 AM this morning, so after a little time to refresh, we plan to meet for a local Ethiopian beer (St. George, Harrar, or Bidel to name a few), and move on to some dinner.
The sun is beginning to go down, it's a breezy 70 degree evening and the streets are busy with mostly men traveling with the last light of the day. We are also sitting outside enjoying the beautiful scenery and weather before dinner. We meet Beyene Desta, coordinator for the Yirgacheffe coop that is a member of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. He is a graduate of the University of Harrar in Harrar, Ethiopia. Beyene is a friendly, energetic, quick-witted leader who has no problem communicating with me in English. He does many things for the Yirgacheffe coop including special projects.
Everywhere he goes he brings a digital camera, one of the tools of his trade. He has a project he's working on that involves a café owner in Minneapolis, MN. This café owner has given him the digital camera, and provided him with a computer and an Internet connection. Beyene then takes photos of the local coffee farmers, loads them onto his computer,m writes up their story and sends it all away to the café owner. The photos and stories are then posted at the café; tips are collected for the farmers and the community. That project infuses the Yirgacheffe area with capital for basic needs (school and clinic projects). In the rural areas of Southern Ethiopia, there are no signs of federal aid. Having no schools, clinics, electricity (other than generators), or modern plumbing make life an uphill struggle in those areas. So the people of the coffee producing regions have begun to organize to create a brighter future for themselves and their children. One of those organizations is the coffee cooperative. The primary coffee cooperatives offer many benefits to their members. A coffee farmer pays a small fee (1000 birr or about $125 US dollars) to become a member of a primary cooperative. During the harvest, coffee farmers bring their ripe red coffee cherries daily to the primary coop's washing/processing station and are paid in cash. The processing costs (labor, equipment, and fuel) are paid for by the primary coop. Coffee farmers that are a member of a coop also receive a dividend payment yearly from the coop's profit. Coops also use part of their profits for the improvement of the local communities -- to build schools and clinics to improve the lives and health of the local people.
Once the sun goes down we decide to head inside for our dinner. The dimly lit dining room of the Yirgacheffe hotel oddly reminds me of the dimly-lit seventies decor dining rooms of Northern Wisconsin. Our server is at the table immediately describing the nightly offerings -- spaghetti or meat. So I inquire into the preparation of the meat and find out that it is just cooked beef with injerra; I go with the spaghetti. After ordering, everyone at the table enjoys some good conversation. Then the server reappears and places in front of me a steaming bowl of spaghetti noodles, a stainless steel carafe of aromatic red sauce, and a basket of crusty sweet smelling buttery French bread. My very own spaghetti dinner kit! I'm glad to report that the noodles were a perfect al dente. The sauce as good as any I've made or had. It was sweet with good tomato, coarse ground beef, spicy chili to give it heat, and a touch of vinegar to make it pretty much perfect. Did I forget to mention the piece of Parmesan Reggiano with a grater also placed on the table? That dinner is one dining experience that I will never forget. As we all leave the restaurant, I realize that are hotel is also the city's nightspot. All of the sudden the lights of the hotel all get dimmer, then the sound of dance club music shatters the tranquility of Yirgacheffe. Our hotel diverts most of the generators power after 10 PM to the music speakers in the bar. The bar becomes a thriving nightclub with the classic thumping base lines. I was already restless that night, so the instant nightclub was my audio entertainment. I was lying in my bed listening to the nightlife of Yirgacheffe until after about an hour I heard a big pop, everything went black, the music stopped, and I heard a few random screams. Soon the sounds of generator repair attempts fill the sound void, the night becomes very quiet as attempts to fix the generator fail. The deep silence comforts me and soon enough I'm asleep.
The next morning I'm out on the deck in front of the hotel watching the sunrise on the horizon of the town of Yirgaceffee. We have a little coffee that morning but decide to skip breakfast so we can get on the road. Since we lost one of the days we were to spend in southern Ethiopia we are going to have to visit two different coops in just one day. One of the coops is in Yirgacheffe -- the Nagele Gorbitu Coffee farmers; the other, Qileenso Mokoonisa, is in the sidamo region of southern Ethiopia. Qileenso Mokoonisa is about two hours by car south of Yirgacheffe so we'll heard there first. That way if we spend too much time in Sidamo we can once again stay the night in Yirgacheffe. Driving at night in Ethiopia, except in the cities, is very dangerous. The road south is very curvy, steep, and bumpy but the views from the road are unbelievable. The land is so rugged, with countless steep peeks and deep river valleys. All the land is so green and the deep thick vegetation seems to make most areas inaccessible to anyone. Along the road on the occasional flat spots are little villages or small groups of homes. The homes are mostly built with a wooden frame for the walls (erected in a circle) which is filled in with mud or clay. The roof is made of false banana leaves thatched in a circular shape from the center of the roof.
In the center of the houses are their fires. The fire is used for all the cooking and to keep the house warm. The houses do not have chimneys so the smoke just seeps out of the thatched roof; the sight is alarming at first, seeming as if the houses roof is on fire. I have to think that living every day in a smoky house is one of the factors that cause Ethiopians to have an average life span of just over 40 years old.
Soon we are exiting the main road onto a dirt road that is actually more clay than dirt. After a short drive down the road we come to a small building on a hill. It is the finest coop in the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (O.C.F.C.U.). Its name is Qileenso Mokoonisa, named after a local tree and the good weather of the area. They are the finest coop because of their high quality standards, a very good manager, organized staff, and a broad harvest area in Sidamo. In 2006 they processed over 1,000,000 kilograms of ripe red coffee cherries. They produce the best natural and washed coffees for O.C.F.C.U. The coop was founded in 1977. At that time the coop would bring their coffee in pergimino form (dried coffee beans with an outer husk still on) to the auction in Addis Ababa. Coffee exporters buy their coffee at the auction, and pay the coops usually in check form.
Exporters in Ethiopia are known to pay for coffee with bad checks. So that was one of the main reasons the Qileenso coop joined O.C.F.C.U. in 2002. Now they are the primary coop flagship in O.C.F.C.U.s fleet. After a short meeting with a few members and a chance to see their processing/washing station, we are on our way north headed back to the town of Yirgacheffe. The next coop we are to visit is off the main road that goes thru Yirgacheffe. We take an extremely steep and amazingly bumpy dirt road thru the heavily forested mountainous area just south of the town. After about a half an hour we leave the forest and drive out onto a grassy green hill. It overlooks a beautiful fertile river valley. On the top of the hill is our destination. It is called the Negele Gorbitu Coffee Farmers multi purpose cooperative society. Founded in 2003, it presently has a membership of about 900 farmers. The average size of a coffee farm in an O.C.F.C.U. coop is about 1.5 hectares or 3.7 acres; smaller farms are about a third the size. In Ethiopia the Federal government owns the land, while the farmer owns the crops grown on that land. As families grow the land is passed down through the generations. All coffee producing land in the Sidamo/Yirgacheffe area is being farmed on.
We meet a few coop members who give us a tour of their washing facility, and the primary school on the coops lands built with Fair Trade monies. There is also a foundation for a secondary school being constructed while we are there. Next we are invited to go see the small clinic that has recently been finished to provide the area with some basic social services. The head nurse is there, so she happily offers to check the blood pressure of a few of my traveling companions. Everyone’s blood pressure was perfectly normal, I’m sure it was due in part to the beauty and serenity of the area. As we are getting ready to leave we are invited to take part in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. How could we say no to a once in a lifetime opportunity?
The ceremony's history is steeped in mystery -- well not really, but it sounds good. No one for sure knows where the ceremony originated, if it came from the Arabian Peninsula or east Africa. None of that matters today in Ethiopia as it is still a normal part of rural Ethiopian life. The reason (I was told) for the ceremony is very simple -- a chance for the community to gather and enjoy each other’s company. The ceremony lasts a couple of hours, so there is plenty of time to connect with others that participate in the ceremony. It begins with the starting of the fire. Then the coffee beans are roasted in a pan over the fire. Direct heat from the pan browns the beans; they are tenderly stirred to prevent blackening. When there finished they are set aside to cool. Once cool they are put into a mortar and crushed into a fine powder. The coffee powder is then measured into the Ethiopian coffee pot. Cold water is added and the pot is put onto the fire.
Local spices and herbs are then added to the fire to increase the sensual aspects of the ceremony. While it comes to a boil, a small table is placed alongside the fire. The cups used to serve the coffee are arranged on the table with a small bowl of sugar. Once the coffee comes to a boil a little bit of cold water is added to cool it. This is repeated. So the coffee is actually brought to a boil three times. As it comes to a boil the third time it is taken off the fire and allowed to rest.
The coffee is then poured into the cups and enjoyed with a little sugar. Overall it is a very relaxing experience. It is just about as opposite of our coffee ceremony (never considered a ceremony) as it could get. Getting a chance to participate in a traditional coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is definitely my personal trip highlight.
So now it is time to get back on the road. We say goodbye to the friends we have made in Yirgacheffe, and prepare ourselves to leave behind a very special place. We get back on the main road-heading north -- next stop Yirg a Alem.