Extraordinary Ethiopia

June 15, 2005

Mid-winter at staff meetings, talk of farmer visits comes up on our agenda list. Peace Coffee has a rotating travel program, which gives all of its employees an opportunity to visit the coffee growers we buy from. We visit several farmer partners every year, although sometimes several years pass between visits to some of the coops further away. It had been three years since anyone from Peace Coffee had visited the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, OCFCU, in Ethiopia. Since the last visit, the coop has more than quadrupled its coffee production and its membership has gone from 23,000 to 68,000. At the end of March this year, two other Midwestern coffee roasters, Jody and Chris of Higher Grounds in Michigan, and I departed on a trip to Ethiopia to witness this incredible growth and to see Fair Trade premiums at work with our own eyes. As fate would have it, we saw a lot more than just coffee!

A day after arriving and adjusting to the change of time and climate, we headed out to visit the Yirgacheffe and Sidamo coffee regions 400 miles south of the city. The coffee harvest does not begin until early September, so our visit consisted mainly of touring the drying and depulping stations. One morning, we were fortunate enough to take a two hour walk through the community. We saw monkeys, lizards, sugar cane and bananas amongst the flowering coffee trees.

My ears became highly sensitive to all the sounds around me. They reached for understanding when people spoke in Oromifa, the language of the Oromos; but instead I only heard sounds — sharpness of tongues, pleasantness of laughing and conversation and the chattering of birds and scampering monkeys in the shade trees above. Thankfully, we had translators with us so we could talk with farmers along the trek. We asked them questions about their last harvest. Many shared with us their belief that this year’s harvest would be better than the last because of the amount of rain they’d been having. The children sheepishly smiled at us while their parents gave us a tour of their homes, which included an area for livestock, an injera oven and a sleeping area inside of a one room, oval mud walled hut with a thatched roof. I brought pictures of farmhouses in the Midwest and of Peace Coffee’s Roastery to show the farmers. A crowd would gather and giggle as I made mime-like gestures to convey that the pictures were of my home. They were especially amazed by the photos of the cows and ducks in the snow.

Later, during our walk, the farmers showed us the beginnings of a clinic funded by Fair Trade premiums. A government doctor will be dispatched to this new clinic, making it a lot easier and closer for people in the community to receive treatment. Currently, the community members must walk 20 miles for medical care. Fair Trade money has also allowed many families to build new homes out of long lasting concrete that will save them time and money in the long term. Farmers proudly stood next to their new homes, the sweat of their own labor, and waved as we passed by. Later in the day, we were driven to a school where a new wing of classrooms was being built with fair trade premiums. The addition will reduce class size from 60-100 to 30-50.

Our third day brought rain to the Sidamo region. It began just as we entered one of the cooperative’s head offices. The rain made it impossible for us to visit any of the other cooperatives because the roads become too muddy and slick. Our journey was diverted to some of the local markets to see what people were selling. There was every thing from plastic woven grocery bags, false banana, chat leaves (a mild stimulant) to huge cuts of meat. Whenever we were out and about, we stuck out like a sore thumb. The word most frequently shouted at us and other foreigners was “faranji”. Luckily, almost without fail, a smile or attempted communication ceased the gawking and quickly turned the situation into a fun exchange instead of a spectacle.

In a country where 60% of foreign earnings come from coffee, many coffee roasters or other faranji’s visit Ethiopia in seek of one of a kind coffee varieties. The most noted of these are the Harrars, Sidamos and Yirgacheffes. This said, our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the National Coffee Auction and Warehouse. This is where all of the coffee in the entire country gets dry processed, tasted and rated, put on the auction table for bidding, and eventually bagged up and stored until it is packed into a container and sent by truck to Djibouti, the closest port town. From there, it is dropped on a cargo ship and eventually sent out onto the open waters towards North America or Europe.

Our tour of the facility first lead us into the National Coffee Laboratory. Chris, Jody, and I put on our lab coats to ready ourselves for an official tasting. This was coffee cupping ten times as fast as any I’d ever done before. Forty or so samples are set up, the water is poured on top of the grounds—start your clocks and let the speed tasting begin! After zipping through the coffee cupping, each coffee is rated for defects, acidity, overall cleanness of the cup, etc. The rating paper slip as well as a sample of the green coffee is sent almost immediately to the auction headquarters nearby.

At 2 o’clock sharp, a gavel bangs, bringing order to the auction room and signaling that the first round of coffee bidding has begun. In a hot crowded room, Jody, Chris and I sat amongst the bedraggled looking coffee truck drivers who had made the trek across the country to deliver their green beans in hope of a decent return for their product. The bidders sat on the other side of the room in fancy suits and ties awaiting the next whistle, hand sign or knock of the gavel settling the final coffee price. The air was filled with a thick tension as the sweat and hard work of so many people in the form of a coffee bean, was sold to the highest bidder within seconds!

The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union was the first cooperative in Ethiopia to bypass the auction system. This means that importers and roasters like Peace Coffee, can purchase directly from the coop. This ensures a fair price to farmers that takes in to consideration the social, environmental and human costs of producing some of the most sought after coffee in the world. We happily tasted the Coop’s coffee in their office in Addis Ababa. Their coffee rates in the top five in the country. After visiting the farms and meeting with the farmers, it’s no wonder why: the level of expertise and commitment to providing the highest quality coffee is extremely evident. From the care of the coffee plants to the quality and continued improvements of the depulping and hulling stations, Jody, Chris and I have never seen such a strong cooperative structure. The growth of its membership has brought about the formation of a Cooperative Bank, which lends farmers money for personal and community based projects. They are also working on an eco-tourism project to bring more visitors through the lush coffee growing regions, beginning in Kenya at Mount Kilimanjaro & working its way to Jimma, the exact location of the birthplace of coffee.

During my time in Ethiopia, I witnessed the beauty and pride Ethiopians have for themselves and their country. In a small restaurant in the countryside, I watched the Ethiopian track and field team take home 7 gold medals at the World Championship in France. I have never seen such excitement as was on the faces of those sitting around us cheering for their country’s runners. Running is one of the country’s greatest past times. Haile Gebreselassie, the most well-known runner, when asked what athletes from other country’s think of Ethiopia, he said they think it is just a desert. There is an Ethiopian saying “seeing is better than hearing.”

The travel time is long but the opportunity to visit and see a country with such a rich and important place in history (not only the birthplace of coffee, but of civilization as well) is well worth it. It is without a doubt the best way for any American to see what the history books in school leave out, what the print media and television leads us to believe is a country ridden with only with poverty, famine and AIDS. Nothing that I’d heard about this country before looked anything like the bustling city of Addis Ababa: large dishes of injera, tibs and doro wat, lush fields of bananas, coffee & rare species of birds, neighbors herding their sheep and cattle and drinking homebrew together, rejuvenating natural hot springs and ancient churches full of holy scriptures that my eyes were witness to.

On my last day in Addis Ababa, I sat in the Oromia Cooperative Union’s Office with the general manager Tadesse Meskela. This was the second time Tadesse and I had met — he had visited Minnesota two years ago. As we sat and caught up, I saw his face brighten when he told me about the Oxfam Cafes in England serving the coop’s coffee. He had just visited them for a ribbon cutting ceremony. At that moment, I’d never been surer that Fair Trade is winning across the world!


Avatar image: smiling cup with bird

Published by Peace Coffee on June 15, 2005.

let's be friends.

love coffee with us!