Travels in the Birthplace of Coffee

January 15, 2009

In mid-November, I ventured to Ethiopia with fellow coffee travelers Monika Firl (producer relations, Cooperative Coffees) and Mark Glenn (co-owner of Conscious Coffees, based in Boulder, CO). 

This was my first trip to Africa, and I was really excited. There’s also something incredibly meaningful for someone who works in coffee to travel to the birthplace of coffee. In addition to what I was hoping personally to get out of the trip — an opportunity to learn more about coffee culture in Ethiopia, a chance to reconnect with representatives of the different cooperatives we buy coffee from, and the inevitable excitement of visiting a place I have never been — we were also going to see the beginning of the new harvest season, taste (or cup, in coffee terminology) the new crop, and to determine which coffees we’d be purchasing in the upcoming year.

Our first couple of days were spent in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the country’s major commercial center and the largest city. There are three major producer unions in Ethiopia: Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (YCFCU) and Sidamo Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (SCFCU) and we had meetings with each to talk about the upcoming harvest season, recent successes, upcoming challenges and all the projects they are working on.

We quickly learned that the upcoming harvest season was delayed due to sporadic rainfall during the rainy season. Farmers were keeping their fingers crossed, but many regions had not received enough rainfall for all of the flowerings to occur, which means decreased yields for the 2009 harvest. The lack of rainfall had continued into November, which meant that the cherries were not ripening according to the usual schedule, and the season was delayed in many areas by as much as four weeks. Obviously, more tracking and study will need to occur, but we are hearing from more and more of our producer partners in different areas of the world that they are noticing changes in their rainfall patterns, and a very real concern is that we they are beginning to see the impact of changing weather patterns as a result of global warming.
From Addis, we headed into the coffee growing regions. First, we headed south across the Great African Rift Valley to the town of Yirgacheffe, our base camp for the next four days of the trip. Accompanied by Tadesse Meskala, General Manager of OCFCU, we enjoyed every minute of the long drive as he led us to exceptional local cuisine and cups of coffee at small restaurants along the side of the road and as he generously shared with us stories of what he has learned and accomplished during his time working in coffee.  In between towns, our car weaved in and out of herds of camel and cattle and we spotted myriad Ethiopian birds and other wildlife out the window.
Over the next three days we visited eight different cooperatives in the Yirgacheffe and Sidamo growing regions and talked with everyone from local extension representatives to co-op staff members to boards of directors to farmers. After our meetings in Addis, we had a sense of the challenges many of these communities face, but being in the villages themselves really drove home Ethiopia’s landscape. Statistics bear witness to the fact that this is one of the world’s least developed countries: average life expectancy is 48 years, only 22% of the population has access to clean drinking water, 88% of the workforce is engaged in farm related occupations and nearly 90% of the people live on less than $2.00 per day.  
The priority list did not vary much from community to community: to dig wells so people have access to clean drinking water, to build clinics so people can have access to basic health services, to build schools where young people can get an education, to build (or improve) roads so it is easier to get access to markets and services outside of the village. In longer established cooperatives, great strides have been made toward some of these goals. For example, during our visit to OCFCU member cooperative Kilenso Mokanisa, which was founded in 1980, we learned that the organization has constructed elementary schools in three of their four communities, and has built two wells with their fair trade premiums (a ten cent per pound payment that Peace Coffee provides to cooperatives for community projects) . Plans for the upcoming year include building a school in the remaining village. In nearby Kilenso Resa (established in 1998), we visited a health center that proudly displayed a sign that announced that it was the “clinic of the fair trade premium.”
From the southern part of the country, we next headed across the Awash plains to the Harrar region, on Ethiopia’s eastern border with Somalia. As we entered this more Muslim part of the country, we were stuck by the much more colorful dress. As we rolled into each new town, there was the inevitable market filled with women dressed in bright shades of orange, lime green, yellow and turquoise. Another markedly different feature of this part of the country is that there is much less rainfall; as a result, water is a scarce commodity.

Farmers in this part of the country reported many of the same struggles and goals as those in other areas, but there were some different twists. One item we discussed with Mamet Ali Adem, Chairman of the Ilillii Daraartu Cooperative, is the increasing trend toward farmers intercropping coffee and chat (or khat) plants. Chat is a slow growing evergreen shrub native to Ethiopia and Yemen. When the leaves from the tree are chewed or brewed as tea, they have an amphetamine-like effect and produce feelings of euphoria. One of the reasons farmers are pulling out coffee and replacing it with chat is that the leaves can be harvested three times a year, as opposed to the single harvest season for the coffee. A serious drawback, however, is that the plants grow better in full sun (coffee prefers shade) and that they remove large amounts of nitrogen from the soil, degrading the quality of the coffee that grows on the nearby plants. If farmers produce a high quality coffee, there is no doubt that they will receive higher prices for it than chat. Through the course of our conversation, we found that our assurances that we will pay a good price for the kind of coffee we are looking for really motivated the cooperative to rededicate themselves to working on their coffee quality. We left with handshakes, a specific quality incentive program for the upcoming harvest and a sense of excitement about what the farmers will bring us.

After a few more meetings in Addis Ababa, I flew back to the United States. Looking back at my fifteen days spent on the ground in Ethiopia, it is hard to overestimate how much I learned. We were enthusiastically received at every stop along the way of our travels, and I look forward to continuing to work with or to starting new relationships with the cooperatives and farmers unions we met along the way. As Peace Coffee staffers travel to coffee communities around the globe, we are hearing stories about how temperature fluctuations and changing rainfall patterns are having a negative impact on coffee growing communities. We work hard to think about how to minimize our environmental footprint as a company, but it is clear that we need to continue to educate ourselves and others about how our consumption patterns are impacting our producer partners.  

Avatar image: smiling cup with bird

Published by Peace Coffee on January 15, 2009.

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