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Visiting the Birthplace of Coffee

Upon his return from touring East Africa earlier this year, Scott offers his thoughts on the progression and development of the birthplace of coffee since his last visit in 2010.

It has been four years since my last trip to Ethiopia. It was very obvious from our arrival into Addis that the country is going through great change and development. Four years ago we were seeing the start of freeway building and talk of railways. Today, the freeway is finished and the railway is under construction. The city of Addis is also seeing an increase in construction, with many new building and development projects. This city is moving at a rapid pace. Seeing the development in Addis reminded me of travelling through India some 15 plus years ago. The purpose of this trip was to meet with our old and well established exporters, while also visiting some new more recent contacts.

Our first tour was of the Oromia Cooperative Union mill, roughly a one hour drive out of Addis on the main highway out of town towards the port of Djibouti.  I visited this mill four years ago when it was still under construction.  Last time we visited the main buildings had been erected and the green bean milling equipment was being installed. Today, the mill, electrical equipment and systems are working to capacity and producing beautiful coffee from all over the country. Oromia is in a unique position where they mill coffee from all over Ethiopia, as their member’s cooperatives are based in various different coffee growing regions. This offers a unique cupping experience for visitors to the mill. We spent a full day touring their facilities, cupping and talking with senior management.   The management spent considerable time outlining planned future developments for the main umbrella coop and all the smaller member cooperatives.  They are looking to increase milling capacity and fund future projects for regional cooperatives so they are able to set up farmer training centres to help producers increase quality and production volumes. The Oromia coop has grown and matured over the last four years. Their management and staff are working hard planning future developments and forecasting their funding needs. They are continually planning their expansion and supplying regional members with service needs through their well organised management systems.

Private Ethiopian exporters have also invested a lot of money into the coffee industry over the last few years. The price rise three years ago injected a lot of capital into the industry which has been a positive for the future of coffee production in the region. It is the opinion of the exporters that energies should now be focused on the producers, helping them to manage their coffee farming techniques more comprehensively so they continue to grow coffee as opposed to switching to more robust crops. With the growth of the Ethiopian population over the last 20 years (rising from 50 million people to an estimated 90 million), it is easy to see why pressure surrounding the competition for farmable land and its usage is mounting. Coffee has previously been the most profitable crop, however more recently general food produce has begun to offer farmers earnings that rival coffee and are easier to grow and manage. This issue is one of the biggest threats to coffee production worldwide. Growers need to be offered incentives to grow coffee, or they will turn to other crops.

The next three days were spent around Addis visiting various private exporters and other cooperative mills. We cupped coffees in office after office and saw a lot of newly built coffee handling facilities. We spent one afternoon at the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange (ECX), which is the government’s main coffee market in Addis. It was very interesting to see how coffee was traded on the open floor. Grower representatives briskly work the floor, selling coffee to exporters and finalising a deal with a quick hand slap that is then followed up by a computer trade. It was all very interesting to watch.

Ethiopia is expected to grow approximately six million bags of coffee this year. The country’s biggest buyer is their own internal market, with 45-60 per cent of all the coffee that Ethiopia grows going to the domestic consumer. The balance of their production is exported around the world. Nearly all of the Ethiopian coffee production is traded through the ECX, with a second window open to licensed growers and cooperatives so they can export their own production. Ethiopia is a culturally diverse country in geographical terms. There are many different old cultures that know and have extensive experience growing coffee. The country is land locked which creates another layer of complexity for exporters, with strict border control and some very large populations on its door step.  So when people ask how much coffee does Ethiopia export it’s not often an exact answer you will receive. As one exporter said, "it’s complicated!"

Our time in Addis was somewhat of a pleasant surprise thanks to the positive outlook and investment in the future of the industry. After Addis, I headed west to Djimma for a few days to visit some growing areas and cooperatives, and Guy headed south to see much the same in the Yirgacheffe region. My stay in Djimma was a continued education on Ethiopia and its culture. I was lucky enough to be shown one of the ECX cupping and grading facilities, which is the supply point to the government ECX warehouses in the region and then to the coffee market in Addis.

For two days I travelled around Djimma visiting some small producer cooperatives, and it was here that I saw the benefits of being a member to both Oromia and the Fairtrade Certification system. At two of the small coops dried cherry was being milled into green bean using very basic equipment before being sent to the main mill in Addis to be processed into export quality coffee. These primary mills are owned by the local coop. The next few days were spent driving along bumpy dirt roads in hot dry weather. Then we headed back to Addis to attend a few more cupping sessions before making our way to AFCA.

Ethiopia has seen many changes since my last visit to the birthplace of coffee. It is a diverse layered producing country with many cultures and idiosyncrasies. It is a country with coffee of wide-ranging differences and quality, and definitely one to watch in the future. I look forward to what awaits me on my next visit. 


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