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Ethiopia, January 2020

Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. A pilgrimage of sorts for any coffee professional and somewhere we have always wanted to visit. We visited Gedeo and Guji this year with the intention of gaining a deeper understanding of how the supply chain works and gleaning how our purchasing decisions here could have more impact.

Production in Ethiopia is most commonly centred around washing stations (or sites) which typically are set up to process either washed or natural coffees. These can be privately or co-operatively owned and will purchase cherry from small-holder farmers in their local woredas (districts). These “garden” producers usually grow their coffees on the land around their dwellings and make up the bulk of coffee production in Ethiopia. For maximum efficiency, coffees are blended together by quality and are usually only traceable as far as the lot number assigned by the sites who process them and the woredas in which they were grown. To maintain the distinction of these sometimes trademarked regions, at least in Gedeo, we saw checkpoints on the roads to stop the traffic of coffee between them.

You can also find some estates, or plantations, although these are less common. These are inherently more traceable and have the potential to produce higher quality coffees as there can be more standardised agricultural practices in use but are also usually privately owned.

It is also possible to find “wild” forest coffee which account for only 5% of national production, however these trees are usually very low yielding due to the lack of management and are often of a lower quality than their more purposefully cultivated counterparts.

After getting through the craziness of passport control in Ethiopia we were met by Yeshak and his business partner Solomon. Yeshak and his family have a background in exporting and Solomon in coffee and agriculture so these two school friends decided to combine their skills and form a company called Siz Agro Trading who represent several producers in Gedeo.

On the long drive down to Dilla we are struck by the combination of lush green vegetation and dusty earth and notice an abundance of large scale green-houses growing flowers. Yeshak tells us that the main exports of Ethiopia besides coffee are also agricultural; pulses and oil-seeds, flowers, grains, cotton and livestock.

Dilla is on the main, all weather road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi and is the administrative centre of the Gedeo zone. Due to its excellent infrastructure and location it has become the major marketing and transfer point for coffees grown in the south. Both Yeshak and Solomon attended the University here and it’s where Solomon lives.

After my first taste of some traditional Ethiopian food at a local hotel, we headed to Chichu washing station in Yirgacheffe which is owned by Siz Agro. We had a quick tour of the facilities before sitting down to enjoy some coffee, sugar cane and mangoes fresh from the tree. Most of the harvest at this altitude is complete so there was no processing or drying to see but we chatted about their processing methodology and visited the storeroom to see the resting coffee.

Tariku Washing Station

The next morning we headed off to Chelchele via some really dusty roads, to visit a single farm producer, Tariku. The trees were really well looked after and the excellent quality of the picking was evident as we checked out the naturals drying on the raised beds.

In the afternoon we visited three washing stations with Siz Agro; Halo Beriti, Chiriku and Edido. There wasn’t any processing going on but we had a tour of the depulpers, fermentation tanks and saw plenty of parchment being sorted and moved to allow even drying.

Waking up early the next day, we headed out with Falcon Specialty to visit some sites who work with the exporting company SNAP; Banko Dadatu and Koke which are both in the Yirgacheffe Woreda and then Chelbessa in Gedeb, which is owned by SNAP. Following those we paid a quick visit to Aster Aweke a site producing natural processed coffees, owned by exporter METAD. We attracted quite a crowd here and were swamped by the local children all wanting to show us their party tricks.

Wanting to try and fit a visit to another site in before travelling to our destination for the night, we headed back to the centre of Yirgacheffe to take the road to Guji. We were met by a driver for METAD, a large exporting company and all bundled into a single four wheel drive truck. There had been rains the day before and there were reports of the roads being damaged. It was definitely a bumpy ride and it was amazing to see the huge lorries carrying coffee towards Dilla, making short work of the roads which we were bouncing around on. After a couple of hours drive it was getting dark and we reached a point where we had to continue on foot. Out of nowhere a small group of local children appeared and escorted us the rest of the way, waiting for us at the gate of the Guji Buku washing station, to guide us back to the vehicle once we’d finished looking around. There was some steep terrain to tackle on the return journey and we had to exit the truck several times so it could navigate the soft earth on the roads.

Workers in Hambella, handling freshly arrived coffee cherry at night

We arrived late in the evening at one of METAD’s washing stations in the Hambella area of Guji and after eating a much needed meal, we headed down to the wet mill and saw some fresh coffee cherries being processed. Coffee is usually processed as quickly as possible after harvest to avoid any problems with mould or ferment and the processing went on way into the night. The mood was buoyant despite the time and the workers were singing and laughing as they emptied the bags of cherry into the silo where it was slowly fed in to the mechanical demucilager. This piece of equipment removes all of the mucilage using friction and means that the fermentation process is not required. After the pulp and mucilage are removed, the coffee is washed and then moves straight to the raised beds to dry. This allows for larger volume of coffee to be processed much quicker and helps to avoid a lot of issues which can arise through fermentation.

Once we had finished breakfast we explored the luscious, green, forest nursery next to the washing station before heading out to meet Abiyot, founder of Buno General Trading who manage several natural processing sites around Guji. Our final day in the field was spent visiting sites at Mansa, Bobea, Halaka and Goro, meeting some smallholder farmers who were local to each and checking out their coffee growing. It was amazing to see so much diversity in the varieties grown, many having different names depending on the local dialects.

The last two days were spent cupping through samples at Falcon and Siz Agro’s offices in Addis Ababa. The bustle and concrete of the city presenting a stark contrast with the palette of natural tones we’d become accustomed to over the previous week.

This trip was an amazing experience, visiting first hand some of the exotic sounding places we regularly see on coffee labels. One important thing which we took away from this experience was that the larger, privately owned companies we visited were really investing a lot into their local communities through infrastructure projects, school building and support for their farmers. It definitely made us more aware of how we purchase coffee from this unique origin and we have begun some business relationships which we hope will continue for many years to come.