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The full story. Originally posted on January 24, 2018.
Jimma, Keffa, Limu – this is coffee country. Every community has a different claim to being the birthplace of coffee and backs it up by producing some of the world’s best coffees every year.
This is not Sidama or Yirgacheffe, this is Ethiopia’s wild west. Lower producing farms are spread out over larger areas, oftentimes overlapping or fully within large swaths of protected forest. Land ownership is an issue here, as estates bring in outsiders but bring roads, jobs, housing, and schools. Smallholders are in an interesting position to gain from new laws allowing for more direct export as some of the country’s top cooperatives unite under the new Kata Maduga Union to triple their income over the past two years.
What follows is a day by day journal of a recent trip Crop to Cup took there in November 2017. The first three days took us to existing suppliers, new farmers known to customers as Girma Eshetu, Efrem, and Kossa Geshe. Day four brought us out to Biftu Gudina, one of the 26 smallholder cooperatives that are member to Kata Maduga.
Rains stayed late this year, so we got stuck in the mud, lots of it. Still, with the distances involved and roads as they are, we would have been challenged to have more than one visit a day.
Farm: Emero Kaffa Estate
Farmer: Efrem Zone:
Keffa Woreda: Decha Kebeles: Gundarashala, Manigawa and Gundaragara
Closest Town: Bonga
Natural Feature: Within Bonga Forest Reserve
Map: 7°05’35.1″N 36°30’18.8″E
Employees: 400 during peak; 150 live on farm full-time.
Our host is Efrem, an Ethiopian-born, Cuban-educated and part-time Isreal-residing accountant who returned to work in his home community through coffee some six years ago. Readers may remember that the US took part in a series of airlifts that brought almost all of Ethiopia’s Jewish population (~120,000 souls) to Israel following the ‘violent red terror’. But the Beta Israel (as they are called) have a history in Ethiopia that they trace back to the tribe of Dan (son of Moses), and now a few brave members, like Efrem, are coming home to reestablish their community.
“They claim Decha is the birthplace of coffee, and that coffee is the source of happiness for our people. Emero means happiness…” Efrem explains as he serves us delicious coffee, taro root, and a ‘bread’ made from fermented roots of false banana trees. “This is what we eat here on the farm” he goes on as our small group politely nibbles on the offerings.
Noticing my sweat, and not knowing it was from the false banana bread, he changes topics. ‘The hike here, it was hard wasn’t it? I’m hoping to build a road by next year”. A few roads, actually, one being a foot-bridge over a local river through which we saw cattle being dragged by ropes on their horns through fast moving waters deeper than their heads. Later I found out that Efrem took us the long way into the farm. Maybe it was to show off his estate, which included not only coffee but cardamom, teff, old growth trees and spider monkeys. Or maybe, just maybe, he took us the long way so that we’d appreciate how hard it was to hike this terrain at such altitude.
Well, while we did sweat the term ‘hiking’ might be an overstatement. In parts hiking was not possible, so we took horses. At times horses could not make it, so we had to borrow a tractor from a neighboring farm. This is the highlands and the highlands are wet! Which is why our first conversation with Efrem was on the subject of drying. While the harvest had just begun, Efrem’s drying trays were already thick with the first collection. When preparing naturals you gradually increase the depth of they cherry pile (alongside decrease in moisture), to consolidate and avail drying space to incoming fresh cherry. But especially during the first few critical days cherries MUST be one layer thick and no more. It was clear that Efrem would need more drying trays in order to scale up with the harvest.
The day following our visit we saw a facebook update that he has, indeed, invested in more drying capacity. We are not surprised; this is Efrem’s style. He’ll take advice into immediate action where it makes sense to him. Last year Efrem’s farm was brand new; this year it had two blocks, a brick-making operation, huge drying capacity, an office and a warehouse. For the same reason we would expect to see some significant progress between now and next year. In addition to growing his volumes from 1 to 2 containers (ambitious), Efrem set goals around investing in local schools and improving the roads.
Farmer: Girma Eshetu
Zone: Jimma District: Bita Woreda: Limu Kossa
Closest Town: Limu Genet
Farm Size: 230,000 trees over 120 hectares
Map: 7.894258, 36.792970
Girma moves quickly for a man who hasn’t missed a meal in many years. Readers may remember Mr. Eshetu’s background as a machinist, first for the St. George Brewery, a national institution, and later for himself as he set out to create equipment for coffee.
This venture led him back to find his original home, from where he had been separated since early childhood. And, a few years ago, to start a farm. While Girma’s farm is only a few years old he is growing fast; he planted 80,000 trees planted last year bringing his total up to 230k trees over 120 hectares.
Part of being fast is being responsive. Last year Girma was producing ½ washed and ½ naturals, but due to the success of the washed coffees, changed to primarily washed coffees. To do this he built a river that taps into an underground source to feed his washing station and staff families with pure spring water. But while Girma moves fast it still takes a long time – by horseback – to get to his farm.
Still, we made the trip to spend the night, tour the farm, and follow-up on an audit started last year. In our horse train, one mount was dedicated purely to carrying the beer. St. George of course. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a bonfire and a soon-to-be-roasted lamb who only got one of us sick. The night was spent in intense conversation about lot separation and improvements, then under tarps and tents until the rain let up at sunrise.
The harvest plan is to split the farm in half, separating an eastern (Mirab) and western (Mizrak) block, and the season itself into three parts, giving us six ways to look at this coffee. On a small scale he is testing the impact of drying on high-quality burlap (as is recommended in Ethiopia for breathability), versus a new grade plastic, which is what he used last year.
While Girma had made great progress on the quality of his coffee, we’re still pushing him to do more on the social sides of last year’s audit. He constructed a new toilet and running water for employees, but needs to do more to improve the comfort of worker housing and amenities like hand washing stations throughout the property. But the season is young and Girma has been known to move fast. We’re excited to see these coffees come in, and to check out Girma’s other projects in Bita, Yeki and in Guji (Anfarara Kebele).
Farm: Kossa Geshe Estate
Farmer: Abdul Wahid
Zone: Jimma Woreda: Limu
Closest Town: Kossa Geshe
Farm Size: 125,000 trees over 65 hectares
The rate at which Abdul is improving Kossa Geshe is astounding – progress since last year alone makes Mr. Girma look like a slow-poke. And most of these investments are immediately visible upon arrival, including two new dorm buildings, three new worker kitchens, bathrooms, hand washing stations, a kindergarten and a brand spanking new 75,000 sq. meter drying patio. And 90% of the compliance work requested from last year’s audit.
We drive in under signs that saw ‘no hunting’, ‘care for the environment’, and ‘respect diversity’. We noted that they were written in English, clearly with us as the audience, but they were up. Getting closer we hear a schoolhouse full of children reciting their ABCs. It’s almost as if they were waiting to start until the visitors got close enough to hear them. But that didn’t dampen the charm.
A cloud of honey bees swarms through as Abdul proudly shows off all that he’s done. “Last year every Birr I made went back into the farm”. True or not, Abdul’s coffee isn’t cheap, and after travelling through poorer parts of Africa it was heartening to see just how much progress can be made when farmers receive enough to treat coffee like a business. We stopped in a large clearing on the top of a hill with exposed views of the protected forest. Such a diversity of trees competing for the canopy, a few of which are so weird you can’t help but think of Avatar without the CGI.
This is where Abdul is building his drying patio. Moata translates for us as Abdul describes his drying practices. “He uses raised beds for sorting for the first hour or two, then moves the berries to a tarp on ground or, soon, tarp on patio”. Woah, hold up right there, we interrupt. While we loved seeing Abdul invest in his farm, any change on this scale is enough to give pause – especially when the coffee in question has been winning awards based on how processing was done last season, before the patio.
The worry, you see, is that the patio will retain more heat than tarp laid on earth. This could speed up the overall drying time, and if not turned every hour, lead to uneven drying at that. So while increased capacity would help Kossa Geshe to adhere to the very best of practices, there’s danger in fixing something that isn’t tasting broken. “What about putting a fill later between the brick patio and the tarps, something like parchment or grass”. Ideas abound as everyone contributes stories of what they’ve seen elsewhere. After the conversation runs its course Abdul steps in with a confident “trust me, I will pay attention to every detail”, and then describes his plan. “I will do a test first, and send you three samples – one dried on raised bed all the way through, one that is moved to patio after two days and one that is moved to tarpaulin on the ground – like last year. This way we can taste the difference. I expect improvements. We have already done a lab analysis for coffee dried on raised beds against that dried on the ground, and to our surprise, it was found that ground drying led to better results every time. So while it is important to start on raised beds, it is also important to give the coffee room to dry. The total dry time for each will be 10-13 days. I will use my new moisture meter to monitor.” And that was that.
The group moved on from the patio. The last stop on Abdul’s tour was a cluster of four small buildings with porches that look out over the forest canopy. “These are for you, our guest houses, for next time you visit”.
Day three continued at the heart of the Keta Maduga Cooperative Union.
Readers may recognize the name Biftu Gudina, or if not them, their sister cooperatives Yukro, Duramina and Hunda Oli (for example). These are Western Ethiopia’s top smallholder cooperatives who, until recently, weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. So last year these cooperatives banded together and formed the Kata Maduga Union.
In their first year Kata Maduga exported 57 containers, bringing in 6.9 million USD in revenue for their members. This is coming from their general manager, a young but capable man named Asnake. He and our teammate Moata are old friends, it turns out, and Moata is a great judge of character. By all measures Kata Maduga is off to a strong start, and members like Biftu Gudina are prospering. We visited a new school, for example, to which Biftu donated 1.2mil Birr (~$43k USD).
Cooperative: Biftu Gudina
Union: Kata Maduga
Zone: Jimma Woreda: Agaro
Membership: 200 (up from 112 last year)
Certification: Organic (new, 2017/2018 harvest)
Site manager here is Riyad Abdulkadar. He, alongside Coop Chairman Yazid Abamacha and Kebele Chairman Ababiya Barago give us a tour of their first collections. “Since formation of coop, lives have truly changed around here. Farmers now own oxen for plowing their land, have better housing with tin roof, send kids to school. In the offseason we constructed 18 new drying tables, each with its own roof. And with help from members we only paid 60,000 birr for this!”. That’s about $2,220 USD for those keeping count.
When I asked what they do with their Grade 2 coffees I got blank stares, and a smile or two. Turns out that Biftu doesn’t put out anything but the most immaculate of Grade 1 coffees. Parchment first dried under a protective shade on raised beds for 1 day, picked through to remove bug damage, skins, etc. After this it’s already immaculately clean. From here the parchment is moved to open tables with the shade netting where it relaxes in gentle sunlight for 8 days. After this it’s to the grinder – or more accurately – the JM Estrada ecopulper. But first the unknowing beans get a warm bath, soaking underwater for 10-12 hours to loosen everything up.
There’s no real fermentation at this time since most mucilage is already removed by ecopulper. Also, they report that there are rarely any floaters left at this stage, but when they pop up they are skimmed off and let to drain. Biftu’s success in quality can seen by their success as an organization. They added nearly ninety members since last year, and opened a second collection center / washing station.
They’ve built a school, invested in electricity and just completed their organic certification. Around Bfitu, for example, farms are small – averaging around 1 hectare each. Before Biftu, farmers had to deliver coffee to a town 8km away, where it would be blended up and sold through the mega-unions. It’s not often that we get to see how powerful coffee can be in building communities. But here in Biftu, and elsewhere around Ethiopia, we saw farmers getting paid enough to treat their farms as real businesses. From investing in the future capacity to investing in their community, coffee is doing real, noticeable good.
Narrative written by Crop to Cup’s Jacob Elster after November ’17 supplier visits.
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If you would like more than 8 samples, please contact a trader directly.