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Remarks on Ethiopia, Feb 14th, 2019

February 14, 2019
Category: in Ethiopia

Crop to Cup Importers and a few roaster friends from Ohio, California, Texas and Louisiana just returned from a successful trip in the South and West growing regions of Ethiopia. Here I (Taylor) will share a bit about the lessons we learned on the farms and at our 2019 Trade Partners Conference attended by over 40 producers and roasters, and what we’ll have to show for it in the form of 2019 offers.

For us roasters or importers Ethiopia can feel like a dreamscape. The diversity in flavor profiles, farm styles and processing traditions (plus the resulting myriad quality levels) is unparalleled in the coffee producing world. To this mix add a few recent years of drastic change in government regulations, political/regional insecurity and countless new players in the Ethiopian coffee industry, and the dreamscape can begin to feel like a nightmare.

But when the results start pouring in, luckily it’s just a larium nightmare at worst. The coolness of growers, exporters, and their products prove why this is always one of our favorite origins to share with roasters.

2017-2018 IN REVIEW


Let’s first look at where we finished last year. 2017 harvest (2018 imports) was the first real year of the country’s newly expanded direct-export program, which allowed any washing station owner to export their station’s own product to foreign buyers. Previously limited to selling through their production to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX, where it is lumped with other coffees of similar type/grade), these hundreds of washing station owners now joined the hundreds if not thousands of single farmers who obtained the same direct export permission a few years prior. What this means for buyers is an endless stream of traceable coffees. Traceability is varied; some are washing station lots collected from hundreds or a few thousand smallholders who deliver to a local washing station, and the others are single farms – anywhere from a few hectares to a few hundred hectares or more.


With this rapid expansion in the supplier base came a new host of risks, mainly from washing station owners jumping from ECX to direct export without experience and failing on our needs for both quality and communication.   This took several forms. One, a washing station owner promotes the sale using the story of their land land/community, but then might switch to inconsistent ECX lots from the same region (but maybe not from their exact station) to be able to offer a wider variety of samples to fulfill the contract. Or, two, the supplier might only offer their true washing station lots, but with such inconsistency within their hundreds or thousands of smallholder farmer suppliers, the final product may fail. We had several contracts fall through last year due to the PSS or, worse, arrival sample not meeting the original awesome offer sample.


Buying direct from the many new farms/estates carries its risks too, even if varietals and harvesting practices here are generally much more consistent compared with smallholders contributing to a local washing station. Farmers who now need to make decisions about off-farm transport, storage, milling, and export are bound to make some mistakes.   Understandably, this is new territory for a farmer who used to just sell to a local trader or washing station, but the risks for us buyers are nonetheless high.


Both the West and the South coffee growing regions recently experienced security issues due to protests around land rights and even a debate on who can claim the true origin of the coffee plant (Keffa vs Jimma). Some farmers had their farms raided and coffee stolen off the trees or out of their storage facilities. Farmers and coops reacted, understandably so, by moving their coffee quickly out of the farming regions and into the safer warehouses of Addis Ababa. But warehouse space is expensive in Addis, which led to sellers hulling off the dry cherry pods or parchment earlier than the optimal in-husk resting time, just to get the coffee away to safety. Inversely, many lots that should have moved out of farm/regional storage could not do so. Protests blocked some roads for weeks, inhibiting coffee from moving out of humid or suboptimal storage conditions. To make matters worse, issues like early hulling are more difficult to find in pre-shipment samples or even arrival samples, and don’t rear their ugly heads until a few months after arrival in the form of shorter shelf life.


What last year taught is the power of your bench (for us, our local staff in Ethiopia), and the importance of working with people you know and trust, and who perform successfully year after year. That’s no revelation to anybody in business, but it’s nonetheless critical to remember when the frenzy picks up – when we’re all chasing after the hottest coffees, and when hundreds of new suppliers are chasing after the top specialty buyers.


Setting off from the lakeside town of Awassa, our first stop was Guji Zone where we met with several producers we’ve known for years. In Kibre Mengist we sat down with Mr. Girma Eshetu (you may know his Keffa estate coffee from us), who still operates what was one of the very first washing station in Guji. He’s always just sold his Guji production (both washed and natural) to the ECX, but is eager to recreate here in Guji the quality and relationship we have with him in Keffa.   He’s in the middle of an outgrower registration program, which will allow him to more closely work with the smallholders who sell their cherries to his station, and better control the quality of cherry input.



Girma Eshetu

From Girma’s Guji station we then set off for Tero (part of Shakiso region), which is less densely populated than other areas of the South, allowing for larger farms and the last vestiges of what were once dense forests. Here, with these small forests pockmarking between relatively dense village populations, farms, and open pit gold mines, you both appreciate the beauty of the forests that remain and hurt from the contrast and the clear extent of the forest loss.



This magnifies the importance of suppliers, like Tero Farm, who run a professional operation co-existing with the surrounding forest and replanting native tree varietals between coffee plants on previously cleared land. Tero’s outgrower program (and their sister site about 100km away in Hambella) can produce upwards of 4 containers and is among the most extensive we’ve seen anywhere (well organized training and record keeping with all outgrowers for both QC and environment).


Well organized outgrower program at Tero Farm

If only the backroads of Shakiso and our cars’ tires performed at similar caliber to the Tero programs we had just visited. Our travels screeched to a snail’s pace, or, at times, full hault, so we found ourselves arriving late in Bensa, much farther to the north, in Sidama Zone.



If you ever drive from Shakiso to Bensa you will probably take the tarmac road, but, acting on a bad tip that turned out to have quite the silver lining, we found ourselves on what I would consider the most picturesque of all the many long coffee drives I’ve taken over some years in Ethiopia. Central-east Sidama, as opposed to the more densely populated west of the Zone, feels comparatively remote, with taller mountains, wider valleys and round-hut homes centered in small villages, far apart from one another.





Central/East Sidama

We pulled into Bensa well after dark, and we were politely but adequately shamed by a newly formed association of single-farmer exporters who were expecting us hours earlier. With apologies and handshakes out of the way, we sat under the stars and a crescent moon, with a dozen producers and many more neighbors to discuss the potential of any one or more of these smallholder farmers exporting directly to us or other buyers (each producer harvests from just a few hectares).



Acutely aware of the risks and costs associated with the rush of so many new farmer-exporters coming to market, this group in Bensa (and their sister groups in Gedeb and Yirgacheffe) utilizes a central organization to assist with communication with and sampling to buyers, milling and export. Currently these smallholders all produce natural lots, and this is exciting to find so many new and capable options in the 20-150 bag single farmer range. Up to now most of the direct-export estates in Ethiopia have been much larger commercial operations, and, due to population density in the South, are mostly clustered in the more remote West. We’ve been trying to do this for a few years in the south of Ethiopia, so it’s exciting to feel that we finally have the right smallholder structure in place.


More driving and a few domestic Ethiopian Airlines flights later we arrived in Jimma, which sort of feels like home to Crop to Cup. It’s where we got our start in Ethiopia, and where our local staff, Moata, grew up and still calls home. We have diverse operations and friends here, from coops to smallholder farms to larger farms, from Keffa to Limu to Illubabor.


First stop after a night’s rest and what seemed like an endless ascent up into the dense forest (the farm is at 2,100m), was the 100-hectare, organic-certified Kossa Rada farm in the Limu Kossa region. Last year was our first year working with the owner, Reshad, and the coffee performed very well. It carries a heavier body/dark berry profile than the Kossa Geshe farm we work with nearby, but it came in very controlled and clean.  

Like many large farm owners in Limu, Reshad had a tough time last year due to political insecurity. The youth protests reached his farm and, risking entire product loss, was able to make a deal with local elders to keep his farm safe. In the deal he stated that he would not encroach on public land outside of his 100-hectare farm (illegal expansion by farm owners is one of the protesters’ principal complaints) and would up his annual support of the local schools from around US $2,000 to $10,000. This felt like extorsion to me, but it was simply what he needed to do to keep his farm from falling to a mob, and I guess it becomes a little more palatable when the extortion is from the local community protecting public land and supporting schools, not from a single nasty neighbor or small criminal gang. Not ideal, but a reality.



Reshad, Kossa Rada

We moved on to more positive topics as we discussed farm improvements for the year. We’re working on several initiatives with him, including a small test to slow down drying times and introduce raised beds (currently his natural is dried on the ground on tarps). One of the worst things a buyer can do is suggest some sweeping change because he’s heard it work well on another farm or in some other country. We’re thus keeping the experiment small (under 50 bags) in case what seems like great drying advice instead lowers the quality, or otherwise makes his cup profile less unique. Without a doubt, though, increased lot separation should be implemented here, and Reshad has agreed. For most first-timer lot-separating farms we usually recommend a simple system of 2 locations (divide the farm based on altitude or slope or any other indicator) and beginning, middle, and end harvest. This will produce 6 lots, versus the 1 fully blended he’s done up until now. In subsequent years he can expand the separation to more indicators/more lots. Even if this fails to produce an individual standout microlot, at least it sets up Reshad with increased quality control and the ability to isolate any problem lots.


From Kossa Rada we proceeded to Kossa Geshe, a perpetual standout on our menu and owned by one of our best friends in coffee, Abdulwahid Sherif. He’s an imposing guy – often yelling across the yard for his staff to do this or do that, quick with a defense to any question, and boisterous about being the only farmer around with coffee safely sitting right on his farm (i.e. respected locally, not at risk from the local youth protests/coffee thefts). But come sundown with the day’s work finished, the smile turns up, he and his staff stroll the farm like old friends, check in with one another’s young children, or simply relax in a circle, drink some buna, chew some chat and eat popcorn. You eat a lot of popcorn in Ethiopia travels – alongside a cup of coffee it’s as ubiquitous as is a small wafer or croissant with a coffee in France.   But Abdulwahid’s recipe (his mother’s actually) is hands down the best. Crunchy, sweet and barely salty, the perfect little dessert to the spread of lamb stew, veg, raw beef, injera, and flatbread that awaited us as we arrived in the early afternoon.



Moata Raya (l), Abdulwahid, always looks angry, rarely is (r).

After lunch we toured the farm with Kossa Geshe’s newly hired agronomist, Girma, who recently jumped ship from Horizon, one of the region’s largest and most longstanding farms (previously a government farm). It’s a great set up for us, since local Crop to Cup staff, Moata, worked for a brief time at Horizon as well, and counts Girma as has mentor in coffee. Girma showed us the large-scale topping currently underway on the “Avocado Block” of the farm (named for the many avocado trees that act as shade trees). Colobus monkeys jumped from tree to tree above us as Girma spoke. Other current activities include uprooting trees in unproductive areas. This is good to see, since it’s the next phase after the first few years of this relatively new farm’s success exporting to us, and after hammering out a few urgent logistical and social improvements we required (warehouse upgrade, sanitation facilities, education for children on the farm). There’s still a long way to go, including improved housing for staff and longer-term teacher/educator plan for the on-farm school, but with our track record of buying 100% of his harvest year over year, we’re OK demanding a bit. We also agreed to put up funds for teacher salaries and part of the housing improvements. Like what we did in Burundi with Projet Vache, we hope to top up funds and increase the impact through involvement and contributions from roasters.  



Mr. Girma, Kossa Geshe agronomist, showing field of topped off trees


200 trucks of compost have been delivered to Kossa Geshe over the past two years


A few in the group stayed on the farm for the night, enjoying beef strips roasted over the fire and some leftover collard-like greens that had only got better after stewing in lamb fat since lunch. Some of our most poingnant times with producers are those after work hours, when we talk less about coffee and more about anything else and enjoy silence of a remote forest. Needless to say, we all slept like babies up there.



Dinner at Kosa Geshe



The following morning, we had the upcoming evening’s cupping of over 90 lots looming over, so we started out early to visit suppliers near Agaro town and Oma Fontule Kebele.   First stop was to familiar territory – we’ve been working with brothers Musa and Mustefa Abalulesa around Oma for several years now - but this time to visit a new supplier that Moata has been working hard to bring into our network. His name is Gugu, and, like many larger farmers in the area now looking to make a go at direct export, has been entertaining streams of international buyers – like us - making the rounds in the region.   He used to be a member of Hunda Oli Cooperative (part of Kata Muduga Union) but his farm size of 24 hectares is considerable for a smallholder and he thus separated from the coop for the prospect of higher revenue through direct export. His farm clearly needs a bit of management to allow new plantings in open area to survive against the weeds, but other, older growth areas benefit from a wide expanse of shade trees. That said, the older trees are badly in need of stumping to promote new, more productive growth.

We like Gugu’s style, and both Moata and neighbors we already know vouch for him, so we’re excited to add him to this year’s growing list of potential smallholder lots.





The number of larger smallholders – like Gugu – leaving the coops for direct export is a drop in the bucket. The coops still kill it. They are so strong, in fact, that even after a few quality defaults and last year’s bumper crop (had to liquidate some perfectly good G1 on the ECX at low prices), the profits they distributed through member shares (5% of profits), community project funding (10%) and per-kg-cherry 2nd payments (55%) were substantial. And the union’s and coops’ capital reserves continued to grow via the allotment of 30% of profits. Further, they find themselves developing strategies to turn away volume so their stations can focus on quality instead of quantity (higher prices, less volume/less labor, better for long term relationships with customers). But it’s not easy; there are many within each of the coop’s 13-member executive councils who still push for a volume-focused strategy: more members, more volume, more sales (no matter if it’s to the ECX or the export market).

Kata Muduga leadership, and the strong leadership of the coops where we work (Biftu Gudina, Duromina, Nano Chala) are right to focus urgently on quality. Their markets are now flooded with competition – not only the smallholders like Gugu but more and more large estates like those of Abdulwahid, the Abalulessa brothers, and Reshad. Plus the hundreds of private washing stations (often within earshot of a coop’s station, and with professional station management) all clamoring for the community’s top-quality cherries to impresses foreign specialty buyers like us.




Thaire Mohammad (l), Chairman Duromina Cooperative, Asnake, Kata Mudua Union (r)

While in the Agaro region we visited with old friends like Yazid (Chairman of Biftu Gudina Cooperative), and new friends, like recently appointed Chairman Thaire Mohammad of Duromina Cooperative (the largest coop in Kata Muduga), and Tigane Aborago, Chairman of the newly formed Kanniisa Cooperative (2018 was their first harvest). Kanniisa means forest bee in the Oromo language, a nod to one of the other agricultural industries of the region (Kata Muduga Union also collects honey, but currently only sells it locally).



The new Kanniisa Cooperative

We expect 2019 to be another great year for our work with Kata Muduga Union. We have access to a wide range of coop and price profiles from here. Arrival quality should be up as well, since the Union seems to be taking very seriously the issues of drying time (reducing daily cherry buying volumes) and adequately long rest in dry parchment before hulling, so that there aren’t more problems with water activity and shelf life. We and many other buyers noticed these quality issues on some lots from Kata Muduga and elsewhere last year, and this year we have strict specifications on how early lots can be milled in Addis. Generally, the KM lots we’ve cupped so far have performed very well, better even than prior year offer samples. We had similar quality issues on our Keffa Efrem estate lots too….and we’re pumped to see his lots at the very top of our lot selection cupppings so far this season…an example of quick QC improvement upon feedback from prior year lots, and hopefully something we’ll see carry through to arrivals and spots a few months down the line.  


Back in Jimma we got our shoes cleaned up and headed for a few days spent around the Dololo Hotel, the site of Crop to Cup’s 2019 Ethiopia Trade Partners Conference. We had over 40 attendees at the sessions and cuppings, including representatives from private farms large and small, smallholder associations, cooperatives, unions, washing station owners and exporters. Regions represented included Guji, Yirgacheffe and Sidama in the South, and Keffa, Limu and Illubabor in the West. Plus a few from Addis Ababa. Roasters from the US included Unity Coffee (NYC and Los Angeles), Café de Leche (Los Angeles), Phoenix Coffee (Cleveland) and French Truck Coffee (New Orleans).

The event was designed to share knowledge and ideas between partners across all levels of the supply chain, and it was a success based simply upon the engagement levels displayed during Q&As following each presentation. While translation added time to an already packed schedule, we needed to make sure the event wasn’t just relevant for Addis-based exporters or English-speaking traders and large washing owners. Translation was provided between Amharic and English, and, at times, Oromo into Amharic into English, and back the other way. Thank you to Crop to Cup’s Moata Raya for your never-ending translation services!



Moata Raya, Crop to Cup (l), Christopher Feran, Phoenix Coffee

The event was kicked off by the first of 6 cuppings, totaling about 90 coffees. Outside of the cuppings and introductions to Crop to Cup’s sourcing program geared towards both existing and potentially new suppliers, the principal presentations included the following:

Intro to Smallholder Organizing and Smallholder Direct Export, by Adugna Shore, who represents around 50 small farmers with their own export licenses in Bensa, Gedeb and Yirgacheffe

Supply Chain Risk Management, roundtable with Efrem Mullugeta (Keffa farmer) and Yazid Abamacha (Chairman of Biftu Gudina Cooperative)

Heavy focus on case studies, early-milling and drying, lab-based and process/document-based review of the supply chain to research causes of quality problems

Yeast Fermentation, by Christopher Feran (Phoenix Coffee, Cleveland)

Purpose, cost, process, etc – focus on improvement of cup quality and shelf life

We also then cupped a table full of yeast lot experiments carried out by Moata Raya and farmer Girma Eshetu in Keffa

We closed the event with a banquet dinner, where, with so many of our suppliers and partners all in the same room, we enjoyed wedding-like elation – how rare it is to get all of one’s friends into the same room!





To tackle 90 coffees we split up tables into the following:

South Washed (Guji, Yirgacheffe, Sidama)

West Washed (Limu, Keffa)

South Naturals

West Naturals

Yeast Experiment Lots

Smallholders Limu and Guji – washed and natural

You’ll see the best of these tables in our 2019 Ethiopia Offer List, but the overall impressions are:

Kata Muduga Lots – Duromina, Biftu Gudina, Nano Challa, etc – cupping very well. 75% scoring @ 85+. A good many hit the 87 and 88 marks, with big tropical/juicy acidity, florals, lavender, honey and powered sugar.   Great to see their plan to reduce volume and increase quality play out effectively in the cup

Efrem (Keffa natural, single farm) – love this cupping especially after the QC issues related to early hulling last year. 3 of 3 lots at 87+! Big fruit profile, blackberry, orange and nutmeg

Our other year-over-year relationships like Girma Eshetu (washed Keffa), Kossa Geshe (Limu natural), Kossa Rada (Limu natural) all hitting their marks. Add that to the visits to these farms, and many hours spent with these producers at the Trade Partners Conference, and you can really see these deep relationships paying off in the cup

Excellent outgrower coffees – both washed and natural - coming in from our friends out of Tero and their sister site in Hambella. Expect to see both reappear on our offer sheet this year and hopefully for many more years to come

The “new smallholder exporters” like those represented by Adugna in the South, or the handfuls of individuals leaving the coops in the West (like Gugu) were hit or miss. We had some excellent options no doubt (and we’ll bring a few onto the offer list), but it’s also no surprise to see the overall data pointing to lower scores (around half below 85 pts) within this new direct-export market that many farmers are trying to enter

Single washing station coffees – the risk is high here when so many stations switch back and forth between ECX lots, or their volumes are so high and qualities varied that the offer doesn’t match the PSS/arrivals. But, wowzers, we came across some beautiful Guji Uraga washed, and they were taken from actual warehouse lots (not just a type sample) from a supplier we know and have worked with in the past. Some nice collection station naturals from a new project by Girma Eshetu in Bita, Keffa too.

The most interesting table was the one with the biggest variety. At the top we had the tried and true Efrem and Kossa Geshe naturals – always good to see those coming in high 80s. At the bottom but no less interesting we had a lot cupping below specialty but from a wild forest in Chebera Churchuca National Park. One of our closest friends and suppliers, Girma Eshetu, recently traced his lineage back to this remote, autonomous area called Konta (2 days of travel each way just to get there from Jimma), and he has connected with a few distant relatives who live there and pick the wild growing coffee for their own consumption.   Talk about blank slate – training here will first involve the basics of how to pick red vs green cherry, not drying on bare ground, etc. While we rarely see any wild forest coffee performing well on the cupping table, it’s a fascinating project, and something tells me we have 4 days of hiking on the calendar for next year’s trip!



Cupping in a Jimma movie theater lobby

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