coffee logistics

Refrigerated Containers for Ethiopian Coffee

Innovation in Shipping

Our visit to Ethiopia a few weeks back was only my second time at origin. I expected to be inundated with information pertaining to all aspects of coffee production. After all, everything you are experiencing at that time and place is the precursor to the longevity and quality of the coffee, more so than during any other time in a coffee’s life cycle. If things are out of sorts at origin, the coffee is unlikely to express what it is capable of. It’s heavy stuff.

On top of this, I had just started a new position in Buying, QC & Sample Management at the Collaborative Coffee Source. That makes me the link between the producer’s hard work and the coffee community yearning for long lasting quality beans. My focus on this trip was to understand what is being done and what could be done better next time around. Altering fermentation times? Thinner layers on the drying bed? More selective picking? All seemed to be common suggestions that are given to producers and are absolutely key to improving quality and longevity! But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned during the trip was an innovation I’d never heard of: refrigerated containers.

Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco Trading has been using these "reefer containers" for one customer for a few years now, and her customer speaks very highly of the results. Coming from George Howell Coffee, famous for pioneering the freezing of green coffee, I’m well aware of the positive and lasting effects that climate control provides. As you can imagine, I was excited and astonished to learn that refrigerated containers exist.

Moplaco Trading, Addis Ababa

Moplaco Trading, Addis Ababa

Reefer Containers - How Do They Work?

Coffee harvested and processed in Ethiopia will make its way to the Port of Djibouti, located about 400km away on the shores of the Red Sea. There the coffees are transferred into a reefer container and stored at 18°C (64°F) and 60% humidity for the remainder of its (often) month-long journey across the ocean. Nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide levels are also regularly checked to ensure proper storage.

The pallets are loaded in and arranged with air space between the coffee and the wall, while air is circulated throughout the container to prevent pockets. Refer to the graphic below (courtesy of


How Much Does It Cost?

For the time being, only 40 foot containers are available to be refrigerated (the standard size is 20 foot). Why is this? Well, since 2000, the number of companies moving reefer container ships has dropped by 60%, so availability is very low. Companies who purchase reefer ships need twenty years to recover the initial cost, versus two years for a normal container ship.

But, there is hope. One company, Seatrade Reefer Containers, continues to purchase and use reefer containers in their fleet. Due to the slower  delivery times of container ships over the last few years, shipments (from all goods industries) are getting to their destination well after their intended arrival dates. Late shipments have translated into more food spoilage. Seatrade hopes these delays in container delivery will cause an increased need for reefer containers, and a resulting increase in their availability. But for now, they are still a cost to consider carefully.

This means there are two options:

  1. Find a way to fill a 40 foot container. This either means purchasing large volumes, or sharing containers with other buyers.
  2. Move a container below maximum capacity. Of course, this is a more expensive option as the cost is spread out over a smaller volume.

Costs fluctuate, but the breakdown at the time of writing is this: if a normal 20 foot container costs around $900 to move from Ethiopia to your nearest port, the cost is 2.1 cents per pound. A max capacity 40 foot reefer container, over the same distance, would cost around $2,900, or 3.4 cents per pound. A 40 foot reefer container, filled to half capacity, then would then cost 6.8 cents per pound.

Does refrigerated shipping provide enough value to justify this additional expense? Could you make the money back by having your 88-point Ethiopian coffee hold up for two extra months? Being cost conscious is entirely necessary for a business to be sustainable so your budget may not lend itself to this kind of transit. However, for around ten dollars more per 60 kilo bag, it may be a wise investment not having to discard bad roasts of tired coffee.

Logistical Considerations

To arrange reefer containers for your coffee we'll need some advanced notice. As mentioned, containers are currently limited in quantity and require a bit extra planning. However we think it's worth the extra effort. For now we are offering reefer containers from Ethiopia and we hope to add more origins in the near future.

Please contact me if you have questions! I am excited by the potential of this shipping innovation and keen to discuss how reefer containers might work for you.


Burundi 2017 Harvest Shipping Soon


It's been so great to see the continuous build of up anticipation for our Burundi coffees year-after-year. When we first started working with this origin in 2012, finding roasters willing to take a chance on this new origin was challenging. And with good reason: it was relatively unknown as a place, let alone as an origin of exciting and quality coffees. On top of this, what little has been known about Burundian coffee has been impacted by the reality of the potato defect, which over time, has been intensively fought with every kind of control measure team Long Miles could think to throw at it. They perform meticulous black light scans of every lot pre-export, and Epaphras Ndikumana, ingenious planner and leader of Long Miles' farmer extension programs, even organized antestia bug hunts.

As our first containers of the recent Burundi harvest make their way to Mombasa port en route to New Jersey and Antwerp, we wanted to provide some context as to why the timeline for this year's arrivals is seemingly "later" than last year. The first thing to note is that the shipments are not actually departing late: everyone involved in the making of this year's lots have been working as diligently as possible; there have simply been forces at play that have been working against earlier shipment dates.

A Longer Harvest Period

Harvest typically begins in March and ends in late-May to the early-June. This year harvest started in April and went all the way to mid-July. This wasn't true across the board -- there were other washing stations and areas that had more of a "regular" harvest period. The difference? Politics.

While Burundi's coffee sector has officially allowed for private enterprise since the late-80s to early-90s, in practice it has been bureaucratically difficult to conduct business as a coffee entrepreneur. Corruption is rife and policy changes are often unforeseeable.

Disruptive Coffee Policy

There were two policy changes in particular that had devastating consequences for farmers growing in communities not supported by government interests:

  1. The government's halting of fertilizer imports to select areas, including the communities delivering cherries to Long Miles' washing stations. The main consequence of this was that the soil became too acidic for the plants to properly develop their cherries and the sub-consequence of that was uneven cherry development, leading to a longer harvest period.
  2. The removal of collection points.
    • Collection points are key for Burundi farmers because very few have motorized means of transport and deliver cherries by foot to washing stations.
    • As a result of the banning of collection points, many farmers (most of them women, like the woman in the photo above) walked up to 15km (30km round trip) [corrected from an earlier version describing a 30km one-way trip] to a Long Miles station in order to continue working with their team. Imagine walking 15km one-way with a bag of between 40-50kg bag of cherries on your head, once every week (not to mention the long walk back).

Usually when I come to make selections in June, I'm presented with pretty well all the top lots that will be available for that given season. Given that my visit this year took place in the midst ofharvest, many of the coffees that the team had planned to be ready simply weren't, meaning many of the selections took place via Long Miles' Picasso Nduwayo (Quality Control Manager) and his team sending batches of samples as quickly as they could be taken off their drying beds, to our Oslo lab for approval. By far a much more tedious and drawn out way of purchasing coffee.

Nonetheless, both Long Miles and CCS are pleased and excited about this year's selections. The Long Miles Team have once again outdone themselves and it is starkly evident that the communities in which they work are hugely supportive and believe in this project. How else do you explain a farmer choosing to walk 15km, past other washing stations, to sell her cherries?

Demand for these coffees have been very high. 90% of the first container coming to Antwerp has been pre-sold and so with that, we've decided to bring in a second container to the EU.

The first two containers, bound for Antwerp and New Jersey, are at Mombasa port and are scheduled for departure on December 9th, meaning a mid-January arrival.

Get in touch with Nicolas (EU & Asia) and Sal (North America) for availability and samples.