ethiopia coffee

Ethiopia: Coming Back to Cooperative Coffee

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Our Previous Relationships with Cooperatives via TechnoServe

During the initial phase of Technoserve’s (TNS) work with cooperatives in Ethiopia, Kaffa in Oslo imported green coffee directly (pre-CCS) and roasted a few lots from some of the TNS supported washing stations, including Yukro, Hawa Yember and Hunda Oli.

I first got involved with some of the TNS coops during the 2009/10 season. Groups of roasters from around the word were invited, particularly from USA and Scandinavia, as they were seen as discerning buyers in viable markets. TNS was presenting their work at SCAA, SCAE and at roasting community events. These presentations weren’t really within TNS’ self-proclaimed mandate nor model, rather it was done to train and empower local representatives to learn how to market themselves.

KAFFA bought some lots but service was slow, samples hard to get, lots were sold out before one had time to provide feedback, and even if one visited to cup and buy on-site, the unions seemed to favor the ‘bigger’ roasters. When ‘dealing’ with the coops, one quickly learned that they didn’t truly have control over their products. It felt like one had to scramble to get ahold of something rather than being able to pick and choose properly, the way we’d do it in, let’s say, Kenya. Commitments were certainly not honored. It was all quite discouraging.

When I re-visited at the end of the harvest in 2012, the cooperatives were not just under-funded; they’d had little to no money just before the beginning of the harvest to pay for cherries. When I additionally learned that the harvest had been very low, I initially thought the low volume had to do with little yield per tree/farm. In reality, the low volume was due to farmers not being able to afford to deliver cherries to places that couldn't pay them up-front. This in turn meant low volumes at the washing station. Coop washing stations could only purchase as much coffee cherries as their credit line allowed them to. The irony of the TNS coops’ credit drought was that Oromia Union, their partner-in-crime, didn’t lend their coops the resources needed to buy cherries and hence, thrive. Even though customers were lined up to buy, complete dysfunction ruled at the most basic levels.

The quality management of the cherries was also poor and this related to the above economic problems. When you’re struggling to pay in the first place, you end up scrambling to get what few cherries you can afford. This is not the time to be scrutinizing the cherries’ maturity and uniformity.

Just as discouraging was the administrative and fiscal dysfunction. I wanted us to stay away as long as the Oromia Union stayed involved.

Now, five years later, the time feels right on many levels. And I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on our previous experiences, as well as provide some background info that will hopefully be helpful to you. Full disclosure: I am “collecting” this information from memory, so bear with the fact that some of it is anecdotal.

Former TechnoServe staff, Aansha Yassin

Former TechnoServe staff, Aansha Yassin

TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative

TechnoServe (TNS) is an NGO that was founded in 1968 and has been funded by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. TNS works with development initiativesin many countries including within Africa and mostly with agro-businesses — coffee amongst others — utilizing local natural resources and human potential to create economic advantages. What I like about the Gates Foundation approach is the clearly expressed belief that making good business (product and management) is both the means and the goal. In other words, participating communities utilize what they already have – local resources and the development of community members’ own knowledge and skills – to create better economic opportunities.

In Ethiopia, the Coffee Initiative was started in 2008 with investment from the Gates Foundation. This allowed TNS to do coffee work on a large scale and in new places like Ethiopia and this particular project had a five-year mandate. One of the beautiful ideas and high ambitions of the program was to empower local people to learn about the specialty coffee field by crafting great coffee: managing it as a business; doing lot separation; assessing quality through cupping; communicating monetary value through quality; and finally, marketing and offering it to a discerning marketplace.

TNS intelligently set out to focus their efforts in the western regions of Ethiopia. This part of the country has always had a rich history in producing coffee. As far as we know, this was the birthplace of coffee. Still at the time that TNS came in, coffee from the west didn’t have fame, nor was it fetching the high prices coffees in the south were getting (such as e.g. washed Sidamo and Yirgacheffe).

The western lowlands are home to Bebeka Estate, which up until recently was the largest government owned estate farm. This estate is now owned by Mr. Al Amodi, who is also the current owner of the Horizon Dry Mill. Also located in this region, are areas such as Djimmah, which was synonymous with low grades of naturals.

Although many areas in the west do have the altitude for producing high quality coffee, the infrastructure wasn’t in place to produce and supply good coffee, whether because of the lack of equipment to produce it (very few wet mills), or getting products to the marketplace (poor roads). Thus, TNS’ strategy was to change the perception of West Ethiopian coffee by both efficiently producing washed coffeefor a specialty coffee market, and by making this coffee logistically accessibleto the market. Though roads were built and upgraded independently of TNS initiatives, these kinds of efforts went hand-in-hand.

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The TechnoServe Way

TNS proposed that the coops install eco-pulpers at all the washing station projects they got involved with. This was a controversial prospect at the time, given the strong tradition up until then of the Ethiopian wet process being about fermenting with mucilage before washing. As we know, eco-pulpers have benefits, including saving water and requiring a lower up-front investment than the traditional wet process set-up with its many large fermentation tanks and washing channels.

Part of the TNS agenda was to help build equitable business projects, even helping with the financing, implementation of transparent bookkeeping, and overall good management by:

  • Facilitating the process of applying for and getting loans to buildthe technical infrastructure: buying eco-pulpers, building washing stations and drying beds;
  • Facilitating the process of applying for credit from banks so the coop could buy cherries. When a farmer arrives with coffee cherries, on any given day, the coop is expected to pay for the delivery on the spot. Thus, a lot of cash is required even before the start-up of the harvest season. Not to mention all the cash required to carry out the season;
  • Helping to create a marketing plan (on behalf of the union): market outreach, market access, quality control and sample distribution
  • Operational management, planning, and fiscal control.

Some of the most successful TNS coops managed to pay back the investment of equipment and infrastructure in less than 2 years, which is considered a great success by any business standard.

The ECX

The ECX

TechnoServe During the time of the Revamping ECX

Little did TNS know that their program would be in stark contrast to ECX’s coming implementation of anonymity in the auction process. The new ECX structure was coincidentally put in place very soon after the TNS cooperatives were inaugurated and ready to hit the market with their attractively traceable coffees. The Coffee Initiative's original intention in Ethiopia was never to work with the Unions. In the first year, 2009, it tried to create a model where coops could work directly with private exporters. However, the Unions/government brought this process to a grinding stop. Eventually, all the coffees had to be taken over and exported by the Unions, and the contracts renegotiated. This was a major blow to the program because no one, including TNS, trusted that the Unions would be efficient, transparent, etc.

Specialty coffee buyers were flocking to TNS’ washing station projects. Although the coffee quality was not top-notch in the very beginning, the model at least provided a transparent trade model and TNS was pushing to make sure the farmers and their communities were rewarded with premium prices above the Fair Trade/Organic models.

When a washing station is owned by a cooperative, the contributing farmers collectively own the coop, but they must nominate a union to handle their milling and marketing for which the coop is charged a service fee. It usually makes sense to get these services from a union that is involved in the region, and hopefully it is also offering competitive terms. Even if the milling fee is regulated by law, unions have a reputation for taking advantage of the coops by charging the maximum fee possible and/or screening and processing lots to their own benefit (e.g. ‘mixing up’ lots, blending and even stealing).

The coop-union relationship is generally one where the union arguably has the ‘upper hand’. Since the union ends up with the parchment coffee in their possession, and being that they become the party that markets the coffee, they are the ones to send samples out to potential buyers.

In other words, even if a union is intended to be an intermediary part in the transparent relationship between a producer and a buyer, the unionis the primary contact and by default becomes the ‘owner’ of the relationship.

All this said, that dynamic briefly changed as soon as the TNS coops and washing stations earned their own fame, consequently bypassing the unions in building relationships directly with their end buyers (roasters).

TNS coops were obliged to deliver to various unions, as made geographic sense. Unfortunately, this only lasted for the first year of operation under TNS supervision. Once the Oromia Unionand its powerful and charismatic leader saw the success and prestige associated with trading directly with affluent coffee buyers around the world, it didn’t take long before all the TNS coops were forced to mill and market their coffee through the Oromia Union.

Oromia Union’s experiencewith lot separation, handling of the respective samples, and the necessary marketing efforts were generally not well developed initially. To overcome this, TNS opened regional offices with cupping facilities, training local staff and offering opportunities for buyers to access coffee without having to depend on the union. These efforts were meant only to be an temporary solution, while Oromia Union was supposed to equip itself with skilled staff, adequate systems and protocols, and building marketing strategies.

In my opinion this became and remained the weakest link with the TNS-developed supply chain. When TNS ended their project term, Oromia was still struggling to get things right.

Limmu is primarily where our coop coffees this year will come from

Limmu is primarily where our coop coffees this year will come from

Returning to Cooperative Coffee

I am very pleased to announce that CCS is going into this season with a more diverse approach to sourcing and buying in Ethiopia. In addition to offering stellar ECX coffees; and micro-lots from private estates; CCS will introduce cooperative coffees to the menu. It is promising indeed thus we are looking forward to presenting a carefully curated list of lots from thoughtfully selected coops in the Limu/Djimmah region of the west!

The reasons for this optimism are these necessary turn of events: 1) Other Unions, for all the above-mentioned reasons, have emerged to service the coops; and 2) Quality, compliance, and commitment seem to hold a higher priority than in the earlier years of my experiences with the cooperatives and the Oromia Union.

We cannot wait offer you to taste the 'fruits' coming from all these emergent changes. Enjoy!

Robert

—founder of KAFFA and Collaborative Coffee Source (CCS)

Corrections: 1) the previous version incorrectly stated that TechnoServe was founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has been corrected to reflect the fact that the NGO was founded in 1968 and that the Gates Foundation is  one (albeit a large one) source of funding for TNS.

2) it was never TNS' original intent to work with Unions, as was implied in the earlier version. The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that TNS' aim was to work directly with cooperatives, independently of the Unions/government from the beginning.

Cupping back in 2012

Cupping back in 2012

Situation in Ethiopia

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Over the last nine months, there have been waves of protest and unrest occurring in the Oromia region, which has led us to cancel our planned trip to Ethiopia in the coming weeks. Amidst the protests and subsequent killings, we have read about and had confirmed by export partners, that washing stations have been targets of looting and vandalism. For one of our partners in particular, it has been incredibly challenging to make decisions about buying and processing cherries. Would these coffees even make it out of the country?

While it's challenging to find good news sources about how and why these protests have been occurring, we've found some that we'd like to share with you and that you can find in the links below.
 

(Very) Surface Background 

The current situation is based on the build up of years of frustration from ethnic groups who have felt marginalized by the government. Ethiopia is made up of about 80 different ethnolinguistic groups with the Oromo nation comprising the largest ethnic group in the country. The communist regime was overthrown in 1991 and the current government, which acts essentially as a single-party, has been ruling as an authoritarian regime since that time.

Throughout the years, there have been varying degrees of unrest and protest, the biggest and until now occurring in 2005 during the country's heavily contested elections. The results of that election, which sustained the ruling party's power (the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)), was considered fraudulent by both the opposition as well as outside observers. Now, the country's two largest regions - Oromia & Amhara - have been continuously erupting in protests over the last nine months, over similar dissatisfactions with the ruling EPRDF, despite the EPRDF's attempts to repress these uprisings through thousands of arrests and hundreds of killings.

The heart of the protestors' frustration comes down to a few main topics: land ownership, repression, and the fact that the ruling party is significantly made up of a minority Tigray elite. The Tigray nation makes up just 6% of Ethiopia's total population.
 

Potential Impact on the 2016/17 Harvest?

Those of you who have spent time in Ethiopia, or in the East African region more generally, understand that change is the modus operandi. It is too early in the season to make any predictions about how the export season will play out and whether these sociopolitical happenings will negatively impact the coffee sector.

For now, we wanted to share what is happening and why we and other coffee buyers have been cancelling travel plans to Ethiopia. We will keep you updated as further news becomes available.
 

News Links

http://hornaffairs.com/en/2016/09/14/ethiopian-spring-killing-grievances-protests/

http://addisstandard.com/7784-2/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36940906


Helpful Reports for Background Info

http://graphics.eiu.com/PDF/Democracy_Index_2010_web.pdf

https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2006/country-chapters/ethiopia

Coffee Profile: Washed Gesha, Gesha Village Estate

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Name: Gesha Village
Nearest Town: Gesha
Location: Southwest Ethiopia
Average Annual Rainfall (mm): 1150
Altitude (masl): 1900-2100m
Number of hectares: 471
Hectares cultivated: 320
Shade: Agro-forestry system with mix of indigenous shade trees
Process: Washed
Drying Method: Sun
Harvest Method: Handpicking
Main Harvest Season: November- January
Varieties: Wild Gesha
Soil: Virgin forest, brown loam soil


About

Washed Gesha goes through a mechanical demucilager, soaked for 24-36 hours and then shade dried to 30 percent moisture content.It is then transferred to a raised African bed for further drying before it is bagged and stored for export.


Cupping Notes

Lot 14(WHQ-G1-14):With hints of peach and cranberry, Lot 14 scored 87 points for its tropical profile.Smooth with light florals notes, this Gesha lot is easy on the palate.

Lot 21(WHQ-G1-121):With a burst of aromatic fruits, Lot 21 scored a high of 87.5 points during CCS cuppings in both North American and Europe with everyone noting the cups sweetness even as it cooled.Reminiscent of baked pears, this Gesha lot is elegant and complete.

Lot 32(WHQ-G1-32):A welcome to late Summer/ early Autumn, Lot 32 scored in at 87 points and is full of deep red berries and apricots.The mouthfeel of this washed Gesha is full and lingers pleasantly after each sip.

Lot 123(WHQ-G1-123):This lot scored a high of 87 points for its transparent qualities.With very subdued acidity levels, the introduction of Lot 123 from Gesha Village offers a melange of cooked berries.Blackberries and lingonberries are very prominent and has a clean finish. 
 

The Backstory

The Gesha Village journey began back in 2007 when Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel were making a documentary about Ethiopian coffee for the Ethiopian government. It was during this project that they were first introduced to Dr. Girma, their guide through the Gera Coffee Forest near Jimma. Dr. Girma is a coffee researcher and is a wealth of information about coffee agronomy, and farm management. During the process of creating this documentary, Rachel was reintroduced to her birth country and Adam became fascinated by the rich coffee history of the birthplace of coffee.

By the end of this coffee expedition, the couple felt compelled to start their own coffee farm. They saw too much unexplored potential and opportunity in Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests to ignore. Even though the country’s coffee trade was established long ago, Ethiopia’s coffee sector as a whole is far behind newer coffee origins in terms of agricultural and processing innovations as well as terroir distinctions, which these days are two of the most important distinctions between specialty and commercial coffee. Adam and Rachel are fully utilizing this gap in the Ethiopian specialty market in establishing Gesha Village Estate.

From 2007-2010, the couple scoured the country in search for the perfect place to set up their project. One of the initial criteria was that the farm should be within close proximity to the capital city, Addis Ababa, due to practical transport considerations. More importantly, however, were other considerations:

  • Altitude: between 1800-2100 meters above sea level
  • A relatively large piece of land (over 100 hectares)
  • Old growth/primary forest
  • Established shade trees
  • Road access
  • Access to labour
  • No displacement of inhabitants
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As they surveyed place after place, they drew further and further away from Addis. Finally, they found Gesha town, very close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, in the far western region of the country. During their reconnaissance, they found wild coffee growing within pristine forest. This coffee paradise, combined with meeting some inhabitants from the Meanit community who indigenous to the area, also drew the couple in. This was a place and people where something completely cutting-edge could happen. In autumn of 2011 the lease for the 471 hectares that now make up Gesha Village Estate was signed and soon after, Akalu, Gesha Village’s (GV) Farm Manager was hired. He, together with the newly established GV team, began doing a forest exploration where they picked wild seeds from the nearby Gori Gesha forest.

After a year in the nursery, these seeds were planted on 30 hectares and at the same time, the team began acquainting themselves with the Meanit neighbours that lived around them. This initial 30 hectares made up GV’s first “test plot” – the team wanted to ensure the cup quality was good before more coffee was planted. The first 1kg sample was sent to Adam and Rachel’s friend Willem Boot in the spring of 2012 even before they themselves had a chance to cup. Willem in turn organized a Cupping Caravan in Ethiopia where cuppers were blown away by the coffee. At this point, the GV team knew that they were onto something special.

Before getting too ahead of themselves, the team decided to visit their neighbours’ coffee farms in order to both study the morphology of more established trees, which also came from forest seeds, and also to cup their neighbours’ coffees to further understand what they were working with at GV. As exciting as cultivating forest coffee was, the team understood that planting one of any variety was risky and on the advice of Akalu and Dr. Girma, decided to plant a good portion of GV with tried and tested Ethiopian heirloom varieties released from the Jimma Argicultural Research Center (JARC). These released varieties come from various seed collection expeditions that JARC has conducted.

Wild varieties collected during expeditions are studied and researchers are looking for the following characteristics in determining which are “superior plants”: a) showing disease resistance; b) excellent cup quality; and c) good yield. Plants showing these characteristics are chosen for release and GV chose to plant a variety that originated in the highland coffee forests of Illubabor. This one showed both disease resistance and excellent cup quality.

We can say that over the course of cupping the different varieties produced on GV, these research varieties have some of the most exciting cup profiles that Gesha Village have produced. With varieties playing such an important role in quality and cup profile, it makes perfect sense that the GV team found research partners to carry out a methodical genetic study on the Gesha forest varieties. Part of that study concerns the possible connection between Panamanian geisha and coffee from the Gori Gesha Forest. You can access the study’s findings here.


The Community

Before the project started in earnest, the GV team gathered the elders and wise men from the local Meanit community in order to explain the project as well as hear out the community’s thoughts and concerns about it. Though successful as an introduction, the team understood from the beginning that a real partnership would take time and effort and one of the early challenges GV faced was finding labourers. There was a stigma against working for someone else as most people already had their own garden farms.

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Over time, women began working with the farm and since they earned their own income for the first time, this early labour force attracted more and more people, eventually both women and men. Today, GV can attract up to 800 workers per day coming from 17,000 families. These workers come from 5-6 different kebeles (localities) spanning from Gesha Mountain to Gori Gesha Forest.

Now that a good relationship has been established between Gesha Village Estate and their surrounding communities, three local representatives have been appointed to liaise between the farm and its neighbouring communities.


Social Projects

Nearby to Gesha Village are three government run schools and one clinic. These are all within a short walking distance from the estate and this is significant as in rural Ethiopia, many students must walk up to three hours in order to get to school.

Gesha Village provides school supplies to students and is currently working with the clinic in order to figure out the best way to support its operation.

One other community project that the GV team is focusing its efforts on is distributing fuel efficient and cleaner burning stoves to their neighbours. Most households currently use outdated stoves that require lots of wood/fuel and burn a lot of waste particles into the atmosphere.

For the past 3 years GV has given away 25,000 coffee seedlings per year to neighbouring farmers. The team also provide agronomy training when the farmers pick up their seedlings. GV hopes to grow coffee production in the surrounding area so that local farmers can grow benefit from the innovations employed at GV.


Agricultural Projects

On the botanical side of the spectrum, the GV team planted a research plot in early 2016 that is made up various of indigenous coffee varieties. This will allow the team, including Dr. Girma, to better study varieties. The team is keen to continue partnering public/educational partners to carry out future research that will add to the knowledge they’ve already accumulated from the genetic study they worked on in 2014 with Dr. Sarada Krishnan from Denver Botanic Gardens (mentioned earlier).

In addition to coffee, GV is currently testing apple and honey cultivation. The motivation behind these two projects is mostly one of curiosity, but who knows where things will lead?

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Production Projects

The GV processing facility is upgrading to a custom-made Penagos pulper, which will be installed in 2017. This pulper sorts under and overripe cherries through water pressure and will help out the manual pickers, who sometimes find it difficult to pick the different plots which are planted with different varieties and hence have different morphology.

Finally, the team is researching how to build a warehouse on-site. They have found a potential supplier but given the poor road conditions between Addis and Gesha, the logistics for getting the materials to the farm first needs to be solved.


Partnership with CCS

Team CCS is proud to have the distinct honour of being the only coffee importer in Europe and the US to be working with Gesha Village Estate. While Adam & Rachel and their team do run direct sales with roasting partners, both CCS & Gesha Village saw an opportunity to work together to further distribute Gesha Village coffees to great homes around the world.

Both projects share similar values in promoting excellent coffee while building a transparent and a partnership-based buying community, so it made sense to join forces in the effort to spread the coffee and word about the phenomenal work of Gesha Village Estate.

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Specialty or Marketability: What Are We Really Selling?

Melanie Leeson and Heleanna georgalis

Melanie Leeson and Heleanna georgalis

via Perfect Daily Grind

The internet has done wonders for coffee. It’s brought the stories of producers to life, revealing the extraordinary work that they do. It’s spread the message of how amazing good coffee can taste, making words like “single origin” and “acidity” far more common. It’s enabled people at origin to reach new markets and receive better prices for their product.

But has all this gone too far? Do we now sell specialty coffee or do we sell a like-inducing photo? And is the time and effort that producers put into marketing themselves for specialty – allowing origin visits, teaching purchasers about their work – being adequately repaid?

Two coffee professionals, one exporter and one importer, share their views on the state of specialty in Ethiopia.

Are we helping communities by selling their coffee – or are we selling communities to help our coffee businesses?

Are we helping communities by selling their coffee – or are we selling communities to help our coffee businesses?

The Exporter Point-of-View: Heleanna

Heleanna Green coffee exporter, farmer, and roaster; one half of Moplaco P.L.C.

My coffee journey has been one of disappointment through to excitement and, now, unease.

As an exporter from Ethiopia, I’m always striving to find the best coffee possible within the limitations that the current auction system (Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, ECX) imposes. Whenever I find great coffee, I get really excited and I hope that my partners will feel the same.

We’re all working towards the same goal: producing a delicious cup. And as someone working in the early part of the chain, I’m trying to find the right market and client base for a given coffee: people who will appreciate it, promote it, and put their best efforts into delivering what the farmers and processors have already put into it.

When I joined the coffee world, one of my first discoveries was that coffee is contradictorily one of the most valuable and yet undervalued commodities in the world. I firmly believed that quality was important and that Ethiopia had the potential to produce it.

Yet I felt frustrated about the way Ethiopia was perceived amongst top roasters. One of them even told me, “Your father saw coffee as this precious little shrub that he had to take care of and that the farmers behind it mattered. But coffee is sold in bulk, in big volumes, so all that romanticism does not matter.” I remember the disappointment I felt so sharply – yet also the burning conviction that my father was right.

Then I discovered the growing specialty market, and I was thrilled to be a part of coffee at that time. I was talking to people who shared the same beliefs as my father and me, I was hearing the word “sustainability”, and I truly felt that people were starting to really think about the future of coffee and the farming communities producing it. I met great people like Geoff Watts, co-owner of Intelligentsia, and saw how all these people upheld those values.

And as more and more people flocked towards specialty, we were delighted. Yet over time, we spotted another shift – one that has left me with feelings of concern.

Today, everyone collects images and stories. And I have to ask myself, has specialty become a competition to take the best photos and gather the best stories? Or is it still about the essence of the coffee itself? Why does a coffee sell: is it its marketability or is it its worth?

Is this coffee farm better if it has an exciting story?

Is this coffee farm better if it has an exciting story?

Here in Ethiopia, I see people selling the wildest stories to a very willing audience. But how many people truly understood how to source really good coffee, how to identify the potential of it, and at the same time sincerely support the communities around it?

Yes, advertising, reviews, public relations, social relations, media, and our own personal experiences affect our perceptions. But are we forgetting about the “sustainable”, “equitable”, “quality driven”, “uniquely sourced” principles that the specialty industry originally set out to achieve? And is the lack of marketing going to plunge otherwise great coffee to the depths of the unknown?

Does the lack of a story have to mean a diminishing perception of quality of the coffee itself?

What sells this coffee: its processing or the photo of its processing? 

What sells this coffee: its processing or the photo of its processing? 

The Importer Point-of-View: Melanie

Melanie Leeson, Director of Marketing and Development at Collaborative Coffee Source, a coffee importer.

I used to think of marketing as a four-letter word. But that was until my perception about what marketing can be changed.

I entered into this business eight years ago, as a barista in Canada, and have worked as a buyer/importer for the last four years for roasters all around the world. And so I’ve encountered a lot of different ideas about, and approaches to doing, specialty coffee.

Within these years, my perception of what marketing is and how it can be used has evolved quite a bit. As an example, one of my early perception shifts came from acknowledging that “education” distributed through a for-profit business is marketing. And so I no longer think of marketing as bad – but I do think that we in specialty need to examine our relationship between marketability and sustainability.

Visiting origin is marketable and it can be sustainable – but the idea that every single roaster who is doing specialty coffee should travel to each origin they buy coffee from isn’t. I think there’s a necessary time and place for roasters to get to know their producing partners and to see how production is done, but I don’t understand it when small/microroasters travel to an origin to source two bags of coffee, using up a lot of a producer’s or exporter’s valuable time and resources in doing so.

Why not travel with your importer and a group of colleagues, so that you can all share your host’s resources? You’d likely see and do more than you would be able to alone, and it would be less costly for the producer.

Marketing doesn’t have to be bad – but it is marketing.

Marketing doesn’t have to be bad – but it is marketing.

As a buyer, I also understand the necessity of working with suppliers with a good reputation and who know how to market their work. For a start, it’s absolutely crucial that you work with people who can expertly prepare and export coffee: I need to be able to present that coffee in the same way I experienced it while cupping it during the buying process – and this will only happen if the coffee departed milled, packaged and organised into the container properly. Regardless of how much effort went into production and how special the cup profile is, the preparation and export process makes or breaks the final result.

So when it comes to the marketability of a coffee, I’m not only looking for engaging photos and stories (though they are nice and I do like them); I’m looking for suppliers that share my value of transparency. And that hinges on the ability for everyone along the coffee chain to be able to convey to the end coffee drinker precisely who made their cup of coffee and what was involved in the producing and transporting of it.

I think it’s great that there are select suppliers who are able to demand high prices for their boutique nano-lots. If it means that coffee is perceived and treated with as much respect as a well-crafted cocktail or glass of wine, I’m all for it.

But I’m in agreement with Heleanna about the need for us to question what “specialty” and “sustainability” mean to us in 2016. It’s far too early for specialty coffee to be coasting on the past 20+ years of hard work in educating the public. There are still far too many producers struggling because they are unknown or, worse, that are not being compensated fairly for their contributions to our industry.

Written by H. Georgalis of Moplaco P.L.C. and M. Leeson of Collaborative Coffee Source and edited by T. Newton.

Coffee & Genetic Diversity

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'Science' is often conflated with 'truth' and this assumption can have far-reaching impacts, both positive and negative, on an industry that is as reliant on evidence-based conclusions as specialty coffee is.

Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist of science, wrote a clear and in-depth analysis back in 1987 about the ways in which scientific communities are inseparable from the traditions, culture and societal perspectives that surround them. This is something that is not often acknowledged within the course of scientific debates and it came to mind when I recently came across diverging sets of research on genetic variability: a topic that is of vital importance to the future of coffee.

Since 2013, World Coffee Research has been undertaking studies on genetic variability and one of their preliminary findings was that there is almost no genetic diversity amongst coffee plants, whether wild or cultivated. Thisconclusion was based on 'an incredibly diverse range' of around 1000 plant samples. It is important to note that these samples were taken from the CATIE coffee germplasm collection, and not wild Ethiopian coffee forests.

If these findings hold true, the consequences could be dire for coffee which is increasingly under threat from climate change and its associated diseases, pests, rain and temperature fluctuations, etc. Coffee requires, as other viable crops do, a broad range of genes from which to select and plant future coffee.

But the findings from World Coffee Research are not corroborated by other researchers who are investigating this same topic. For example, Ethiopian and German researchers from Addis Ababa University and Freie Universität Berlin jointly published an article in 2014 that used inter-simple sequence repeats (ISSR) fingerprinting analysis and found high genetic variability in the forest populations it studied.

One of the realities about conducting any kind of research is that it is almost always conducted within a specific sphere of influence, whether a university, a small international community of acquainted researchers, or a company that has its own R&D department. I'm glad that World Coffee Research exists - it is made up of many great coffee organizations and companies that are specifically working for the specialty coffee community. This industry needs to have bodies such as WCR in order for all of us to thrive and innovate.

What my very short and select literature review highlights is the need for more and closer cooperation between specialty coffee and the wider scientific community. Why shouldn't specialty coffee benefit from the fact that a lot of resources and great minds outside 'our sphere' are addressing some of our biggest questions and challenges?

- Melanie

How is Pricing Determined Anyway?

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We all know and agree that coffee prices are too low and this is certainly the case in Ethiopia where the average farmer (owning an average of 0.1 ha, or 200 trees) earns USD $260 per year from coffee. Even in Yirgacheffe, where coffee prices are about three times higher, the income is too little to properly support a family’s needs on.

Yet we also notice that prices for Ethiopian coffee are increasing year-to-year and not just for the top qualities. So what are these increases based on?

In the case of Q1 coffees, the price increases (in my opinion) are fair. When we compare the price we’re paying for Kochere gr. 1, taking into account its cup quality in comparison to what we’re paying for for top qualities elsewhere, the price is similar. But we’re not just seeing increased prices for Q1s, we’re seeing exponentially increasing prices for the lower qualities too. Last week Yirgacheffe AQ1 was sold at ETB 2000 per 70KG of parchment while A3 fetched 1950 ETB. What is this A3 pricing based on?

In comparison to most of the other countries we’re working, this is the reality about most Ethiopian coffee:

  • Much of it is not traceable and what is claimed to be traceable is often questionably so (even at top quality levels). In contrast, in Central and South America, farm-direct relationships are the norm for specialty coffee.
  • There is very little investment in evidence-based agricultural practice. Say what you want about the FNC; their investments in research and continuous developments in best agricultural practices are indisputable.
  • Processing and quality control is mostly at a lower standard.

Last week I talked about the importance of intercultural understanding in coffee buying. Within the course of the past week, I had the chance to meet with professionals from other industries here: a tourism operator, grocery store owner, embassy representative, an architect, and a woman who runs a workshop and sells the textiles it produces. Some of these women are Ethiopian and others come from abroad. The common concern everyone expressed is that business in Ethiopia is becoming harder and harder. In the past 3-5 years, conditions have noticeably deteriorated. In the case of the grocery store owner, she is dealing with customs that doesn’t understand the products (e.g. camembert cheese which they think is spoiled, rather than knowing that its smell is supposed to be the way it is) she’s importing and whose ‘solution’ is to burn the food it refuses to clear. Burning food: in a country where people are without food!

For next week’s newsletter, I’m working on finding out what has become of ECX’s geo-tagging system, which it implemented at the beginning of the season.

- Melanie

CCS' Love Affair with Ethiopia

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While it's necessary and perfectly normal for us to visit our partners at origin once or twice a season, we're in Ethiopia for the third time this season. This time I'm spending six weeks with our main exporter, Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco Trading Co. The purpose of this stay is to both help Moplaco complete some of its ongoing projects (e.g. helping to complete an informative and user-friendly website about its many functions and activities) and also for CCS to gain better insight into this amazing and incredibly complex coffee origin.

At this very moment, CCS' first USA-bound container of Moplaco coffees (see above photos) is passing inspection at CLU (Coffee Liquoring Unit) which is overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture. Every single bag is sampled from three places and then these samples are mixed and cupped before the shipment can be cleared for export. This inspection process is just one in many that coffee undergoes throughout the season before it can be shipped to our warehouse and then to you.

One of the things that is always on my mind when addressing the complexities of any origin (because they all are in some way or another), is trying to work out what people really mean when they say things and whether I'm understanding them from their point-of-view. This topic of intercultural complexity is something that coffee buyers have to consider but few have written about. Maybe it's because for some this process is reflexive. At CCS, however, intercultural communication is something we are exploring more and choosing to discuss because it is such a fundamental aspect of doing specialty coffee, which hinges on strong and trustworthy relationships between all the people throughout the supply chain.

We've found that having closer cultural similarities with our Latin American partners and their partnering government institutions has meant there is a base level of understanding about how to conduct business. This means that on average, receiving the coffees we choose from these origins are fairly straightforward. This is not generally the case with our East African suppliers and in particular, the frequently changing legislation they have to go through in order to export our coffees.

So, while it is unlikely that I will learn all the relevant ins and outs of Ethiopian business culture and communication during this prolonged stay, the goal is for us to learn and convey the current state of specialty coffee in Ethiopia and hopefully answer some questions you have about this fascinating origin.

- Melanie

Ethiopia Modernizing

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A brief update on the current Ethiopia harvest (2015/16)

The Harvest So Far

  • Our partners report that coffee has arrived late to the wet mills due to late rains or in some areas, no rain at all. The current lack of rain is expected to be one of the worst droughts in Ethiopia. Some believe it will be even worse than the one that affected the country back in the 1980s.
  • With the rains coming late, cherry maturity has been delayed, meaning that in most areas picking began just three weeks ago.
  • Coffee cherry quality seems to be good overall so far.

Prices

  • The prices being offered for coffee cherries in most of Ethiopia have started at an average level but has slowly been climbing in most areas, especially in the Yirgachefe region, which has been the case for the last several years.
  • Coffee has arrived to the auction with high prices that have managed to sell. We are not sure if the market can pay the fair price given the Cost of Coffee here Locally. But the usual Exporters that use the FX to Import, as the ones pulling the market lower.

Changes at the ECX

  • Electronic tagging (geotagging) is supposed to be rolling out this season so that every bag sold through the auction will come with a barcode that will provide traceability up to the washing station it came from.

The hope for this new system is to create a more accessible system for purchasing. For the last 8 years

only unions and coops

 have been able to provide traceability to the international buyers, severely inhibiting transparency for many buyers of Ethiopian coffee.

  • Coffee, as a commodity, has officially left the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Trade and is now headed by a new Coffee & Tea Authority under the umbrella of the Ministry of Agriculture. This means that coffee will have ONE authority which is significant, as over the last 8 years several conflicting institutions  oversaw the coffee sector, which created many delays in the process of exporting and more. Let's hope that this more unified/simplified body will lead to easier export processes!
  • The ECX is also planning an online purchasing system. Aside from the inevitable delays from implementing such a system, this is a very positive change for exporters. Previously, it was very difficult to stop private agreements between sellers and exporters. Now, hopefully, the best quality will be equally available to all buyers.

While all of these changes are positive they will certainly present their own challenges and frustrations. Luckily the general trend is moving in positive directions. Even if the above is implemented in fits and starts.