How To Order
Sourcing Trips | 17 Feb 23

Learning New Perspectives – Ethiopia Trip

  • My original plan to visit Ethiopia was for it to coincide with judging their inaugural Cup of Excellence in April 2020. However due to global events outside my control this was not meant to be. Fortunately in December 2022 another opportunity arose but just a small window left before Christmas to fit it in, and so I set off with the ambition to spend one intensive week traveling with and visiting existing suppliers but also making time for potential new ones, short listed after many conversations and samples from the hundreds who contact us each year with “the best coffee from Ethiopia”.

    The harvest had only started to arrive during my visit, on average just 15% of last year’s total had reached the washing stations when I left. It was too early to cup and buy which was not the plan anyway, that will start late January through February however it was the perfect time to plan volumes and shipping schedules whilst observing and learning about this amazing origin and hearing updates on new and old challenges.

    When I first visit a coffee producing country I’ve never visited before, I naturally find myself noting similarities and differences from places I have been previously, building a picture through exhausting everyone with questions questions questions! But hopefully also sharing some knowledge I’ve picked up along the way.

    I noticed when writing the first draft of my report two key themes emerged..

  • Scales of production
    The average farm size in the Sidama region where I visited was 2 hectares, some is patio dried at home and of a lower quality, the rest sold as fresh cherry for a better return, this is processed centrally with other farmers from the surrounding area. Independent certifiers factor a maximum of 4000 kg cherry per hectare to give you an idea of scale.

  • DSC01941
  • Some larger farms around 10 hectares and up, I was interested to hear have invested in drying beds and are making high quality naturals on site, taking a larger role in the finished product and enhancing traceability for the consumer. In Peru, for comparison, many small farms even down to 1 hectare own a pulper and fermentation tank for the washed process, naturals are a more recent innovation there produced on a micro lot scale.

    Ethiopian farmers will harvest and deliver 180-250 kg of cherry per visit to the washing station. Cherry to green bean is often converted at a 6:1 ratio, to put that in perspective they’re delivering less than 1 exportable sack per visit and so each coffee you buy will feature the harvest of many many farmers. They will travel to reach a station with their cherries, sometimes by motorbike, others on foot, or with the help of a horse/donkey. The number of washing stations in each region goes into the hundreds.

  • DSC01970
  • A fermentation tank can hold up to 5000kg of pulped beans, although it does not always get filled to the top before fermenting, entirely determined by the cherry available.

    A raised bed can hold 550kg of cherry for the natural process or 110kg of parchment coffee when drying washed coffee.

  • DSC01893
  • DSC01852
  • A single washing station can process the equivalent of 72 – 144 thousand kg of green coffee per year (roughly 4 – 8 containers) whereas my typical farmer example grows 22 bags per year of which not all is speciality grade, so basically a washing station enables farmers who alone would be too small to reach the speciality market, access it by pooling them together and carefully processing their beans.

  • Prices/ trade
    The Cup of Excellence highlighted a disproportionate amount of top lots coming from the Sidama region, in fact every top lot since the competition started three years ago has come from here. I heard that in the last few years 600+ companies have joined the coffee industry, many are not “coffee people” but in it for the US dollars that coffee is traded in, I’ll come back to this topic. The end result is that Sidama is now saturated with washing stations, increasing competition, and raising the prices farmers earn. They expect that the cherry price, when converted to seed, worked out higher than the minimum price the government sets for export contracts. This is generally set so high, it is the default price many importers/roasters expect to pay therefore much coffee will be making its way to the local market instead. Interestingly as a side note, it is forbidden for G1 and G2 to be sold locally.

    The coffee cherry price paid by washing stations has been increasing in recent years which you will have seen reflected in our sales prices. Long before cost of living was on everyone’s lips, Ethiopia had already experienced 10% inflation in half of the last 20 years and often over 20% even hitting 30%+ on more than one occasion, this is part of a complex picture. Some farmers are choosing to hold onto cherry rather than cash, hoping it holds its value better. Trade at times has also come to a halt because price expectations from farmers and washing stations don’t match. This results in more home dried naturals and less cherry for washing stations to process pushing prices higher still.

    20/21 = 25-35 birr/kg
    21/22 = 60-65 birr/kg
    22/23 = 65-80 birr/kg

    Some exporters sell coffee near cost price because they can profit from imports purchased with the dollars made with these exports. This results in many who deal with many commodities, not just coffee. They may be importing soap or manufacturing fridges to make a living. In recent years, the government has limited the number of dollars exporters can keep from selling coffee to just 20%. The rest must be converted to birr which has increased the demand for coffee accordingly. There is a black market for $. Even inside their international airport they will not convert birr to $ once you have birr you are stuck with them.

  • Diary
    With the facts and figures behind us, below you can read further about my daily activities on the ground in Ethiopia during my travels.

    Day 1
    Arrived from airport, unpacked in hotel and then went walking. Got taken on an unintentional sightseeing tour with strangers, met some huge tortoise at Ta’eka Negest Be’ata Lemariam Monastery, and naively ended up in the basement of the locked monastery. I saw the tomb of emperor Menelik II though! I walked back to where I started and picked up a “flat white” although turned out to be a macchiato, in Ethiopia the espresso drinks you can order are:

    1. Ranger, because it looks like a military outfit? See photo.
    2. Macchiato I heard comes in three types light, dark or standard, a light is a flat white, a dark is like a Western macchiato and standard is in the middle somewhere.
    Went out for dinner with a potential new supplier and saw some traditional dances and music, drank some honey “wine” went to bed merry.

  • MicrosoftTeams-image
  • Day 2
    Visited another potential supplier in the morning, with no merit. So left in search of a café to fill time before meeting up with Daye Bensa an existing supplier where we cupped a mix of new crop early samples and past crop samples with their lab guy to keep me on my toes, like I said before, wasn’t the time to cup but was nice to do it anyway.

    Day 3
    Drove to Hawassa, looooong drive, slept most of it (miscommunication about the need to book a flight!). We passed the dry mill they’re constructing on the way, when we got there, we watched some celebrations in the town centre from the roof of a new office they are moving into. There was a specialty café beneath it where I met a Netherland-based importer, then went to sleep in the hotel, which the next day the prime minister of Ethiopia had everyone evicted so he could stay there!

    Day 4
    Ate breakfast and drove to Bensa. Had a ranger, then went on a washing station crawl seeing seven in one day from dawn till dusk. We stayed in a hotel that night which I got locked in my room. Had to climb out the window, then it rained so heavily the room filled with water. We ate tibs for dinner, basically bits of goat with injera and spices. Some South Koreans were coming to visit and camp at the farm/washing station Gatta. Hopefully next time I will have this experience, it sounded very cool.

  • DSC01849
  • DSC01999
  • Day 5
    Flew back to Addis in the morning. Met with a really genuine potential new supplier option for Mercanta (stay tuned) and spent most of the afternoon/evening with them tasting samples, sharing experiences with the Ikawa sample roaster.

    Day 6

    Visited a dry mill/ lab in the morning. They are installing a brand-new speciality only processing line. Then flew home around midday, phew!

  • DSC02003
  • In conclusion, Ethiopia is a complex coffee origin both economically and in the cup. It is however worth the effort. One week was not enough time, and so I will definitely be back soon.