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Postcard from Ethiopia: why coffee is life for millions of smallholder farmers

20 April 2016

Postcard from Ethiopia: why coffee is life for millions of smallholder farmers

Blog by Sale Wassie, Manager of Farm Africa’s Coffee Project

As an Ethiopian, it comes as no surprise to me that this year’s London Coffee Festival is nearly double the size of last year’s, attracting a record 25,000 coffee drinkers to share their appreciation for this most evocative of drinks.

The growing love for coffee all over the world is a huge source of pride for me, and for everyone from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. For centuries, coffee has indisputably been our national drink: coffee is central to every social gathering we attend and to our economy. To Ethiopians, coffee is life.

We’re proud to embrace coffee’s growing role on the global stage, and are keen to seize the opportunities that increased interest in the provenance of coffee presents for securing fair incomes for Ethiopia’s coffee producers. While the volume of Ethiopia’s coffee exports is increasing, prices are falling, putting more pressure on the already struggling 15 million people working in the Ethiopian coffee industry.

The origins of coffee

Legend has it that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia over a thousand years ago by a goatherd named Kaldi, whose goats drew him to the red berries. Regardless of whether this story is true or not, Ethiopia has maintained its strong links to coffee down the centuries – even the name ‘coffee’ derives from ‘Kaffa’, the Ethiopian province where coffee first thrived.

Today, green coffee is Ethiopia’s largest export, and in the Oromia region, where I work, coffee is the main source of income. Beans from Oromia end up as far afield as Japan, Germany, and the UK, as well as the US. But for local farmers coffee isn’t just a business, it’s an essential part of everyday life.  Drinking coffee is a deeply engrained tradition, and coffee ceremonies bring together friends, neighbors, and families.

The struggle for profitability

Despite this long history, for many farmers making a living from coffee can be a struggle. Many coffee farmers are making less than $1 a day as they lack the tools, training and bargaining power to build profitable businesses. These hard-working people are living in poverty for reasons that are easily preventable.

I’ve worked with coffee farmers for many years, and have been leading Farm Africa's work with coffee since the project was set up in 2014. Farm Africa has been working in Ethiopian forests for over 30 years, specializing in helping communities to develop forest-friendly profitable businesses.

Training by doing

At Farm Africa we train by doing, working practically with model farmers so that they can share their knowledge, and gradually encourage whole communities to learn new techniques. Our training is two-way – it’s a discussion. We encourage farmers to share their own experiences and techniques so that we can find the way forward together.

One of the most effective ways to increase the incomes of coffee farmers is to help them to process their beans on their farms. Training farmers to pulp or hull their beans means that they can take a higher value product to market, and earn a better wage from their coffee harvest.

Traditionally, coffee is collected, dried, and stored in clean sacks before being processed and sent to market. But currently, post-harvest practices amongst the farmers we work with are quite poor, as farmers cannot afford to buy and use simple jute sacks to store their coffee, and don’t have the capital and specialist knowledge they need to process their beans. Coffee is hygroscopic, which means that it takes on the environment around it – if it is stored near soil, for example, it will pick up the smell. It needs to be dried off the floor, in warehouses with concrete floors. 

But constructing warehouses can be a lengthy and expensive process – to build the concrete floors we need to bring in sand from Gambella, a city 200km away from the construction site, and cement from our capital city Addis Ababa, a 600km trip. And to prevent the beans from fermenting, farmers also need wire mesh to build proper drying beds, so that they can get a good air flow around their beans. We’re aiming to have these warehouses built in time for the next harvest, so that farmers won’t waste any of their crop, as the unseasonal rains make it even more difficult for the beans to dry properly.

Getting ready for market

Once beans have been dried and processed, they need to be graded. A high-quality grade means that coffee can be exported – low grades are traded locally. For farming cooperatives to go directly to the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) to get their beans graded, they need a licence, which they haven’t had in the past.

We’ve helped 15 out of the 21 cooperatives we’ve been working with to obtain these licences.  This means that farmers can go straight to international markets, where their beans will fetch a much higher price.

By making sure that the post-harvest handling, processing and marketing of coffee is the best it can be, we can make sure that coffee farmers can earn a better income from the coffee they produce.   

With the right amount of investment, we can help the farmers working in the oldest coffee producing region in the world to build a profitable and sustainable business where their beans end up in the hands of baristas all over the world.

You can support coffee farmers in Ethiopia by donating to Farm Africa today.