Ethiopia, February 15-28, 2010:
After much speculation and a plethora of reports on the state of coffee in Ethiopia over the past year, several Brewed Behavior clients, in conjunction with Boot Consulting, set out to survey the facts.
Since December 2008, Ethiopian coffee has been sold under the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange (ECX) that was originally put in place for commodity-grade oil seeds and grains. For several reasons, it wasn’t ideal for selling green coffee—one being the focus on direct relationships between producers and buyers of specialty coffee was lost.
When big changes in protocol are on the horizon, a self-imposed pressure to pick sides can come into play. Shortly after the news broke that coffee was being added to the ECX program, roasters, buyers and other fans of Ethiopian specialty coffees concluded that the Ethiopian government had taken the year’s coffee crop (2008-09) from producers, mixed it together and sold it for a lot of money. In their minds, this was followed by the government paying producers the smallest possible margin in return. This apparent redirection had come after years of selective picking that yielded greater quality from farm to farm, giving Ethiopian coffees a place of prominence in many roasters’ lineups, and producers being paid a premium.
But this “progress” from selective picking had also come at a price. Very few producers had access to premium buyers while the rest were struggling to survive. The Ethiopian government felt the need to step in and organize a more unified approach, thus the ECX was born.
Still, opposition to selective coffees being mixed with C-grade coffees was taken into consideration by the government. A task force was organized to evaluate the potential for adding a Q-criteria based platform to compliment the current format—and along came the DST (Direct Specialty Trade) option for submitting coffees meeting the standards set by CQI (Coffee Quality Institute).
DST combines the advantages of the organized marketplace with traceability to the producer and geographic origin and any attributes or certifications that raise the coffee’s market value. DST guarantees that the producer receives 85% of the FOB sale price.
DST was launched on February 17th, and Café Imports representatives Tim Chapdelaine and Jason Long, as well as Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia and Menno Simons of Trabocca along with other buyers were in Addis to support the kickoff. The results of the first DST auction were as expected: low volume and low prices. But change takes time, and the DST is a definite improvement over the ECX as an avenue for producers, who now have the option to sell direct or sell through the DST as long as Q quality standards are met. As a buyer, there are no guarantees of being a successful bidder, but bidding benefits the producers, as it should. The DST will be held every month going forward as long as product and demand are in place.
A two-day roundtable event was held in Addis, coinciding with the DST kickoff to discuss the next steps in continuing the market momentum for Ethiopian coffee. Experts were brought in to speak on topics related to the improvement of Ethiopian coffee and its awareness. I was honored to give the keynote address on “Building a Brand for Ethiopian Coffees.” I also conducted a branding workshop on the second day, coinciding with an afternoon trade show and group cupping to wrap up the event.
After the roundtable, two small buses full of roasters set out on a five-hour trek toward Yirgichaffee and Sidamo, with the goal of roasting and cupping with producers and training them in their own fields. The buses’ batteries powered the sample roasters, and everything we needed to cup was included in field kits supplied by TechnoServe. Producers witnessed the roasting and grinding of their coffees, and were led through a training session to evaluate them according to SCAA protocol. In addition, we toured the orphanage in Aleta Wondo that was built three years ago, where 75 children are now cared for. We planted the first coffee trees on the property to join the gardens and livestock that provide sustenance for the school.
Overall, the trip brought clarity to what needs to be done to preserve the future and well being of Ethiopian coffee producers. While no system is perfect, we are taking steps toward the greater good, and sustaining and hopefully improving lives. Those of you who might have cut Ethiopian coffee from your lineup, please reconsider. The producers need you now more than ever. The quality can return over time, and demand will be the vacuum that pulls it along—so don’t give up.