Green Methods Grow Better Coffee in Ethiopia

August 14th, 2009 | by addis portal |

WASHINGTON, Aug 14 ( – In Ethiopia, coffee growers know that what is good for the environment is also good for business.  

What’s the Story?

Berhanu Beyene has been a coffee grower for 10 years in Werka, Yirgacheffe, a region renowned for its high quality coffee. He and his wife Aster have 12 children, and they rely on selling coffee in the international market to support their family.

A little over a year ago, 238 coffee growers in Werka came together to form a cooperative under the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. The union is known to produce good beans which can be sold as specialty coffee, for a higher price.

Ethiopia’s finest coffee is grown in the shade, which keeps the coffee cherries moist until they are ready to be picked. Without native trees, which are often cut down, the coffee bushes would produce bitter beans that sell at a lower price.

Beyene calls the giant sycamore trees above his coffee fields the guardians of his family’s livelihood.

Aid agency Oxfam International is sponsoring the Werka project, which helps coffee growers in this region of Ethiopia use sustainable methods. With the eco-friendly coffee processing Oxfam is teaching, the cooperatives will reduce waste and cut water usage by 98.5 percent.

“So, the way I see it, the Werka project represents the best combination of solutions,” says Beyene, “earn more for our hard work, while at the same time preserving the environment that we depend on for our livelihoods.” [See the full story from Oxfam International below.]

2001 Coffee Crisis in Ethiopia

Beyene was just getting started in the coffee business when the global coffee crisis hit Ethiopia in 2001. The price of coffee dropped to a 30-year low — between 1997 and 2001, the value of coffee exports sank by almost 60 percent. This was devastating for the country’s coffee farmers, since coffee is Ethiopia’s major export.

In November 2002, the Fairtrade Foundation reported on the situation: “Ethiopian farmers have been telling us of the worsening situation for months now,” said executive director Harriet Lamb. “They have been taking their children out of school, pulling up coffee bushes.”

During the crisis, the Fairtrade Foundation urged consumers to buy Fairtrade coffee, where farmers receive a higher price for their beans. Oxfam also led a campaign to raise awareness of the plight of Ethiopian coffee growers.

Beyene says his family has come a long way since the coffee crisis, which threatened their livelihoods and caused a shock to the country’s economy. “Our living conditions have improved significantly,” says his wife Aster. “I am secure knowing that my family is well fed, healthy, and that my children go to school.”

But things may go downhill again. Around the world, coffee farmers are struggling to make ends meet as prices stay low and the effects of climate change intensify.

Climate Change Brews Trouble for Coffee Growers

Coffee is the world’s most valuable tropical export, and is produced by 20 million or so small farming families. But the future outlook for coffee growers is bleak. Coffee needs a certain climate to grow well, and as temperatures rise, unpredictable dry spells and periods of heavy rain are expected to negatively impact coffee production, reports

In fact, climate change already seems to be affecting coffee production in some countries. For example, 50 years ago India’s coffee production consisted mostly of the arabica bean. Now farmers are growing more robusta coffee, which withstands hotter conditions but is considered a lower quality bean.

While certification systems like Fairtrade bring social and environmental issues to the international stage and have helped to ensure sustainable production methods in countries like Ethiopia, farmers need help adapting to climate change, notes Peter Baker, a commodities specialist at the development organization CABI.

“The coffee industry has been a world leader in advancing the cause of sustainability. Now it should take stock, pat itself on the back, and quickly move on to a concerted response to humanity’s greatest challenge: tackling climate change,” writes Baker.

Background: Poverty and Conflict in Ethiopia

With climate change increasing the risk of droughts, floods, and poor coffee harvests, the livelihoods of coffee growers like Berhanu Beyene and his family are in danger. The looming instability of coffee prices and the effects of climate change will only add to the multiple crises converging in Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia is a country beset by each of the most serious issues currently challenging the world at large,” writes Mahlet Yifru in’s Ethiopia Country Guide.

“Rising food prices threaten to unhinge progress in the government’s food security program, climate change seems likely to increase the visitation of drought which is the primary cause of widespread poverty in Ethiopia, whilst the army finds itself in the front line against the regional threat of militant Islam. Greatly in need of international friends, the government of Meles Zenawi continues to unsettle global donors with heavy-handed suppression of opposition voices.”

– This article was compiled by Brittany Schell.

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