Ethiopia Upgrades Its High-End Coffee Sector U.S. government plays role in improving quality

November 18th, 2008 | by addis portal |

Jimma, Ethiopia — Coffee, as legend has it, was first enjoyed by goats that ate beans off wild bushes in the lush mountains of central Ethiopia.  A shepherd boy observed the animals cavorting and ate some beans out of curiosity.  He experienced the caffeine-induced energy that his goats displayed, and from that moment human consumption of coffee spread around the world.

Today, Ethiopia produces just a small fraction of the world’s coffee, dwarfed by coffee giants Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam, but that fraction holds a key to unlocking prosperity in one of Africa’s poorest countries.  The lock can be opened if Ethiopia’s producers deliver consistently high-quality beans, on deadline, to supply a global niche market for fine coffees.

Sitting atop 2,000-meter-high mountains, workers at the 300-hectare Limu Kossa coffee plantation swing machetes at weeds between coffee bushes and apply organic fertilizer to the soil.  During harvest, they will pick ripe, red berries, one by one, and spread them to dry on plastic mesh attached to poles above ground.

“Coffee is a very sensitive crop,” said Abayneh Alemu.  “It absorbs everything around it.  If the beans are on the ground, they will absorb all the impurities on it.  If they are dried on wire mesh, they will absorb rust.  That is why it is best to dry coffee beans on plastic mesh above ground.”

Alemu, a coffee agronomist employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), works with several dozen Ethiopian coffee growers to teach them techniques that will improve the yield of their plantations and the quality of their beans and link them with foreign buyers willing to pay top prices for premium quality.  Alemu and two other coffee specialists teach the growers arcane but important information such as the optimal amount of sunshine and angle of the sun’s rays that fall on the coffee bushes and the way to obtain the proper moisture content of the beans.  “If there is too high moisture, a fungus will grow on the beans and produce a toxin,” Alemu said.  The optimum moisture content is 11.5 percent.

Ethiopia produces about 200,000 tons of coffee a year, a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of tons produced worldwide.  “If Ethiopia is going to make money in the coffee industry, it has to appeal to the fine coffee market,” Alemu said.

In most countries where coffee is produced as an export commodity, machines strip coffee berries from branches along with leaves and twigs.  Exporters do not pinpoint the exact location where each bag of beans is grown.  The quality of the beans is variable, and extraneous matter ends up in the bags along with the beans, according to Alemu.  In contrast, high-end coffee buyers insist on product purity and being able to trace the beans to the plantations where they were grown.  They demand organic cultivation practices and fair treatment of laborers.

“The key to Ethiopian coffee is high quality, not massive production,” said Alemu.

The coffee growers accepted into the USAID’s coffee-development program must agree to follow all the instructions and to share their new knowledge with other growers.

Michelle Jennings, a USAID official working in agribusiness and trade expansion, said the aid agency does not build government capacity but works with private businesses to make them successful.  “If they make money, they will create jobs, and other people will follow in their footsteps,” she said.

The manager of the Limu Kossa coffee plantation, Halibo Aragawi, said that increased quality and quantity of production have brought more wealth to the plantation, and that has had a spillover effect with the neighboring farmers.

“We are getting higher prices for higher quality,” he said.  “We are very grateful for the benefits that USAID has brought us,” he said.  According to Alemu, Ethiopian coffee is getting three times higher prices for its coffee in 2008 than in 2006, the result of both global demand and improving Ethiopian quality.

Proof is beginning to emerge that it is worthwhile for farmers to adopt USAID’s technical guidance, according to Alemu.  For the past few years, USAID has held demonstrations on plantations to teach advanced cultivation and processing methods.  He said the demonstration farms are doing better business than other farms, attracting buyers who taste the product, inspect the cultivation practices and buy the beans on the spot.

USAID also helps the Ethiopian coffee industry develop a quality control system to give foreign buyers greater confidence in what they are buying.  USAID has brought the services of the Coffee Quality Institute, based in Long Beach, California, to Ethiopia to train coffee “cuppers” who grade the quality of coffee. To date, the institute has trained 40 cuppers.

The institute also is helping the country develop a nongovernmental coffee certification group. “It is important that the certifying body be outside the government,” Alemu said.  “The independence is needed to give confidence to foreign buyers.”

Be Sociable, Share!

You must be logged in to post a comment.