Ethiopia: The original coffee origin

Ethiopia coffee

Bruck Fikru of Volcafe describes the legacy of Ethiopian coffee and how new ideas are transforming traditional processes.

It took a while to connect with Bruck Fikru, General Manager of our sister company, Volcafe, in Ethiopia. Political turmoil in the country led to restrictions being placed on people’s internet and social media access. Bruck says this difficulty with communication is one of several challenges being overcome by Ethiopia’s enduring coffee industry.

“Ethiopia is the largest producer of coffee in Africa, and one of the most important producers of Arabica in the world,” Bruck says. “Coffee is a valuable cash crop for farmers, but beyond that, it’s also very culturally significant. Arabica coffee comes from Ethiopia – it’s our gift to the world.

“Unlike most producing countries, we drink most of the coffee we produce. Our consumption goes back centuries, almost as long as – if not longer than – cultivation. It’s one of the ways communities come together to share stories, and the coffee is generally very good, so people enjoy drinking it.”

Due to Ethiopian laws preventing non-national companies from exporting coffee, Volcafe cannot buy coffee direct from farmers and processors like in other countries. As such, Volcafe buys Ethiopian coffee from exporters while Bruck’s work centres on helping producers improve practices and market access. 

“An ordinary day sees me spending most of my time speaking to Ethiopian exporters, farm owners, and managers of unions and cooperatives, looking to see what we can do for them or what we can buy, and following up on logistics and quality issues for every contract and container,” Bruck says. “A good part is also spent talking to my colleagues around the world – in Australia, Europe, Asia, and the United States – enabling all of our importing offices to get good quality coffee from Ethiopia at a fair price and on time.”

Ethiopia coffee
Bruck Fikru of Volcafe works with farmers and exporters in Ethiopia to improve coffee quality and market access.

Despite the story of Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee, Bruck believes it’s the country’s huge diversity of varietals that bolsters its reputation for quality. 

“Ethiopia probably has the richest variety of coffees in the world,” he says. “The majority of farms in Ethiopia are owned by smallholders who produce small amounts of coffee. Even at this level, you find people are planting different varieties. A combination of the natural factors, growing conditions, and diversity of bean results in a very interesting cup that’s hard to replicate in any other coffee producing country.”

However, having smallholders make up so much of the industry causes problems of its own. The number one challenge Bruck sees Ethiopian farmers face is productivity. Simply put, farmers could earn more money if they produced more coffee.

“Most farming land is subdivided as it’s passed on to children. With a fast-growing population, landholdings per capita is significantly going down for producers. That results in a circle of lower output per farmer meaning less income and so on,” Bruck says. “Volcafe is working to help farmers diversify their crops to increase their income and productivity so some of these challenges can be addressed.”

Despite individual farms’ production levels, the US Department of Agriculture anticipates the current Ethiopian crop year – October 2018 to September 2019 – will reach a record high output of 7250 60-kilogram bags. Bruck says the benefits of this bumper crop have been partially offset by low prices linked to the New York Stock Exchange, though not to the extent of other countries.

“Producers have by and large done OK. Most coffee is paid for upfront and the price risk is taken on by the exporters, who need to decide if they’ll sell the coffee forward or hold onto it and wait for a better price,” Bruck says. “Specialty coffee is becoming a larger focus for farmers and processors because it’s more rewarding to produce that higher quality. It’s also a growing market on the consumer side, where people are becoming more aware of quality and conscious of how they pay for their coffee.”

Ethiopia is particularly well regarded for its natural processed coffees. Bruck says mills and processors slow dry their coffee, allowing the beans a significant amount of time to absorb sugar compounds as the water dries from the cherry.

Ethiopia coffee
Ethiopia is one of the few producing countries to consume more coffee than it exports.

“The naturally processed coffee from Ethiopia is sun-dried on open beds. It is not accelerated as is the case with artificial drying. You get coffees that are very sweet, due to the sugar being absorbed into the bean, and maintain the fruity characters Ethiopian coffees are known for,” Bruck says. “When you wash coffee, you leave a lot of those compounds in the water, highlighting the coffee’s acidity. Whereas in naturally dried Ethiopian coffee, the sweetness and fruity complexity really stand out.”

While the nation has maintained a traditional stance when it comes to coffee production and processing, new ideas on how other countries achieve their higher quality levels are slowly gaining legs in Ethiopia. Volcafe has worked with producers on the ground on how to best utilise this information.

“Coffee production is driven by knowledge. People are beginning to understand that quality and consistency can only be achieved when you have control over the work that goes into producing and processing coffee. Standards that have been introduced around the world are slowly trickling into Ethiopia. For us, it’s a question of accelerating those practices and spreading them across various parts of the country,” Brucks says.

Alongside agricultural training and support, Bruck supports the Ethiopian market by being a prominent buyer and providing access to the international market. This may not seem overly apparent to a consuming country like Australia, but as Bruck puts it, “when you are here, and see the limitations on market access, you understand the importance of Volcafe’s presence in Ethiopia”. 

“We’ve been present in Ethiopia for more than 50 years. However, with the establishment of the commodity exchange, engagement with a lot of producers became quite difficult. Rules around the exchange were relaxed last year, so we are seriously thinking about how to continue where we left off,” Bruck says. 

“In the meantime, we do what we can to enable producers and processors to manage their finances and be better business institutions, train their producers for higher productivity, and improve the quality of their coffee so they can earn more. The whole thing works for producers only if they can generate the income to not just survive but thrive.”

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This article appears in FULL in the August edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

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