In honor of SpillingTheBeans’ visit this week to Ethiopia I am republishing a number of my special reports on this awesome coffee country. Amesege’nallo Ethiopia for bringing coffee to the world!
It’s hard to imagine a world without coffee. But had it not been for the Ethiopians at some point over 1000 years ago deciding that they actually liked this stuff themselves, coffee as we know it might just never have reached the world market. Even more exiting to coffee lovers and industry stakeholders today is that in the last 5 years Africa’s biggest coffee producer has gotten even bigger and the volumes reaching export markets across the world are steadily expanding. In this first article of a special new 4-part series, the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’s veteran coffee writer Maja Wallengren and SpillingTheBeans’ author and owner will take an in-depth look at the coffee miracle of Ethiopia and what the latest efforts from new market policies and an ambitious renovation plan mean for the industry’s future. And it’s all good news as production from the origin of all origins of coffee, is on the path to reach between 9 and 10 million bags in coming years.
Amesege’nallo Ethiopia – Thanks for bringing coffee to the world!
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
In coffee, it’s really all about Ethiopia. This is where the story of coffee starts after the Coffea Arabica plant was first discovered growing in the wild sometime between the 6th and 8th Century, most historians agree. And it is from Ethiopia that the production and trade of coffee spread throughout the world. From industry officials to coffee enthusiasts, the story and history of Ethiopia is one that continues to fascinate coffee lovers. Thanks to the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia in what at the time of history was known as Abyssinia, coffee was brought to the world and as such the trade of coffee might even be considered the foundation of the earliest interaction of what today constitutes globalization.
Since the earliest beginnings of coffee production, and spanning through what might be as much as 16 Centuries of history, few products have travelled through the changing times of world history and evolving drinking habits as extensively as the sacred little coffee bean. Throughout all these years of a constantly shifting coffee trade, the Ethiopian coffee industry has similarly continued to transform. And the sheer volume of unexplored botanical material still available in Ethiopia makes it all the more fascinating.
“There is a reason for why Ethiopia became the birthplace for coffee, why coffee started growing here in the wild in the first place,” said Taye Kufa, senior coffee researcher and director of the Jimma Agricultural Research Center in central Ethiopia. Having already tracked down about 6,000 different Arabica varieties within the boundaries of Ethiopia alone, Kufa said the research center “still have so many uncovered areas, like in Harar where coffee plant material collected have yet to be catalogued” and studied in detail. And all along the continuing discovery, coffee growing is now reaching what might be considered the 3rd significant boom in Ethiopia.
The very first surge in global coffee production took place between the 10th and 12th Century when Arab traders based in and around the Red Sea strait near the port of Mocha initiated the pioneering major commercial plantings of coffee in southern Yemen. It was with this new line of supply that coffee started forming into a global commodity and what by the 16th Century would develop into the world’s first coffee houses under the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. The second boom in production started in the 1950s when a combination of political incentives toward renovating farms, supported by foreign development agencies and together with the promotion of the establishment of cooperative culture, sparked renewed interest into coffee growing. And now, the world is now again able to witness a boom in coffee production from Ethiopia.
A little over 10 years ago a series of ambitious economic policies and market reforms were introduced by the Ethiopian government. Even though many challenges remain for the world’s oldest coffee industry, there is no denying of the sweeping and positive changes these new investment friendly policies have had for the overall growth of the sector and that of the country.
Since the renovation efforts and expansion of area started in earnest between 2008 and 2009 production from Ethiopia has slowly but steadily been growing and the results are starting to show up in export figures as well. In the new 2014-15 crop cycle Ethiopia’s coffee harvest is forecast to yield up to 7.5 million 60-kilogram bags, according to the Ethiopian Agriculture Ministry. This is flat on production in the year-ago period but compares to average output between 4 million and 5 million bags in the 10 years prior to the renovation starting.
“We are really excited about this because there has always been a huge demand for coffee from Ethiopia thanks to the unique history of Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee, and now we can start offer more of this coffee on a much more consistent basis,” said Hussein Agraw, President of Ethiopia’s Coffee Exporters Association.
Production figures in Ethiopia remain difficult to verify, as Ethiopians are known to drink up to as much as 60 percent of their own coffee crop at home and a detailed household survey of consumption habits has never been carried out. The London-based International Coffee Organization reported a total crop of 8.1 million bags in the 2012-13 cycle, but private sources in Ethiopia generally agree that this figure is too high and was based on government figures projecting desired coffee earnings rather than actual production.
Regardless, coffee production is growing, and based on the known figures for new plantings, trees per hectares and the actual area under cultivation, industry officials agree that Ethiopia’s coffee crop is set to become even bigger in the next 5 to 10 years with the Ethiopian Coffee Growers Association predicting that Ethiopia should increase its annual coffee production to between at least 9 or 10 million bags in the next five years.
No more is the Ethiopian coffee boom visible than at the very source of coffee in the South-Eastern province of Kaffa, the province which lend its name to coffee. Here, deep into the dense forests in the province on the border just north of Kenya and with South Sudan to the west, the region is famously home to coffee still growing in the wild, just as it was when according to legend coffee was first discovered over 1000 years ago.
Different variations of the story exist, but most agree that a young goat heard by the name of Kaldi after many sleepless nights watching out over his master’s goats, one day noticed that the goats turned unusually upbeat and active after eating the red fruits off some nearby trees. Hence the first meeting between man and coffee took place and the epic tale of Kaldi and the dancing goats started to spread throughout the world, along with the craving for the beans to brew it.
At the heart of the Ethiopian coffee scene for years, Jimma and close-by Limmu have long been known as home to some of the flavors considered the most traditional among Ethiopian coffees, mostly processed as natural or semi-washed Arabicas which leaves a natural touch of sweetness from the pulp and mucilage in the final cup flavor. Located some 350 kilometers south-west of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, the massive Limmu Coffee Farm is at the center of the renovation efforts that today are sweeping Ethiopia as part of the wave of privatization which has helped move Ethiopia up the rank of developing countries and out of the bottom-10, according to World Bank figures.
Dating back almost 40 years the Limmu Coffee Farm was originally established as the first modern coffee plantation in Ethiopia in the early 1970s but went into decay after years of socialist inspired policies. That is until it was purchased in November 2013 by Horizon Plantations Plc., which is owned by Ethiopian born Saudi billionaire Mohammed Al Amoudi and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Ethiopia from agriculture to car tyres.
“Coffee has always been at the center of development in Ethiopia and when you look at the Limmu farm alone we have 7,100 permanent workers and a total farm population of 38,000 people, so through this project we can make a really important contribution to the socio-economic development of Ethiopia,” said Kemal Mohammed, operations manager for Horizon Plantations.
From the rural hills of Jimma and Kaffa to the streets in the bustling capital of Addis Ababa, coffee culture…
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Maja Wallengren has been writing about coffee for more than 20 years from over 45 coffee producing countries across South-East Asia, East and West Africa and across Latin America. She can be reached at http://spilling-the-beans.net/contact/