Ethiopia, November 2011: 1

(First off, photos and video will be uploaded when I get a bit more reliable internets! Second: I might have got many details and spellings wrong here, so if I learn new, contradictory information to what I’m writing now I’ll correct myself as soon as I can.)


I got about two hours of restless sleep in Addis Ababa before boarding another flight to Dire Dawa, closer to the areas where Harar coffee is grown. Good thing first on the program was cupping at the Moplaco offices, the original headquarters set up by Yanni P. Georgalis in 1972. Admasu, the representative from Moplaco, gave a quick tour of the facility- office administration and bag printing taking place in one building, milling in another. It’s the first time I’ve seen processing machinery built in beautiful solid wood, taking the coffee through destoners, metal magnets, size graders, shaking beds etc to finally be hand sorted  on the long tables where 150 women work across three daily 8 hours shifts, preparing the final bags for export.


The cupping room at Moplaco is run by fellow Q grader Mignot, and as the Probat sample roaster cooled down in the background we cupped Harar A, B and C: A representing the Harar Boldgrain from the areas around Harawach’a, Mesela, Jaja, Abaye, Genemi, Mucha Roba and Hirna in East Harar, B representing the Harar Longberry from around Bedesa, Gelemso, Mich’eta, Asbe Teferi and Mechera in the West, and C; the Arusi (not exported as Harar but growing in the geographical region) that grows around Asela, Huruta and Bulala. Feeling slightly more human from the caffeine, a breakfast of malawa pancakes and jam, and playtime with Lily the dog, the drive south-east from Dire Dawa to Harar was a lovely trip through an Ethiopian Sunday; the winding roads through the terraced hills were bustling with people, smiling kids, trucks piled high with goods, donkeys, goats and cattle.

The paved road ended at Dengego and on a dusty gravel road Solomon the driver guided us past beautiful Lake Alem Maya till we finally pulled up to Abdullah Mome’s farm in Hulanjente, Dawe. There are four main types of coffee growing in Ethiopia, the garden type where other food crops are often found, plantation coffee where coffee is the sole crop, and the wilder forest and semi-forest. Abdullah’s farm is of the garden kind, and his approximately 1000 coffee trees, while not heavy with cherry, looked healthy and strong. In some places the Wanza tree was used for shade, a tree that carries a seed very similar to coffee in shape and size- and while considered a defect- it sometimes makes it all the way to the coffee roasters and won’t be detected till it’s high density makes itself known by the noise it makes going through a grinder. The cherries on Abdullah’s coffee trees were still mostly green as harvest won’t take place till December/January, and during that time he employs around 40-50 people to help with the picking. As with all Harar (due to lack of water and scarcity of farms) his coffee is then sun dried before it’s sold on. It’s the first time I’ve seen coffee trees as tall as Abdullah’s, most of the stock around 80-90 years old and easily 2.5-3 meters high.


While surely making harvesting the top branches a little more challenging, the only time he prunes his trees is if they are damaged or affected by the parasite plant Digolo- another first that had me very confused. Somehow, on the same branch coming off coffee rootstock, you get one shoot going off into coffee flowers and cherries and another shoot goes off and is the Digolo plant. We saw some trees that had been affected by this and therefore pruned down to the size coffee trees I’m more used to from other countries. I asked him if he saw a change in the productivity of the trees when he pruned and while he said that it increased, perhaps the risk of upsetting the natural rhythm of the trees prevented him from implementing pruning to increase the yield from the rest of his field.

Leaving Abdullah’s farm and heading back to Harar we stopped for a quick lunch break and I got a snap of our crew (will upload later!): Admasu, Solomon, Mengistu who drove the other car and Tsegaye who helped translate between Amharic and Oromian. And if you’re wondering what this all looked like then I also took a 360 pan of the Harar hillsides from the top of some rocks. (coming soon!)

As we drove past some agriculture and technical universities I started wondering about the work that goes into researching the varietals of coffee in Ethiopia. The seed stock here is often said to have thousands of varietals, unmapped and unexplored. It’s been interesting to follow the popularity of the Ethiopian Geisha when grown and marketed by producers in Latin America, highlighting the untapped potential of Ethiopias natural varietals. I was told that a research centre in Machara has been centered on developing two varietals, one that is coffee borer resistant and one that has higher yield. Only two years into the ground, it’ll be another couple of years till we can see how these two varietals perform and what they taste of.

Back in Harar and starting to think ahead to tomorrow’s visit to the Exchange, a lengthy discussion ensued trying to understand the changes and new structure in how coffee is now traded. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has been confused by this and it was great to finally have a chance to pose all my stupid questions to someone who works on the ground here and could clear up a few things. Not that I now fully get it or have stopped having questions! For Admasu and Moplaco the new system certainly has brought with it some challenges. As far as I understand, the farmers now bring their parchment (another confusing thing I got cleared up: here, parchment refers to what I normally call cherry, while what I call parchment is called husk) to central pulping stations and sell it to people referred to as suppliers. They do also have the option of selling direct for internal consumption if they wish.

The suppliers then divide or consolidate the amount of parchment brought in into precise 30 bag lots of 85kg per bag, rough mill it into 60kg bags of greens, then sell these lots to the ECX. The Q graders at the ECX then take samples from all 30 bags of the lot to compile a 3kg sample, and check that the moisture level is at the acceptable export percentage of 11.5% or under. Using internal and SCAA cupping sheets they score it, and grade it on an internal scale of 1-9 related to the defect count and cup quality (their 1-2 is specialty lots, while 3-9 will be commodity lots.) Anything below 5 can not be exported and is sold for internal consumption only. Based on grading and cupping they then produce a description and price for the coffee which is then offered to the exporters. They then decide on which lots to buy, but unfortunately without having had the chance to taste the coffee first. If, upon having bought and cupped the lots themselves, the exporter decides to complain about the ECX’s decision on grade/price he may do so, and enter into a re-negotiation.

But if all is well, people like Moplaco will then send their purchased lots through their sorting and grading machines, removing leaves, stones, pieces of metal and other foreign matter, producing the export grades of Harar that we know: naturals are 3, 4 &5, and washed coffees are grades 1&2. At Moplaco, the final selections are hand picked before selling them on to importers or roasters around the world. After purchase, the exporters have to ship the lots out within 3 months, and every week they have to report to the Government which coffees they have bought, how much and of what quality. If the records don’t match the submitted data from the ECX of what they have sold, the exporters could be audited. Any coffee that is sorted out by the exporters a they clean coffees up to the highest grades has to be returned to the Exchange for re-sale to the internal market.

It’s more common in Yirgacheffe and Sidamo where farms are bigger and closer together- but if you’re a supplier who is organized as a co-op for those farmers who deliver to you, you can also be an exporter and thus bypass the ECX- achieving a more direct line to importers or roasters internationally. Not all co-ops used to export, but since the ECX many more if not most of them do.



The morning started with a chance to cup some coffee I brought with me, the pulped natural from Aida’s Finca Kilimanjaro. Mignot, Admasu and Maju the Moplaco Stock Manager like many cuppers in producing countries rarely get to try beans from other countries, so I always try to travel with something different from them to try, as well as some of their own country’s coffee to so they get an idea of what we do with them after we purchase. The Kilimanjaro was a hit, and even as a pulped they found the acidity to be a refreshing change from the more mellow natural Harars.

I also learned of a couple of alternative Ethiopian coffee drinks, the Kuti which is a drink made of roasted coffee leaves steeped in water or sometimes milk, and Hoja, roasted pergamino boiled in milk. Hopefully at some point on the trip I’ll get a chance to try these in person!

As we were now back at the warehouse on a workday, the women were in, hand sorting some of the remaining bags left yet to export, and I got some film of this: (to be uploaded)

The flight back to Addis was a bit of a nail biter, the plane having to return to base after 10 minutes flight due to a ‘mechanical problem’… Fire trucks meeting as as we touched down did not help to settle the caffeine fueled nerves, but having declared us fit for flight again after many manuals and computers had been consulted, we made the 40 minute flight without further interruption. Unfortunately this afternoons visit to the exchange has now been rescheduled to Friday, but armed with the info I now have about how the ECX works, I”m just excited to see it in person. Stay tuned for more!