(Hey guys! Last post from Ethiopia, please allow a bit of wiggle room on some of the numbers here and in the previous days, info flies around very fast and I think some guesswork and over-estimation is definitely involved, but I’m recounting things as best I can under the circumstances.)
I was woken up at 2 am this morning by thundering rains, so I was a bit worried that the trips scheduled for today were going to be a wash out, literally. But the roads seem to have held up ok, so stop number one was the co-op of Bele Kara, first of three Yirga Cheffe Union co-ops on the program. A smaller co-op with about 800 members, they had some parchment on their drying beds already, but quite wet still so very recently out of the soaking tank. There had been some confusion as to the timing of our visit and we could tell they were stressed by not really being prepared for us, so we thought it best to move on to the next place.
Addis Katema at 1900 masl has just seen their membership almost double, from 474 growers last year to 906 this year. Industrial manager Tsegaye Gelicha told us that they (also) were projecting for 1 million kgs of cherry this year, up from 191 000 kgs last year. Such expansion seems like unfeasible task in a short amount of time, and while 150 beds are on site already, they’re having some challenges with raising money to build the drying beds they need to accommodate the growth. Thankfully the mill should be able to cope as a demucilager was installed a few years ago, able to churn through 1500 kg of cherry per hour. Since they started buying 14 days ago they’ve done 9415 kgs at 15 birr/kg.
The third and last stop of the day was the Koke co-op, with 1075 members currently projected to deliver their pickings. Last year they did 365 522 kgs of cherry, and (like all of them it seems) are planning to do 1 million this season. They have 76 drying beds but have bought materials to build 120 more, a big investment taking out of the pot for buying cherry. To cover what they’ll need to spend this year, a loan application of 9 mill birr was submitted. But it only come back with 3 mill granted, so the rest will have to be raised through pre-finance from the union and buyers.
Last year they only did washed coffee here, but this year they’re thinking to do 50/50 with naturals. The season only a week into buying, they’ve managed 13 000 kg (also at 15 birr/kg) so far but will at peak times be able to process 25 000 kg cherry per day. It will be interesting to see how they manage to go from all washed to 50/50, and whether their (and the others) projected 1 million kilos cherry will really be that much. A lot of these co-ops already do a great job but hey all have potential to to better, and as we’re collecting some samples off drying beds wherever we can, Saturday’s cupping should be an interesting preview of what we can expect from the 2011/12 harvest.
I’m now tucked up in my cosy Aregash lodge hut, having just been treated to great food and a coffee ceremony by the staff. The girl roasting and brewing for us looked lovely in her traditional dress, but I was slightly distracted by the groundskeeper feeding our dinner leftovers to the patiently waiting vultures and hyenas in the background. We stopped by here for lunch and dinner last week and were really well looked after by Rauda one of the waitresses, who is 7 months pregnant with little boy. Thankfully she remembered me and didn’t think I was just some crazy lady when I turned up in the kitchen with a baby blanket I’d got for her! There’s some faint howling in the distance outside, but I’m hoping the hyenas had enough with what they were fed and aren’t going to be lurking should I decide to poke my head out the door. I might just call it an early night, I think….
No hyena bite marks, brilliant! Nice big spiders in the shower tho, always a treat.
Since today was the last day of the co-op and farm visits, we set off nice and early to go see the first on the program, just outside Aleta Wondo town an hours drive from Yirga Alem. This co-op with its 2400 members is part of the Sidamo Union, and while everything was not perfect during our visit it was a good learning experience in some of the challenges the Ethiopian coffee industry is facing.
This washing station has both an aggregate and a demucilager that was donated to them a few years ago, but the aggregate hasn’t produced stable enough electricity so far to really power the demucilager. We were told this was being sorted soon, but in the meantime the old pulper is still the only machine in use, running on diesel but sadly also leaking quite a bit of diesel onto the ground. In the last month they’ve done 83 000 kg cherry through the pulper, but only one day’s worth of 4000 kg in the demucilager to see if it’s still working. It was doing ok in the test, but they really felt they needed more help and training in the correct use of it, as they had three days on install but nothing since. The install itself had us scratching our heads for a while, as post the sorting and pulping section of the machine, the setup looked as if the parchment was going into a selection of 6 fermentation tanks, before being funneled through to the demucilager, and then into another two soaking tanks. We couldn’t quite work out the tank-stage between pulper and demucilager, as they’d normally be installed straight after each other. The only explanation I could think of was that they had decided there was no room on the floor in the machine room for them to function as a continuous unit, and that the tanks in between them were not used for actual soaking or fermentation but just as channels on the way through to the final two tanks. This would of course be ok if not really optimal, as the increase in capacity that the machine gives would be negated by the fact that only two soaking tanks were really useable. I think in the end after much discussion with Tamire the operations manager we clarified that the lack of space was in fact the reason for the strange setup, and that the people contracted by the union had not installed in the best way. However I think with minor adjustments the demucilager could in fact be moved up to the machine room floor, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can make the setup work more fluently, maximizing the use of tanks they have available.
The three villages and 2400 co-op members surrounding this mill delivered 200 000 kg cherry last year, but this harvest they said they were projecting 2 million kg cherry, a staggering rise I thought, if indeed correct. Paying 13.5 birr per kg, a price that has been stable since they opened a month ago, this was also one of the lowest price we’ve seen so far. On the drying beds, parchment was piled high and not spread out very evenly, resulting in a lot of cracked parchment and layers of dry on top of wet. Having seen the challenges facing this mill it certainly showed that a lot of work still have to be done in order to ensure clean, well processed coffee from all stations in Ethiopia.
The next stop of the day was also a bit of a disappointment, as we went to see one site out of four belonging to another large co-op. One of the machine rooms had a pulper in it, and another machine room was empty but looking as if it was being planned for another pulper. Only 15 days into the season there was a tiny bit of coffee on the beds, and at 13 birr/kg this was the lowest price we’ve seen so far. A bit frustrated at not being able to access one of the other, busier sites due to terrible road conditions, we decided to turn back to Aregash for some lunch and to review how we wanted to spend the rest of the day. The conclusion was to first spend some time on the phone to find a nearby co-op that was actually processing that evening, and wait till just before dark to visit. In the meantime Admasu one of the Aregash staff took us on a hike around the land, checking out the little coffee plantation and nursery they have set up for their guests and staff, the kitchen gardens and woodlands where their fruit and vegetables come from, and the hyena caves, dug out of the hillsides as hiding places for the royal family during the war with the Italians. Monkeys followed us through the trees as we walked through the occasionally dense forest, shaking leaves and sticks down onto our heads, I’m fairly sure they did it on purpose too.
When finally time to hit Fero the last co-op of the trip, we had some sad news that meant driving in the dark on bumpy country lanes was done even more slowly than normal. Two young men on a motorcycle had died in a collision with a tourist bus just hours earlier, and along the road the faces of the locals, normally smiling and curious, were set in stone watching with hesitation as we drove past.
At Fero the mood was a little brighter but quite hectic, as this large co-op of 3674 members were taking deliveries, pulping and filling fermentation tanks in full tempo. Last year they did 870 477 kg cherry but are aiming for 1.5 million this year, so no time to lose, really! Well organized, clean and efficient this was a good way to end the day and the site visits on this trip, and conversation at dinner and around the campfire tonight has been filled with anticipation of how the samples from these places will cup in a couple of months. Only time will tell but I’m certainly excited to start buying fresh crop Ethiopian again soon!
Most of today was spent driving back to Addis, with only a couple of little detours along the way, more or less related to coffee. In Shashamene we stopped off for a brief visit to the Rastafarian HQ, where for a small fee of 50 birr per person we were able to have a look round and a chat with Peter the head of the community. While signs were clearly up saying no photos allowed, as long as we were respectful we were granted permission to take a few pictures, and Peter was also quite happy to have polaroids done of himself and a few of the group who gathered around. Daniel, a young man from Trinidad who has traveled here to live in the compound and study the ways of the rastas, kindly posed for me at the gates with the 12 colours, giving the sign of the trinity. A friendly bunch, we were sent off with some words of wisdom on reading our bible, a chapter a day, and to believe.
Closer to Addis we swung by the processing plant of the Oromia Union, a massive warehouse with an impressive set up, and another warehouse in construction just across the yard. Tadesse Meskela, the president of the Union gave us a tour of the space, currently just clearing out the last of the current crop lots and preparing the machinery for the new crop coffees coming in a month’s time. When busy season hits, they’ll be working day and night for 8 months, 3 shifts of 300 women each sat by the sorting belts to hand pick the already thoroughly machine-sorted greens. For the premium grade lots the automated belts will be set for a smaller pause in front of the ladies for them to control, for the lower grades they will have more time per section to pick out any dodgy beans.
Now back at the hotel in Addis, I’ve completed the part of this trip that hopefully will help me identify the potential in some farms and co-ops that we’d like to watch closer as the harvest really gets underway. There is so much potential for some great lots this year, in spite of some of the problems and obstacles that clearly take a long time to fix.
Today I slept in! Woohoo! And then I went to cup some of the samples that have been collected at the farms and co-ops visited so far, as well as comparing a couple of them to remaining samples of the finishing current crop. As expected the new crop samples were a bit young and early, some of them not even dried thoroughly enough to give a representative cup of where they are at with the early pickings. I expect samples from peak season at all these farms/co-ops to be much better, but nevertheless it was interesting to try.
I fly back to London in a couple of hours, it’s been a crazy, frustrating, fun and educational two weeks- but I think I’d need two months if not two years to really feel I have a hold on this complicated, confusing, ever changing matter of doing business in Ethiopian coffee. I hope all this writing has had some use for others wondering and being excited about what’s going on here, even if I’m sure a few of the details I’ve put down are wrong or not founded on all the facts. Thanks for reading, now to wait for new crop samples to come in!
Thank you Ethiopia!