Ethiopia Coffee Regions -from Harar to Sidama to Yirga Cheffe

A trip for the Harar Roundtable Conference back in 2009, and travels to Ethiopian coffee regions in the West and South.

Part 1: Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Harar Roundtable Conference, Choma

In February, I headed to Ethiopia to revisit the Harar area, following up on a trip 6 months before. I also went to the South, to Sidamo and Yirgacheffe, often the first places a coffee traveler goes here, but places I had so far not visited. There were familiar sites, and many new things to wrap my brain around. And in between there was a good deal of cupping in Addis for our 2009 coffee line-up. It was a great trip; I only got sick once.

Ethiopia in February means cupping new crop coffees, a great time to find new lots. There might be a bit of coffee on the drying beds, or being sorted at the mills. But everything has been picked; all the coffee has ripened, been harvested, or has been hopelessly dried on the tree and dropped to the ground.

 I arrived in Addis Ababa a few days early, before the Harar Roundtable Conference (figuratively speaking, there were no actual roundtable discussions, nor even a round table to be found). I spent the time cupping at an exporter’s office. Addis is where most coffee is warehoused, milled, traded, and prepared for export, which all occurs by rail to Djibouti. Addis Ababa (New Flower) is alternately a modern capital with a pleasant climate, and a smoggy, belching behemoth, traced with turnabouts and boulevards that might once have resembled the City Beautiful, turned now into its monstrous doppelganger. But in its crags it has many gems, waiting to be found. If Addis is a beast, at its belly is the Mercato, the open air market of turmoil and excitement. If you roam there long enough, you find there is a remarkable order to its crowded walkways and narrow dark passages. Just watch your backpack.

Imagine if you took the largest supermarket in the US, one that sells everything from food to spice to clothes to hardware to fresh vegetables to tourist kitsch, and you jumbled it with an outdoor swap meet that has used tires, chicken legs, Chinese tschotchky, fresh spices, stolen wrenches, baby dresses, custom tailoring, donkeys, rebar, pirated DVDs …and then you imagine a massive earthquake where all the goods tumble over and the roof caves in, and then a horde of enterprising people charge in and take over 8 foot wide sections as individual shops … say, just the hooded sweatshirts, or just the mustard+ketchup, then … they all go trade with the adjacent stalls so each aisle has roughly the same offerings, but arranged in such a heterogeneous way that they look like unique offerings, well, that’s kind of like the Mercato in Addis. It’s quite overwhelming. I have been here 3 times, and I feel that I have seen so little of this city that I have not really been here at all.

Flash forward to an assembling tribe of blanched and mildly uncomfortable Faranji (foreigners) assembling at the Jupiter Hotel lobby to board massive buses for the tedious drive to Dire Dawa, near Harar. Last time I was here, 6 months prior, I flew there in 60 minutes. Now I steel myself against this 60 minutes x 10 drive, speeding down the two lane road from Addis, descending from the highest African capital to cross the arid Rift Valley, crawling the windy route up the other side through Asbe Tefari, Hirna, to the crossroad between Harar and Dire Dawa, then down to Dire. You are going to have to stop a few times. I suggest Awash, a town that is only truly Awash in a fine dust that coats everything. Note the nomadic Oromo herders of the area, note the amazing dry heat of at the depths of the Rift Valley, and note the lack of shade. Remarkably there is a river just as you leave town, with spectacular waterfalls not far away. If you can stand the heat, or are a dedicated birder, you may have the motivation to look around. Not me and my 38 friends on the buses. Things start to cool off as you climb up into Asbe Tefari, also called Chiro. Maybe you remember Sweet Maria’s donated money to a “dry toilet” (i.e. latrine) project at the Chiro Hospital? We will visit there later.

Why the big group? the buses? After all, I was here in Dire Dawa alone 6 months before and it was such a relief not to be in a group. Well, the Harar Roundtable seemed to pull them out of the woodwork. Maybe it was the few days of hotel paid by USAID, or the free (yet grueling) bus trip from Addis to Dire Dawa to Harar and back. Maybe it was just the comfort of group travel for first-timers to Ethiopia.

For me, I wanted to follow up on what I started months before; was it possible to produce better coffee in the Hararghe area? Or was it hopelessly mired in a “collector system,” in which coffee is traded from the farm at the end of the road to the collector station where the dirt road meets the pavement, and then traded again to the dry mill, and maybe even again to export? Can you possibly work at the farm-level to improve quality in such a system?

As it turns out, the conference was not a fluffy, insubstantial exchange that might go something like, “do we have the finest coffee in the world?” and we reply, “yes, you have the finest coffee in the world.” Such love fests happen, and in fact it doesn’t matter what your reply is, that is all some producers want to hear, and they WILL hear it no matter what you say. (Flash back to the Peru competition from late last year).

Ken Davids started it off with an incisive introduction to the faded reputation of Harar coffe. Willem Boot made strategic comments along the way to keep the discussion relevant and dialectical in nature. Jaime Duque from Colombia presented a model of research and improvement from the Qindio area that must have made the Harari exporters feel completely medieval. And the “guy from the Exchange,” the new Ethiopia coffee trading system that has the entire country, nay the entire coffee trade, all knotted up with anxiety, tried to present the logic of the new platform. More on that later.

A small explanation: the best coffees of Harar are from the Eastern areas where, for better or worse, they pound the hell out of the dried pods, the jenfel, to extract the green seeds. There is a lot of skill in this method, and only once Phil Anacker and I actually tried it could we see there is a centrifugal rotation of the coffe from top to bottom of the mortar that prevents over-pounding damage to the bean. We, of course, could not master this action, much to the amusement of the women who are so skilled at it.

In August I had an idea, to buy coffee in discrete lots by cupping the arrivals of each Izusu truck as they queue up at the Harar auction house, the Coffee Liquoring Unit. Cupping those lots alongside the CLU cuppers, I had found wildly different levels of quality, since each truck represents a unique collection point in East or West Hararghe. In general, the better, higher-grown, true longberry coffees come from the East.

(Ironically, there is no coffee grown in Harar itself, nor in the direct area of Harar … nor is any coffee traded or milled in Harar. Dire Dawa is where all the mills are.) Cupping the “trucks lots” isn’t much of a quality improvement program, but it seemed do-able. Little did I know that Rashid was already thinking of implementing a raised-bed drying program, something that certainly does improve quality at the farm level.

Max at Royal Coffee suggested the idea, but Rashid got the ball rolling. Paired with instructions to the farmers to harvest only ripe, red coffee cherry, this could mean a serious attempt to control the inconsistency problem with Harar coffees, and realize the potential of this great dry-processed origin. Raised beds use both sun and air to dry coffee, and provided they are well-made, and the coffee cherry is spread in a thin layer, they decrease drying time and dry more evenly than laying coffee on the ground.

Rashid is pragmatic, so he chose a small area for the pilot project, a valley and town called Choma. It is a fairly remote location in East Hararghe, where you depart from the main paved road near Hirna, descend to the Galeta River, climb the other side until you see the coffee trees stop (at around 2050 meters) and climb a little more to the town of Mesela.

I have been here once before, eaten wonderful fried breads made by the local Ogsadey collector, Mr Muhammed, and his Yemeni wife, and sampled the local honey (fantastic!) Mesela is very high, above the coffee line at 2500 meters or so, with its nearby peak reaching 3000 meters.

To get to Choma we would continue past where we stopped on my last trip, to the very end of the road, down into another valley, descending into proper coffee-growing altitudes once again. In fact, we noticed quite soon that the road was more suitable for donkey that cars, and was made by villagers. I was with Wendy DeJong, from Tony’s Coffee, a great travel buddy, and Phil Anacker from Flying Goat, not far from us in California. Of course, Rashid was proudly driving behind the wheel of his crazy-mixed-up Brazilian “Dirtcruiser” (or something like that). It’s a Landrover knock-off that he picked up brand new in the duty-free zone of Djbouti for a mere $5,000 USD! Rashid has a way to bargain down anyone beyond the point of reason.

I admit it felt about as close to being a celebrity as I will ever get. Rural Ethiopian people are so genuinely excited to have Faranji visit their remote towns. Maybe it is because Ethiopia was never a true colony. Who knows. There were only 15 raised beds installed this year in the Choma area, and they weren’t ready to use until the crop has half over. Still, it seems like a grand idea on several levels. Most importantly, it is good for coffee quality. Dry-processed coffee is in pods, the whole dried cherry intact, called “jenfel” locally. It takes a lot of heat, air, and time to speed the moisture out of the jenfel coffee; if it does not happen fast enough, musty, moldy flavors emerge and taint the green coffee seed inside. Not only does the raised bed dry better, it dries faster, cutting the time from 10 days on average to 7. That means more coffee can be picked and dried when it is optimal, rather than harvesting coffee too late for lack of drying space or, worst of all, harvesting coffee and laying it on the dirt to dry. Perhaps this is the reason that all the farmers wanted the new drying beds, which is great… if farmers are requesting it, and it makes things easier for them, then it is going to get used.

Gathering under a tree, were offered some chat (the mildly stimulating leafy shrub, which makes you feel more like a goat than in any way ‘mind-altered”), and of course some coffee. The amazing thing about traditional pan-roasted Ethiopian coffee, at least in these rural settings, is that it tastes quite good! That may sound obvious, but the more you travel in coffee the more you realize this fact: if you want a truly awful cup of coffee, go to a place where they grow it. Why? The worst coffee is held back from export for local consumption. Remember, coffee is a cash crop. The garden vegetables, fruits, spices, those are all fantastic in producing regions. But the coffee is the pits. Add to that the pan-roasting dynamic; pure conduction roasting (not ideal) on a charcoal stove with some coffee entering the previously theoretical “third crack” while others lag behind and barely hit first crack. It makes a fussy coffee roaster person squirm to see it.

But the cup is actually quite good! I could come up with reasons why that is (varied levels of roast form a melange of flavors etc), but I can think of many more reasons it should be awful. Then again, there’s always “traveler’s tongue”, the same distortion that makes you think Kraft Mac and Cheese is Manna from Heaven if you are backpacking in the Sierras for a week. This same principle might also be at work when you woke up at 5:30am, banged your head a few dozen times on the roll cage of a Dirtcruiser 4×4 on the bumpy ride to Choma, Hararghe, Ethiopia.
I had but one Sweet Maria’s Soccer Ball left, but of course it had to go to the school at Choma, with it’s bumpy dirt pitch and crooked Eucalyptus goal posts bound together by sisal fibers. I imagined their current soccer ball couldn’t be much better. Or at least now they can play 2 games at once.

A long and hurried drive back to Dire Dawa to catch the flight to Addis ensued, but the Brazilian wonder that got us to Choma and back in great time was not up for the trip … the brakes were not working well. Thankfully, Rashid failed to mention that on the steep decent we took from 3000 meters at Mesela back down to the basin at the Galeti river bed. Knowing wouldn’t have helped.

So we bid farewell to Rashid and hopped in the car of his local mill manager for a 4 hour ride back. We did it in 3, and like last time I was here, the monkeys at the airport were there to meet and greet, although they looked oddly drunk to me. Is this not an Islamic place? Were the monkeys fermenting their own bananas around back? This mystery would need to wait. There was a plane to catch.

Part 2: South of Addis: Sidama, Yirga Cheffe

So you want to go see the coffee in Southern Ethiopia? Just hop in a car and take ET 4 out of Addis headed Southwest. Take care not to miss the right turn onto ET 6 at Mojo. Note that you are descending from the highest capital city in Africa, averaging around 2600 meters, into the basin in which Ethiopia is being torn in half, geologically, that is. Proceed past Lake K’o K’a, the first of a series of lakes in the Rift Valley you will pass, making a mental note that when Ethiopia and all points south in the Rift Valley are indeed divided in two, you will be driving along the floor of a narrow sea, something akin to the Sea of Cortez separating Baja California from mainland Mexico. Passing Gogetti, and skirting Lake Ziway to the left, you will split Lake Abiyata and Lake Langano down the middle. Be sure to stay on the 6 at the crossroads town of Shashemene.

Soon you will reach Awasa, a good place to stop. I suggest the restaurant beside Hotel Pinna, although you might be tempted by the cleverly named Get Smart Hotel. Do not make jokes with the locals like “Awasa up, dude!” because they will not get it. Awasa has the best open market in the area each Thursday, but they sometimes maintain a rotating schedule where the exact day of the week changes. Next stop is Yirg Alem, and if you did not make reservations at the superbly special Aregash Lodge a few months ago, just keep on driving. It’s full. Next is Dila, a bustling business town with as much charm as Awasa. Soon you will arrive in the town of Yirga Cheffe, of little consequence except that it’s name is known worldwide by coffee folks. Nobody seems to have told the locals except that there is a giant Jebena (traditional Ethiopian coffee pot) mounted on top of a nearby building. Might I suggest lunch at the lovely Lesiwon Hotel? If you must stay here, definitely check the room first. Lesiwon is home to the first albino cockroach I can remember seeing, which I really did not mind. Unlike in Harar, this cockroach was just roaming around, rather than swimming in the coffee I was actively drinking.

Hailat Berhane Berhane was along, a man with intimate knowledge of the area (he was a founding employee of the Sidama Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, SCFCU), now working for Trabocca BV, the exporter we use. I was with a small group of roasters, including Phil from Flying Goat Coffee, Scott Merle from Batdorf, Larry the owner of Batdorf, Jim from Muddy Dog, Mike from Coffee Klatch, Sherry and Mikami from Taiwan. We stopped at Fero Co-operative in Sidama first.

(Sidamo is the coffee origin; Sidama is the geographic area, and the language; and Oromia is the political district. Spelling is a fluid and mutable thing here, especially since it is all phonetically translated, sometimes from Sidama to English, Sidama to Amharic to English, Oromiya to Sidama to Ahmaric … you get the idea).

Our “Special Selection” dry process Sidamo has been from Fero Co-op for 2 years, but I was very stumped to find they had bought a mechanical dryer for their coffee. These are not uncommon in Central America, for periods where you cannot patio dry due to rains. But in Ethiopia? And for dry-process coffee? What was the fuel source? Chop down the woods around us? Has anyone ever used a mechanical dryer for DP coffees before? I have never heard of it, not even in Brazil, the Mt. Olympus of coffee mechanization. Was I just misunderstanding them? We did not get to see the beast, because it was still packed in a shipping container across the road from the mill, but I will be keeping a watchful eye on Fero DP coffees with this in mind.

What can be said about the Aregash lodge that does not sound patronizingly overblown? Aregash is on the outskirts of Yirg Alem, owned by Gregori and Marika. They are of Greek and Italian origins, with a thick slab of Ethiopia heritage as well. I believe Gregori nears 70 years, and was born on this land, his father’s coffee farm. They have a fantastic herb and vegetable garden, which contributes to the Ethiopian, Sidama and Italian meals they serve in the restaurant. All buildings and bungalows are traditional round Sidama reed houses. It’s quite a respite from the local hotels (although I still would like to check out the Get Smart Hotel). I have to add a sentence about their 5 dogs too, the ones who occasionally battle the local hyena who visit each night around dinnertime. They are definite candidates for our upcoming 2010 “Dogs of Coffee” pinup calendar.

We had dinner at Aregash, but since they were filled up with German birders, we had to stay a night in the dorms of the local Vo-Tech school: “Furra Institute of Development Studies in Yirg Alem.” Okay, the rooms were fine. But I could feel in the pit of my grumbling stomach I was getting a bit of “Harar’s revenge”. Everything was shut down so I couldn’t get a bottled Ambo water to keep hydrated, and worst of all, I locked myself into my 3rd story room with no way to get out. Huh? Well, I left the key on the outside of the lock, and once closed, the handle just spun around uselessly, making cruel mockery of any attempt to jimmy it open. My cell phone with the Ethiopian SIM card couldn’t make any connection, so I was stuck, turning in bed all night, nuclear explosions in my belly, no water, really screwed. I reached Hailat Berhane Berhane eventually, around 8 am and 100 phone calls later.

Sick as a dog, I refused to stay in bed.

We transferred luggage to the Aregash, sweet Aregash, and headed out to Yirga Cheffe. I got the front seat all day (some say the illness was a deception – hah!) We saw the wet-process parchment coffee on the drying beds at Belekara Co-operative, then headed along to Harfusa Primary Co-op, a member of the Yirga Cheffe Union.

They are using a new Pinhalense demucilage machine, what they call an “eco-pulper” here because it uses about 6% of the water that a traditional pulper needs. Pollution on the local watersheds, all feeders to Lake Awassa, is a big issue. In Central America, water pollution from coffee mill effluent has largely been addressed through strict enforcement, and because the coffee buyers in the US and Europe demanded it. Mills there have ponds to capture the water that is tainted with fermented coffee fruit, and most recycle water for the fermentation tanks. But they use so much water to begin with … and with heavy rains those filter ponds can overflow. So an “eco-pulper” is a great thing, but its effect on the very refined flavors of wet-processed Yirga Cheffe coffees remains to be seen.

Our next stop was Koke Co-operative, where they were hand-sorting the parchment coffee, and still had dry-process cherry pods on the raised beds. The jenfel (pods) had a good clean smell, rose-like, which hints at effective drying. It’s definitely a coffee I would like to cup.

The next stop on the Yirga Cheffe junket was Konga Co-op, where they had set up a small cupping, very small. It was 2 coffees, I believe. But it was a great chance for the local cuppers to talk with roasters from the US and share thoughts on the coffees. I made sure to give them each a Sweet Maria’s cupping spoon. (NB: more crass commercial product placement from Sweet Maria’s! No, seriously, one of the main reasons we make this schwag is to give it to those who can truly use it, and feel honored to receive it. It’s an acknowledgment of what they do, what we (cuppers) do, whether it is Oakland or Oromia. These guys were stoked …as we say in California.)

A few more KMs down the road and many more gruesome road signs later, we were at Chelba. Chelba, oh Chelba. Raggedy old Chelba. This is a private mill that is now owned by the largest coffee exporter from Ethiopia, Abdullah Bagersh. It was a little shocking, the equipment in a poor state, the workers awkwardly shy. It had transferred ownership not too long ago, and maybe in time it will improve. I noticed at some of the Unions (which are nearly all organic and fair trade certified) conditions were nearly as shabby as some of the private mills, so I don’t feel any conclusions can be drawn.

After a day of fasting (to calm my stomach) and much-needed rest at Aregash, we hit the road early to visit the Jimma Coffee Research Station, not in Jimma, but the local branch in Awada.

It is a demonstration farm, not like the central research facility which truly is out west, in Djimma. (Djimma, Jima, Jimma, see what I mean?). One interesting feature of the relation between research, plant husbandry and the small farmers in Ethiopia is the cultivar selections. Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) and Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) are real problems here, but unlike Kenya, chemical treatment is not used, but rather the planting of disease-resistant cultivars.

Now, considering that some of the world’s worst coffee mistakes have been committed by researchers enforcing the cultivation of bad-tasting disease-resistant plants, this makes the hair on any coffee taster’s back stand on end (oh, and we DO have hairy backs you know). But early on they had trouble with coffee types they transplanted from Djimma to Harar, Keffa (Kaffa), Sidama, Gedio, etc. So, as the story goes, they decided to create local coffee gardens, which select local plant types to find those most resistant to CLR and CBD. In this way, they also preserve the amazing diversity of the spontaneous Ethiopian coffee genotype. So all the plants here are local selections, and most of what is demonstrated is pruning techniques to increase yield. The fact is that many Ethiopian farmers in the East and South just don’t prune, and their native, rangy, tall Typica plants simply fail to produce as much as they could. There is a lot to improve in Ethiopia, and still the coffees are so damn good.

This was Sidamo day, and we started by visiting the privately owned Komato mill, a nice set-up with a very effecting water filtration system and recycling pump. They have their own cultivar garden there, with the cleverly named 74110 local type (maybe it is the zip code as well?) SMS also owns our favorite Korate (also Koratie) mill, which is at a higher altitude and more remote. But this is cupping time in Ethiopia, perfect to taste the new crop lots before export, but not to see any harvesting or milling of coffee. That is basically over, except for the bit of cherry we saw drying and re-sorting of parchment coffee here and there. Anyway, Korate was completely shut down at this point and all the coffee was out of the warehouse, so there was little to see.

We continued to Kebado town (near where our nice wet-process lot came from, the Almaz Zeleke mill). This area is called Daarate, the Darra (Dara) Woreda. From here you can see the Haile Selassie mill as well, where some really nice lots are coming from.

We headed to Shilcho Co-operative Union, part of SCFCU. They were ready for us. All the co-operative officers were there, armed with pads of paper, and lots to say. I love co-ops, but I admit, whenever I hear someone start to say, “The structure of the co-operative is …” I glaze over. I am not an administrator or bureaucrat … let’s go look at the coffee, folks. What I did learn is that their fair trade premiums had been wisely invested toward improvements at the mill, that they had built 3 primary schools in member communities, provided electricity for 50% of member’s homes, and bought 3 cereal grain mills so members could mill their homegrown crops. Great stuff.

We moved on the Adem Bedane mill at Shilcho, near Tefri Kela town. It’s a private facility that has had good quality, and our Bonko dry-processed coffee comes from a hill across the way (sharing the area with the aforementioned Haile Selassie). At lunch at the pleasantly named Zereabruck Hotel in Aleta Wondo (Aleti Wondo), I couldn’t help but feel like the luckiest guy with a camera ever. Just outside town as we crossed a river, these kids who had been swimming in the pond, ran up to the car in their skivvies, and I had my camera ready to capture the amazing ingenuity of one, who strapped the door of a cassette deck to his face with rubber bands, as a diving mask. Amazing. It made me feel better that I missed the photo a moment before of the role-reversing teenager aping the tourists by snapping a picture of us with a large, well-ripened avocado held up to his face, camera-like. Can’t get them all.

We hit Titira co-operative union with more energy than before, a place where they had also installed a new eco-pulper, with the monetary aid of Trabocca BV, and had done quite a tidy job putting it in too. You can’t argue with the environmental principals. And in other countries (Costa Rica, namely) the results are proven. We’ll see how they play out in terms of the cup.

We were winding down, on the homestretch, another Aregash night, a sad farewell to the best food in Southern Ethiopia, and a drive home through the dry and dusty Rift Valley. We stopped off to see monkey and bird life, and a lunch by Lake Langano (recommended). Back in Addis the next day, we checked out the dry mill where Trabocca processes coffee, something like Green Coffee Agro Industries, whatever. The point is, this was an amazing mill, with all new German equipment … state of the art, really. The vacuum packaging line needs work, but that’s a different story.

The After Word: Thoughts on Travelogues. Word!

So here I am in Oakland, jet-lag subsiding rapidly, typing another travelogue, thinking of all the pitfalls of this genre. I remember in Sulawesi we visited a mill, and they proudly had a Starbucks Black Apron coffee bag on the wall, their supposed top-of-the-line selections. On the back was the one-paragraph travel note about bumping down dirt roads, stopping in small towns where children gather round excitedly, and, in a moment of extreme Chutzpah, the “coffee taster” remarks that the 4×4 driver turned to him and said, “You know, this is as far as the National Geographic people went.” Wow, what a load of BS. But the joke in my mind ever since has been along those lines, as if the National Geographic people had gone all about and made chalk lines in the road with the note “this is as far as we went.” The gauntlet has been thrown I guess, (at least in some people’s minds.)

I am reminded too of the godawful book ironically titled “God in a Cup”, that romances the traveling ways of 3 “coffee guys” as they gallop around meeting coffee farmers and living the life extreme. I paraphrase, but the “groupie-like” voice of the author writes about “how the coffee guys will do anything for great coffee, riding 6 hours down dirt roads, and then sleeping in a hammock.” At that point the book went into the recycle bin. But admittedly, romancing the story is so easy to do … and you know it’s what (some) readers want. But lordy how ABSOLUTELY BORING it is to fall victim to such cliches, and it begs the question … why even take a trip if you are just going to fulfill all your ridiculous pre-conceptions of what a trip to coffee origins “should be”? Why not stay home and download all the typical photos from Google Images or Flickr or something.

Remember so many years back the Kodak photo spots, where they painted the footprints at the exact location (say, at a vista in the Grand Canyon) where you should stand and take the picture with your Kodak camera? So everyone ends up with the same shot, and remarkably it looks just like the postcard you can buy at the gift shop. I am not speaking just of images, but of the “story we tell ourselves” about what we do, as travelers, as coffee buyers. I don’t believe that, simply as a matter of will, you can cast aside all preconceptions and ideologies and “see the world as it is.”

Actually, I believe the opposite, that you cannot do so, period. But I suppose a compromise result is to take off the Fedora and Indiana Jones jacket, try to be aware of the usual crud (going to exotic locales, sleeping in hammocks, suffering a bumpy road, going beyond the N.G. people) and keeping your eyes and ears open for the unexpected. That, after all, is the joy of travel. Not some egotistic, self-fulfilling mission, but to encounter something unanticipated and new, or at least “new to you”, and enjoy it. I suppose that is where all my photos of signs and products and plastic mannequins and other totally unrelated stuff come from. It’s the pleasure of difference, of acknowledging that you are somewhere different, appreciating that difference, even in the small and mundane (or crass and commercial) of the workaday world.

I also like the fact that, as an out-of-towner, I must look like a buffoon to the locals, taking pictures of ___what? What is that crazy Faranj doing? Still, I can read what I write and see how it teeters on the brink of being everything I dislike about travel narratives. I am not above the nature photo, the “purrty” coffee flowers, a few birds here and there, and an occasional poser picture of myself. Nonetheless, what I write usually seems too boring to rise to the level of “adventure”, unless your idea of adventure is locking yourself in an Ethiopian college dorm room and being sick all night.

Word after the After Word:

One thing is clear, that the crop is small in all areas. And the new Coffee Exchange that replaces the Auctions, called the ECX, has everyone confused. (http://www.ecx.com.et/) I am not even going to try to explain it here, but the consequence is that the entire coffee supply chain is constipated. Nothing is moving; co-operatives and private mills aren’t delivering coffee, the Addis Ababa dry mills are not running, and nothing is shipping. That’s not good for the coffee either, to sit in parchment when it is ready for hulling, sorting, and export. So we’ll see how it plays out in the next couple weeks, which are critical. The exchange was designed for grains more than Specialty coffee. In fact, the ECX directors claimed that Specialty levels of coffee make up only 2% of Ethiopia coffee exports and did not merit their own trading system. But that is improbable; 2%? It’s at least 20%, perhaps more toward 40%. Their basis is dead wrong in my opinion. What was wrong with the old auction system? Well, it was full of tacit agreements between bidders that, if a coffee lot “belonged” to a particular exporter, others would not bid. But most often, this meant that the exporter was working directly with a source, had made investments on the farm level, or in the least had a long relationship with the producer, was probably helping with wet-milling, was transporting the coffee in their own trucks, and was probably dry-milling the coffee at their own facility. So they had a “right” to ownership. If these illicit non-compete “agreements” were an issue, they should have been formalized by the new system with an above-the-table mechanism to pass coffee around the auction. With the new system, only co-operative Unions and direct farm-to-client sales can bypass the auction, leaving all these new hybrid private mills / private co-ops and all the aforementioned “exporters who source at or near farm level” screwed. These are the people who are transforming the landscape of Ethiopian coffee exports by allowing buyers to form solid direct relationships with growers, to have new transparent pricing schemes, to work toward new levels of quality improvement with repeatable results year to year. The ECX benefits old-style exporters who simply trade coffee, who buy and sell container-load lots and don’t ever need to leave Addis to do their business. That is “coffee as commodity” and no matter how you dress it up, it does not suit the way most quality-oriented coffee buyers do business these days. So for now we are crossing our fingers that there is some way for private mills and others to bypass the Exchange, and quickly, or all our projects in Ethiopia coffee (including the Choma raised-beds in Harar) are doomed to be. -Tom 3/11/09

So you want to see all the photos? Well, you can’t. But I did select a mere 450 or so, with captions, and here they are:

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