Oh Africa, Brave Africa

Usually we talk about Origin when it comes to coffee. “Going to Coffee Origin” has been said so many times by people with dreamy eyes, and as many times probably, voices has been raised that we should call it by the origin it is, since coffee comes from such various origins in the world, with so different opportunities and obsticles surrounding it. When it comes to Ethiopia though, it isn’t too far fetched to actually call it Coffee Origin, since not only the story of coffee, but likely the story of mankind, started here.

I am always weary when it comes to coffee trips. A lot of times, I fear they are publicity stunts where roasters go to a farm, put a t-shirt on a farmer, and takes a picture. There have been outcries on Twitter from time to time, where competitors have criticized each other for “stealing their farmer”. This kind of post colonialism is symptomatic for a very young culture, travelling in the footsteps of much older problems. Hell, even the gifted Rimbaud ended up being a coffee trader in Harar, becoming good friends with the grandfather of Haile Selasse (many Westerners have become friends with prominent Ethiopians, much due to their incredible hospitality I’d say). Still, Rimbaud and his contemporaries were probably no saints when it came to the trade.

Having the opportunity to go to Ethiopia with Da Matteo, invited by Nordic Approach together with Joanna from Drop Coffee, Ralf from The Barn and Christian of Da Matteo, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. These three roasters are involved with a project called One Farmer, One Roaster, where they’ve been working closely with Nordic Approach to get closer understanding of the coffee they work with. Now was the time to see the fruits of their joint efforts. And my own very first trip to Africa!

Seife picked us up at the airport with two drivers, and immediately we went south, straight towards Siddamo and Yirgacheffe. For someone grown up in the 70′s, the prejudice of Ethiopia being poor and starving was met with surprise. Rarely have I seen such lush landscape. Even California seemed dried out in comparison. After lunch half way there, watching monkeys play in the garden, we finally arrived at Fero washing station, in Siddamo. And what a start! At this site, we basically got a crash course in what happens to the beans as they arrive at the station, carried to the sifon, where it is sorted and pulped, and then soaking in tanks, until the mucilage is washed off and becomes fertilizer, and the coffees dries in the sun, and i sorted again. All this took place basically at once, so we really got a birds eye view of the standard procedures. The elevation, the hard sun and the typical tourist behavior forgetting to drink lots of water, made this visit kind of dizzy for me. Did I hear some of the people call “Nespresso” after me? Not sure….  Arriving kinda late at the Aregash Lodge was a nice relief, if only for quick dinner and a brief nights sleep.

Early the next morning, we got up and went into the core of Siddamo, which is Yirgacheffe. Here we met up with one of the local producers, who took us to several of his washing stations and dry mills. The first being Durmuso, a beautiful site with a steep setting for sorting dried coffees. Just next door was some of the coffee trees where Durmuso got their coffees from. It looked very neat and well kept. Then we went even higher up in altitude to another of this producers washing stations. The roads were poor and steep, but nature stunning. Here was our first encounter with a truck stuck, in dry mud. When we after lunch went with another producer to Wote and Kochere, it started to rain. On the way back, a huge machine was stuck in the mud and couldn’t go anywhere. And we had invited the farmers from the project to arrive for dinner, just two hours from now. Finally the road was cleared, and we made way to the hotel in Yirgacheffe town.

Here we met the farmers from our project. They were accompanied by representatives from the Yirga Union, who also spoke English rather well, which was a relief. As a token of our appreciation, we brewed the coffee we had roasted in Sweden traditionally and served them (and told them not to use sugar), which was very interesting for us to taste as well. Then dinner, and a ceremony where Nordic Approach handed over money to these farmers, designated for using at their farms. The look on their faces where full of surprise and appreciation!

Closing the night with drinks together with fellow travellers that had assembled in the bar, some interesting people who invited us to visit their coffee shop in Addis Abeba, which we did later in the week. The next morning was probably as exciting for us, as this evening had been for the farmers.

First stop was the farm of Olke Birre, a man dressed in a fantastic outfit and proudly sporting his medal for best coffee at some regional competition I thought (link offers proper explanation, which was different from what I learnt). From what I assumed the whole of Ethiopia seems full of what is explained as heirloom, however Olkes farm was mainly made up with two varietals; dega and krume (krume being the berries with little whiskers at the bottom of them). After given the tour of the properties, we were treated with coffee ground and brewed traditionally, served with cookies. It always feels slightly weird (and somewhat colonial) to eat and drink while being watched by workers standing around you, but the coffee was good, and I suspect they served their good stuff, and not the 3d graded coffee they have to sell for the domestic market.

Next stop was Workye Shallo, one of very few female farmers in Ethiopia, who had just gotten in fresh cherries that her staff were sorting as we arrived. Again a very beautiful setting, but we managed to sneak out before we had more coffee to drink. Instead we took a short cut through the neighbouring washing station, Konga Co-op, enjoying a spectacular view, before we headed to Mesele Haille, which is the farmer Da Matteo have had the pleasure of roasting coffee from.

Again, an impressive farm, and as the rest of the farmers we visited, there were ecological principles with their own compost. Sitting down with Mesele Haille and his crew in a guest hut, being served coffee from his wife, we had to ask which one was the better roaster; da Matteo roaster Christian or his own wife. The answer came quickly – his wife! In quality I’d beg to differ, but the love between them was honest! His wife looked very happy when she heard his response.

Another day was coming to an end. We drove to Awassa to stay at what seemed to be a nice hotel, but left me bitten by fleas. We visited the bar/disco next door and saw the first non coffee white people we’d seen so far. The following day we were heading back to Addis Abeba. After seen the chain starting where coffee was picked, carried to the washing station, washed and dried, we were now on our way to the end of the line.

In Addis, the natural next step for our coffee was the hulling. When the coffee is dried, it still holds a thin layer, which is again processed in the city as a last step of it becoming evaluated at the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange. The hulling station we visited, was owned by the exporter that Nordic Approach were in contact with. To get an idea of what happens next after hulling, we were shown the intricate system where coffee is both sorted from screening and manually. Normally, this would take a day. Seife had been there last season for about three weeks, in order to get top top top quality as a result. We also got to visit Yirga Unions new localities, as well as Bunna Board where export quality is determined or declined. The hulling station at Bunna Board was not anywhere near the quality of the private exporters. The cupping facilities where nowhere near another exporter with which we cupped some new coffees. My assumption is that speciality coffee, and the kind of international interest speciality offers their top tier market, results in investing in quality equipment and meet the expected Western standards. Pretty much like the hotels. If you’d go to a hotel with lots of Westerners, you’ll have quality to meet the demand.

Overall, this was probably one of the most interesting, and for me personally important eye opener, I’ve experienced since I started in coffee. Even though I’ve been to a coffee farm once in Australia (the renowned Mountain Top Estate), going to what probably is the Origin of coffee, as well as get a first hand glimpse of what it is to trade in one of the most complex trading systems in coffee, I realize the hard work that Nordic Approach and other coffee sourcers have on a daily basis. The sort of romantic idea, the one that goes back to Rimbaud, to go and befriend an Ethiopian farmer and come home with some coffee, was pretty much a shattered illusion from day one. How could I, as a coffee roaster, have time to do this all by myself? And constantly make sure that the quality remain intact and increasing even? The idea of what people call “direct trade” was also something I couldn’t really grasp. Would it even be possible in a country like Ethiopia?

So, I was a coffee tourist, with a first row view of Morten and Seife conducting their business as usual, paying visits to important places, seeing them keeping in touch with for instance Technoserve (that visited Da Matteo at 2011 years Nordic Roaster Forum, doing a lecture), which was very interesting and impressive! I’d say we got a glimpse of the work they do. Then there are other countries, different tasks during other parts of the season etc. I am very grateful towards Nordic Approach for letting us witness this first hand, and getting us somewhat closer to an idea what coffee sourcing is about. And I’d love to do this again, and again, and again… and who knows? Maybe one day, I won’t be a coffee tourist anymore, but someone actually being able to make a difference. Like these guys!

NP: Toto Africa

Disclaimer: Going to Ethiopia was my first visit to Africa. As some readers might know, there has been some controversy regarding Swedish journalists being held prisoners, accused of dealing with terrorists. I personally thought this was a rather insulated happening, and thought Ethiopia safe. I was more concerned of landing in Cairo to be honest. A couple of nights ago, I was contacted by a friend whose boyfriend works in Addis Abeba. There had been recent terrorist attacks, but not made very public. Just a couple of days after we left Ethiopia, another bomb went off.

I just want to say that during my stay, I never felt unsafe, people were super friendly and noone seemed scared or afraid, or even slightly nervous. But, there seems to be a slight issue with the government keeping things under the carpet. Not sure why. As I first went through Addis Abeba, the sight reminded me of Alanya in Turkey, when I visited back in 1995. It was all under construction still, but some pockets were up to Western standard. Now it seems as if it’s the new Canary Islands. I think Addis Abeba has the possibility of becoming a booming tourist magnet within a couple of years, it’s a great city, a vibrant and friendly culture, and I recommend anyone to go! However, learning about these bombs that I never heard of before or after, was kind of a small shock.

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2 thoughts on “Oh Africa, Brave Africa

  1. greenman says:

    Thanks for sharing your fantastic experience Jesper!

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