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Ethiopia: production is growing again in the birthplace of coffee.


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, coffee as we know it might never have reached the world market. Even more exciting to coffee lovers and industry stakeholders today is that in the last five years Africa's biggest coffee producer has gotten even bigger and the volumes reaching export markets across the world are steadily expanding. In the first of a special new four-part series by Tea & Coffee Trade Journal's veteran coffee writer, Maja Wallengren, takes an in-depth look at the growth of Ethiopia's coffee industry and what the latest efforts from new market policies and an ambitious renovation plan mean for its future. Yet, 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. By Maja Wallengren All photos and images courtesy of Maja Wallengren unless otherwise noted.

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 some time between the 6th and 8th centuries, 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 was then 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 why Ethiopia became the birthplace of 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, located in the town of the same name. Having already tracked down about 6,000 different Arabica varieties within the boundaries of Ethiopia alone, Kufa said the research center "still has 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 third significant boom in Ethiopia.


The first surge in global coffee production took place between the 10th and 12th centuries 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. Beginning about five years ago, the world was again able to witness a boom in coffee production from Ethiopia.


Investment in Production

"Coffee production is definitively increasing, that is unquestionable," said Yilma Gebrekidan, the general manager of the Ethiopian Coffee Growers Association in the capital of Addis Ababa. "Our growers have really done a fantastic job in the last few years and one cannot ignore all the new coffee that is starting to come into production. Everywhere you go today you will see new trees," said Gebrekidan.

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.

In 2008, the reforms led to the creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) where coffee for the export market is traded in the afternoon and coffee for the local market is sold through morning sessions. The opening up to a more modern trading format seeks to both guarantee a higher level of transparency in the Ethiopian coffee market, while at the same time also helps establish more direct lines of trade for the producing sector, analysts said.

The trade and market policies aside, most industry stakeholders believe that the perhaps greatest benefit of the market reforms is that new private investment is starting to find its way back into the sectors both small holder and large privately held estates. This is injecting some much-needed cash into what less than a decade ago was an ailing industry at the brink of collapse.

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 (production) to the year-ago period but compares to average output between four million and five 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," Hussein Agraw, President of Ethiopia's Coffee Exporters Association (ECEA), Addis Ababa.

The ECEA has pegged total exports in the new 2014-15 cycle to reach a record of at least 3.9 million bags, up from the close to 3.2 million bags exported in the last 2013-14 cycle, said Agraw.


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. "When we look at what has been planted, both through the renovation of existing coffee farms and new areas, Ethiopia should increase its annual coffee production to between at least 9 or 10 million bags in the next five years," said Gebrekidan.

From Kaffa to Coffee

No more is the Ethiopian coffee boom visible than at the very source of coffee in the Southeastern province of Kaffa, the province that lent 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 more than 1,000 years ago.


Different variations of the story exist, but most agree that a young goat herder 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.

Known as "forest coffee" the trees here grow up to 15 meters tall, have long ultra-narrow leaves and are nothing like the commercially developed Arabica varieties that produce most of the world's Arabica coffee today. Cuppers agree that the flavor is among the richest in the world with a powerful body, balanced acidity, extraordinary smooth aroma and a plethora of flavor attributes that explode across the palate and leaves a long-lasting aftertaste.

"In 2008, production in the Kaffa Zone was only about 400,000 bags but at the time a political decision was taken to turn this area into a market center and the government has been providing training to farmers on how to implement new technology in addition to providing seeds and extension services on farming practices," said Kassahun Taye, manager at the Kaffa Regional Agriculture Office in the town of Bonga. In the last three years, the land cultivated with coffee has been expanded and is on target to reach the project goal of 260,346 hectares [of coffee] by the end of 2015, up 45 percent from the 2012 number of 179,202 hectares, he said.

With vast areas of undeveloped agricultural land still available for farming, Kaffa province is leading the production boom in Ethiopia. But today, renovation efforts are reported out of most of the equally famous Ethiopian coffee regions including Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Harar, Jimma and Limmu.


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, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Ethiopia from agriculture to car tires.

"The Limmu Coffee Farm is made up of six farms that in total have over 12,000 hectares of land of which almost 8,000 hectares are cultivated with coffee and in production," said Kemal Mohammed, operations manager for Horizon Plantations. "When we took over the farm a little over a year ago total production was only around 83,000 bags of coffee but we expect production to at least double in the next five years thanks to the inputs, renovation and agricultural practices we are applying," Mohammed told Tea & Coffee Trade Journal during a visit to Limmu. He added that the social importance of the Limmu farm, which Horizon bought together with the Bebeka farm in Kaffa for about $80 million, were a big part of the decision to buy the farms and get involved in coffee production.


"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 Mohammed.

From the rural hills of Jimma and Kaffa to the middle of the streets in the bustling capital of Addis Ababa, coffee culture as well as economic development is growing fast. For a country that less than 10 years ago was still rated among the world's two to five poorest, the visible improvement of real social development and economic progress is a welcome sign of development starting to take hold in Ethiopia. And just as it was in the earliest beginnings, coffee drinking continues to be regarded as one of the ultimate pleasures of daily life.

Villagers in Ethiopia say the act of drinking coffee is transformational "as each cup changes the inner persona of the one who drinks it." The world of coffee will be happy to watch as Ethiopian producers continue to increase production of some of the world's most famous and finest beans.

Amesege'nallo Ethiopia--Thanks for bringing coffee to the world!

Maja Wallengren has been writing about coffee for more than 20 years from over 40 coffee producing countries across South-East Asia, East and West Africa and across Latin America. She can be reached at:
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Title Annotation:ETHIOPIA
Comment:Ethiopia: production is growing again in the birthplace of coffee.(ETHIOPIA)
Author:Wallengren, Maja
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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