Habtamu Bogale is a farmer who takes a great sense of pride in knowing “every inch” of the thick highland forests of Keffa. It is hard to challenge, for he grew up in Keffa Zone, South Western Regional State, where he and his peers spent their youth watching parents grow coffee.
The legend of coffee is in Habtamu and his friends’ favour. Their native land birthed the word “coffee”, which first entered the English lexicon in 1582, from the Dutch Koffie. The Dutch got the word from the Turkish “Kahveh”, who copied it from the Arabic “Qahwah”. It was the Arab traders (perhaps slaves) who borrowed the word from Kaffa, earning the area the reputation as the “cradle of coffee.” It is easier for Habtamu to relate to the legend of coffee; a goatherd over a millennium ago discovered the cherries after his animals chewed a few and began acting unnaturally active. The boy was tempted to share the goats’ elation and tried a few of the bitter cherries himself.
The idiom that “legend remains victorious in spite of history” echoes in Keffa, one of the country’s leading coffee-producing areas. The cherries are an indispensable source of income to thousands of households that depend on coffee to support their livelihoods. Habtamu’s parents had a living growing the cash crop on more than 30hct of land. As an adult, he followed in their footsteps and began farming coffee on 10hct of his own.
Still, Habtamu was crestfallen to find productivity on his farm low. The quality of coffee he grows was also not up to par.
“I remember the fruitless efforts I put into those years,” the 47-year-old farmer reflects.
For centuries, farmers like Habtamu have harvested coffee cherries from their backyard and the surrounding forests in Keffa Zone. But, they could only sell their hard-earned crops to local traders for domestic consumption at low prices. An estimated 15 million people in Ethiopia depend on coffee farming and trade to make a living.
“I used to sell a kilogram of coffee for less than five Birr,” Habtamu recalled.
It was hard to give up easily, though. Habtamu, his wife, and their five children depend on the farm. Unfazed, he continued to search for options.
Four years ago, he found what he was looking for. The cooperative he is a member of began sourcing coffee from farmers in the area and processing the crop using new and uncommon methods experts describe as “honey-processed coffee.” The red and ripe coffee cherries are picked and sorted before their skins and pulps are removed like other types of coffee, but mechanically. They are dried without washing off the sticky-sweet mucilage, hence honey-processed. The remaining amount of mucilage gives the coffee bean’s colour and character.
Honey-processed beans are stored without water, with less fermentation occurring, and not as much of the sugar in the bean is converted to acid. The beans are dry-milled to remove the parchment layers, sorted, graded, bagged, and shipped.
More than 64,000 smallholder farmers in Keffa harvested 3,713qtl of coffee on 600hct of land during the last harvest season. It was part of the 250,000qtl of coffee harvested on 23,000hct in the Southern region last year. Keffa Zone was part of the Southern Regional State until last year, and before it was integrated into the newly-constituted South-Western Regional State through a plebiscite.
The southern regional state trails behind the Oromia Regional State, where farmers produced 2.2 million quintals of the cash crop on 240,000hct over the same period. The 5.8 million quintals produced countrywide placed Ethiopia as the fifth-largest coffee producer globally, following Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia. It exports around 35pc of the coffee harvested annually; approximately 2.5 million quintals shipped abroad last year, generating 854 million dollars. Export revenues have registered at nearly 750 million dollars thus far, a kilogram of coffee fetching 3.4 dollars on average.
Ethiopian coffee farmers receive a fraction of this value. Many blame the long supply chains and the heavy involvement of intermediaries.
Jema Haji (PhD) is an agricultural economist who lectured at Haromaya University for 35 years. He says higher market prices for speciality coffee do not necessarily mean that farmers are getting the income they deserve.
“Most farmers earn less than a cent a cup,” said Jema.
The expert, who has researched the coffee market, observed that only a tiny proportion of Ethiopia’s beans are sold as exclusive, speciality coffees from a specific location.
“There is a need to expand initiatives that guarantee a better minimum price for the farmers,” he said.
Farmers and suppliers transact near coffee farms, and in various markets, centres numbered 980. Last year, Habtamu supplied 50qtl of coffee to Michetie Cooperative at 25 Br a kilo (0.48 dollars in the exchange rate last week). He earned 125,000 Br, a tidy sum compared to what he used to make in the days when wholesalers were his only buyers.
This year, Habtamu and many farmers in his village supplied the same amount to the Cooperative; he saw his earnings shoot up 12pc to 140,000 Br as prices had increased by three Birr a kilo. The gains have been a relief for Habtamu and his family.
Unlike many other coffee farmers in Ethiopia, Habtamu and 350 of his peers in Keffa Zone directly sell the red forest coffee cherries they collect to a nearby market centre, where the cherries are processed, and the farmers are paid upfront. They no longer worry about storing and drying the cherries on top of earning better pay.
Established in 1999, Michetie Cooperative has 371 farmers as its members. It began to prepare coffee using the honey processing method in 2018. It contrasts the dry and washed processing methods farmers widely use across the country. Dry processing is the simplest and least expensive method, accounting for around 60pc of all processing.