Precarious Fate of Ethiopian Forest Coffee

The breakfast crowd at Shamises Place around Seratenga Sefer in Piassa mostly consists of local hipsters with tight-fitting pants and shirts, and exotic hairstyles that belong more in the trendy cafés of Tokyo and London.

Although most of the orders – from a Ful medames to scrambled eggs – are placed with “no onions or peppers,” they arrive sprinkled with ample chopped onions and peppers.

It was no different on a recent morning when two Korean women by for breakfast. One of the waiters takes their order but there is a general disagreement in the shop about what they want, and after a great debate Ful Special arrives with the usual condiments of onions and peppers.

When the bewildered foreigners hesitate, a plate of a local doughnut pastry and two cups of coffee are placed in front of them. The coffee is brought from outside where a woman vendor is brewing and serving traditional coffee on the steps of the shop.

The Koreans politely nimble on the pastry and delightedly sip their coffee, while still making fruitless effort to communicate to the waiter that they had something else in mind. They eventually give up, manage to order more coffee and take pictures of the coffee stand outside before they leave.

The coffee lady teems with joy and pride by the tacit approval of her product, traditionally brewed Ethiopian coffee. The commercial and cultural significance of Ethiopian coffee has been described ad infinitum. The unsung hero in the tale of origins and legends of jumping and frisking goats is ‘Ethiopian Forest Coffee’, a unique commercial product and a cultural heritage.

Atop the two halves of the massive highland plateaus of the Great Rift Valley sits the vanishing moist montane forest ecosystems of Ethiopia, home of wild coffee – Ethiopian Forest Coffee. The unique exotic aroma, taste and flavours of its beans are shaped by thousands of years of indigenous forest management practices and geography, a unique feature of Ethiopia’s coffee forests.

Ethiopian Forest Coffee, an extraordinary product, holds an exalted and elevated place well above the ordinary beans admired by the Korean visitors. It belongs in the forefronts of the current trend of “Third Wave Coffee Movement,” a niche market which emphasises high qualities, single origins, specific varietals, small lots, and coffee beans with exceptional stories.

Since it fits the bill perfectly, Ethiopian Forest Coffee should be in great demand by trendy roasters, and command high prices in fashionable cafés of Amsterdam and San Francisco, California. But that is not the case.

The problem may lie with the fact that the distinction between commodity and speciality coffee in Ethiopia are often muddled and not well understood. When it comes to Ethiopian Forest Coffee, there is even less understanding of what it represents.

Coffee production in Ethiopia mostly consists of coffee derived from traditional practices from the margins or from within the native coffee forest areas. It should be strongly emphasised, however, that Ethiopian Forest Coffee is distinct from the garden or plantation coffee beans sold under the generic name of Ethiopian speciality coffee.

Despite its inherent distinctions and excellence, Ethiopian Forest Coffee is mostly bought and sold as a commodity and is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the commodities markets. Even with its unparalleled pedigree of being one-of-a-kind, a marketer’s dream-product with rich stories, and endowed with exceptional qualities of tastes and flavours, it remains mainly undifferentiated in the marketplace.

But this is about to change if a proposal by a United Kingdom NGO has its way. In April of 2017, the NGO launched a request for Expression of Interests (EoI) to develop a new “internationally recognized brand,” and a new certification scheme for Ethiopian Forest Coffee which it describes as building a new “traceable supply chain.”

At a glance, this appears to be a positive step towards bringing well-deserved recognition and higher evaluation for Ethiopian Forest Coffee. However, a closer look at the proposal reveals many shortcomings. Significantly absent is the role of Ethiopian stakeholders. Apparently, there is very little, if any at all, understanding or information among stakeholders in Ethiopia about the proposal.

The Ethiopian Forest Coffee both as a real commercial product and as a symbol of origin is an Ethiopian national heritage, and it should remain as such. If any branding and certification schemes are to be implemented it should be done under the auspices of local stakeholders, not foreign private entities.

The argument that certification brings financial benefits to small-scale farmers is fundamentally flawed and is not supported by the evidence. Certification by itself does not increase incomes of farmers because coffee prices in Ethiopia are mainly tied to world coffee market trends, according to a 2011 University of Bonn research paper, ‘Forest Coffee Certification in Ethiopia: Economic Boon or Ecological Ban?’.

The proposal to “export large quantities of Ethiopian Forest Coffee per annum by 2020” is also gravely flawed because it directly undermines the principles of forest conservations.

The coffee forest is not a plantation, it is a unique ecological habitat that has complex requirements.

The strategy for increasing the price obtained for Ethiopian Forest Coffee should focus on the origin, size and quality of the offerings as recent data from Transparent Trade Coffee has shown. Origin is a given as Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Small size lots are in line with ecological conservation since yields are much smaller from the forested habitat. But much work needs to be done in improving the quality of the coffee beans along the production and exportation chains.

It is proper and correct that the coffee lady brewing and offering traditional Ethiopian coffee outside Shamises’ Place should take pride and joy in her product. Ethiopian coffee, even without the forest coffee label, is an exceptional product that should inspire great support from all of us.

With appropriate support to improve coffee quality through the local supply chains, Ethiopian Forest Coffee could hold its place at the front of the speciality coffee marketplace. An excellent role model should be Colombia’s branding and marketing strategy, which has made their coffee a recognised brand of quality and origin.






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