News / Africa

Ethiopian Economy Counting on Perks of Coffee Trade

Workers inspect coffee beans in Ethiopia
Workers inspect coffee beans in Ethiopia


Some of the world’s finest specialty coffees come from Africa, and now some African countries are looking at ways to make sure the perks of the lucrative coffee trade are not limited to coffee connoisseurs.

Morning at a coffee shop in Washington and the grind is on.

Only these customers are not buying just any coffee.  They are buying expensive, specialty coffee grown in Ethiopia.

"It doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste.  It’s a smoother tasting coffee," one customer said.

"We’ve had Ethiopian coffee on the menu since day one.  The day that we opened we knew that was a country of origin we really wanted to feature," said shop owner Ryan Jensen.

"This is original coffee from the birthplace of coffee," another costumer said.

Ahmed Mustafa has grown coffee for more than 30 years on the lush green hills of Ethiopia’s Agaro region. "We don’t have anything else other than coffee.  Coffee is the only source of income and the only source of life in this area," he said.

Mustafa uses his half hectare farm to support more than 10 children and grandchildren.  But he worries.  Last year’s harvest was good - the current crop is not.

Much of the land around Agaro is divided into these small coffee plantations. But it is not just the farmers who are dependent on coffee.  

Once the beans are picked, they are processed and bagged  in warehouses, then eventually, shipped out.

For years, this is where the Ethiopian coffee trade would become murky.

If, when and how much farmers were paid was always a question.  And buyers were never quite sure of the source of their bean, critical information in the world of high-end coffees.

"The key transformation that we’re looking for is to turn our farmers into business-minded, profit seeking commercial actors," said  Eleni Gabre-Madhin, who heads the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, and wants Ethiopia to be a dominant player in the global coffee market.

"We’re sitting on the potential of quadrupling the amount of coffee that we currently produce on this land," Gabre-Madhin said.

For the past two years, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange has made that its goal, attempting to guarantee growers a fair price and give specialty coffee companies a consistent, quality product.

Only, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth transition.  Caught in the middle - companies like Keffa Coffee. It imports beans from Agaro to the Port of Baltimore in the United States.

Owner Samuel Demisse says he and his customers like what the Exchange is trying to do… Only, he says it is not working. "Price is definitely going down because we cannot trace the farm.  We cannot trace who produced it, that good coffee, so we are not paying what we used to pay," he said.

Demisse says that while the overall quality of the coffee has improved, too often beans from different coffee plantations are being mixed together - which is not what buyers want.

"Relationships are very important. We don't only buy coffee, we buy the history behind the coffee," he said.

And the problem has Keffa Coffee’s partners taking notice.

Alex Brown is with U.S.-based Counter Culture Coffee, which buys beans from all over the world to sell on the U.S. market.

"Ethiopian coffees are getting a little more complicated in purchasing because of the ECX - the formation of that," he said. "We’re trying to learn.  We’re trying to adapt.  We’re trying to really kind of have the same direct relationships that we like to have, through that system."

Yet for all the concerns, the problems do not seem to be trickling down to the coffee shops themselves.  

"We have a story to tell and our customers are always looking for a special story," Jensen said.

A story about beans from Ethiopia some coffee lovers just can’t wait to drink up.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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