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By: James Fairweather 22 June 2020
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Every time I stand at a cupping table and slurp down the tasty Ethiopian that tends to reside in the “I’m about to blow your mind” section at the end of the line up, I continue to be amazed by the incredible amount of flavour packed into each bean.
These coffees are always so unique in profile and simply scream Ethiopia. We’re talking sweet sticky honey, ripe juicy stone fruit, a bouquet of fresh floral notes and a highly gluggable light, tea-like body. There is something very romantic about Ethiopia as an origin, it’s cloud forests being the birthplace of coffee itself – we always say you can almost taste the history of this incredible terroir in the cup!
Our latest Ethiopian offering is no different! It comes to us from the Kata Muduga Union Co-op Society, which is responsible for some of the best known coffees from the region of Jimma – the Duromina, Nano Challa and Yukro stations are all part of this society. Some of you may have been lucky enough to sample a bag of the washed lot we had from the Duromina washing station last year, which truly highlights the incredible level of quality coming out of these coops. This in itself is actually rather ironic because this region has historically been infamous for its low quality production of the Djimma 5 bean – a poorly processed natural coffee. However, in 2010, the development project TechnoServe (funded by Bill and Melinda Gates) helped these co-ops in remote producing regions to improve the quality of what they produced increasing the price that could be achieved for these coffees.
Although obviously important, we as a business do not base our new crop selections solely on cup quality. Like building any new relationship, we aim to connect with producing partners who share our interests and align with our values. We embrace initiatives and projects that are dedicated to sound social and environmental ethics, transparency, equity, kindness and respect. TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative is a perfect example of an attainable sustainable model and one that is having a resounding positive impact at origin on both a social and environmental level.
TechnoServe’s approach in helping to build a Sustainable Global Coffee Industry addresses four key areas of coffee production.
• Better Farming
• Better Processing
• Better Supply Chains
• Better Environmental & Social Standards
The goal being to secure and strengthen local coffee communities, giving people the skills and tools they need to improve their social and economic development. They have worked with farmers in Ethiopia, as well as other East African nations and have successfully done so by creating new processes, finding solutions to problems and suggesting new ways to work that positively impacts every link in the supply chain.
Before TechnoServe’s intervention, it was apparent that many coffee farmers in Ethiopia were suffering from low productivity and low yields, which can be primarily attributed to the adoption of poor agricultural practices (possibly as a result of historical colonial intervention). Many producers in these areas would have likely inherited land from their families and most probably tended to their farm for many years, with little help or guidance from the outside world. In most farming communities, producers are heavily reliant on observing relatives and neighbours and it can be tough to implement change when working against decades of tradition, despite the negative impact this approach can have on quality and yield.
TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative was designed to address these issues by implementing Farm Colleges that provide farmers with the training required to improve both yield and the overall quality of their crop in a sustainable manner. Farmers have access to monthly hands-on lessons on mulching, weeding, pruning, rejuvenation, erosion control, shade management, composting, coffee nutrition, integrated pest and disease management, coffee planting and the safe use of pesticides which were designed to coincide with the coffee tree growing cycle. Basically, an in-depth programme designed to teach best agronomic practice from seedling all the way through to a trees maturity to help producers access the most potential from their trees. Efficient pruning of mature trees is not only vital to revive and prevent death but also is the most effective way to sustain and reinvigorate trees to produce higher yielding, better tasting cherries for little financial outlay.
All of the hard work and success in creating highly productive farms would stand for nothing if the resulting harvest was processed inadequately, giving rise to imperfections that can negatively impact a coffees flavour and overall quality. With this in mind the Coffee Initiative has helped new and existing co-ops to establish new wet mills and improve operations of existing ones, which in turn has helped to complement the project’s agronomy work. Quite simply, farmers need successful, efficient mills and mills need forward thinking, productive farmers. The prospect of higher, fairer prices for their efforts encourages farmers to invest in their farms and boost their yields. At the same time, for the wet mills to function as profitable businesses, they need a higher volume and better quality of coffee produced. Profitable businesses also need well-trained, knowledgeable management and to ensure these new, improved co-ops/mill were being steered in the right direction, the Coffee Initiative provide a team of business advisors who help encourage good governance, provide training on key business skills and shared technical information about how to effectively operate a wet mill and produce high-quality coffee. By improving these wet mills, the price premium passed back to those who grow it is much higher and the mills are able to run profitably, encouraging better practice year on year.
Efforts have also been made to close the gender gap and give women the credit and opportunity they deserve in an industry that they already play a vital role in. Unfortunately, as in many other East African agricultural communities, women farmer’s voices are rarely heard and less financial support is available to them.
With this in mind the Coffee Initiative set out to increase female participation in the farm college programme by both recruiting female trainers and finding more ways to reach and train more female farmers. Farm colleges encourage husbands to bring their wives along to training and the importance of women attending sessions is openly discussed in the wider community setting. These discussions are often led by influential community leaders, which helps to increase awareness as well as raise the profile of female producers.
To target female farmer trainers, adverts have been placed in positions regularly frequented by women, places like markets and churches. Knowing that men typically have more self-confidence and greater experience in these communities, the Coffee Initiative has also tailored the selection process to help close the gender gap in these areas. And it’s worked! The women participating excelled and the hiring methodology has yielded a more gender-balanced result than would have been the case using traditional interviews.
Greater gender balance has also been addressed in leadership roles at cooperatives and mills, which are typically led by men. In the Coffee Initiative, the training provided to co-ops includes women-friendly leadership and membership policy guidelines. A gender lead is appointed for each project region who leads discussions about the importance of including women in leadership and decision making roles. Additionally, female members at each co-op elect a representative to ensure that their views and concerns receive consideration in all decision–making processes. Finding a fair and healthy balance in these roles is vitally important because decisions made by co-op leaders affect men and women differently.
Cultivating and processing coffee in a way that respects the natural environment and protects the livelihoods, health and safety of the people who produce it is not only a human obligation. With consumers and roasters increasingly concerned about sustainability, it is imperative to businesses too. For these reasons, the Coffee Initiative works with coffee growers and co-operative managers to strengthen social and environmental responsibility on farms and at wet mills.
While farmers cannot prevent climate change, they can reduce its impact on their livelihoods by using a range of approaches to increase their farm’s resilience. The Coffee Initiative’s Farm College curriculum therefore includes training on climate smart farming practices that allows farms to both adapt to the impacts of climate change and better protect the environment. For example, farmers learn how to use mulch and shade to reduce plant and soil temperatures – vitally important in places where temperatures are expected to rise and threaten coffee productivity and quality.
At most pre-existing coffee wet mills in East Africa, social and environmental responsibility was simply not considered a priority. Temporary labourers were often subjected to long hours, poor working conditions and sub-minimum wages, and child labour was used at some wet mills. Meanwhile, farmers supplying the wet mills would often complain about the lack of financial transparency at their co-operative. As a result, the Coffee Initiative trained and evaluated wet mills on a set of basic sustainability standards covering labour practices, occupational health and safety, environmental responsibility, and economic transparency. Coffee Initiative staff also made the business case for sustainability, demonstrating how responsibly operated wet mills had, on average, lower operating expenses.
TechnoServe have demonstrated how interventions focused on agronomy, the construction and operation of wet mills, sustainability, and supportive sector ecosystems can not only transform livelihoods in farming communities, but also boost the profits of businesses in the coffee value chain. If smallholder farmers are able to offer consistent, high-quality coffee, they can benefit from the specialty market’s higher, more stable prices, rather than facing the low and volatile prices offered by local traders supplying the commodity market.
Geta Bore is one of the fortunate coops that have benefitted from the incredible work of TechnoServe and the Coffee Initiative. This coop is fairly remote and lies nestled within the Metu Bishari forest in the Illubabor region of Western Ethiopia. The area is of a lower relative altitude than others in the region, but perhaps due to the wooded environment and ample shade coverage, this unique microclimate helps to produce quality coffee of a high density, that has ripened slowly. The coffee trees found in this region include landrace varietals of Kuburi, Bedessa, Yawan and Dalacha along with several improved varietals from the Jimma Agricultural Research Center (74110, 74112, 74140, 74165). The producing group continues to benefit from ongoing agronomy training as well as an assigned business adviser who helps the cooperative manage its debt, reinvest in quality improvements and verify the distribution of the income for all its members. Something that has undoubtedly helped them to consistently raise the cup profile of the coffee they produce.
This year’s lot blew us away with the notes of mango, peach, nectarine, jasmine and black tea – everything we tend to search for in our Ethiopian washed coffees. We hope you enjoy this beautiful example from the birthplace of coffee.
*we find it performs best as a black filter to allow you to fully access all of its complexity.