Another year has passed since my last visit to East Africa, and what a difference a year makes!
The trip began in Ethiopia, with the intention that the large number of meetings we had with our now well known suppliers would be succinct, informative and speedy – not always an easy ask given the logistical challenges of navigating Addis Ababa. I cupped some amazing new coffees; fully traceable back to washing stations and in some cases to privately own farms.
It was the first time DRW visited the area of Bench Maji which is situated in the South-West of Ethiopia. Travelling to this region in the past has taken up to 2 days using local transport, and thus often off limits to many. But thanks to a healthy relationship between Korea and Ethiopia the roads have vastly improved reducing the journey time.
The Coffee here has a somewhat unique taste providing different flavour characteristics for us to consider – compared to our typical preconceived ideas of Ethiopian coffee. It was not only my first visit to the area but also the Union’s first visit from a green coffee importer. The union was established in July 2005 by 14 founding primary cooperatives that are distributed over six Woredas (districts).
To my surprise the local media and Zonal Chief had been invited to a welcome ceremony. We feasted on the local delicacy: fermented yoghurt and salty spicy tea – I wouldn’t be too upset if I never had them again.
The Bench Maji Union works closely with the Wild Coffee Conservation through Participatory Forest Management Project (WCC-PFMP). It strives to contribute to the conservation of wild coffee biodiversity within the forest ecosystem, developing strong partnerships between Governments. This in turn should improve the lives of individual members through increasing their income from coffee production and marketing businesses.
2015 is the first year the union is planning to export Wild Forest coffee, which we hope to be the first to import. It has a distinctively winey taste. We shall keep you updated!
This season is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in recent history. Last year saw farmers selling cherry to washing stations at 9bir/kg. This year the cherry price has risen to an incredible 17-18birg/kg which is leaving washing stations with very expensive stock on their hands, and little demand from overseas buyers at the current prices. Furthermore, due to a supply shortage, the premium for a clean cupping Yirgacheffe over a Sidamo has risen to over 40cts!
Typically the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange follows the NYC to some extent, but as a result of washing stations buying cherry at higher prices neither exporters/middlemen want to take a position. With an unstable market this causes an irregular coffee flow as well as diverting coffee to the local market and in some cases the black market. Ethiopia has developed a fairly stable and mature internal consumption demand which acts as the wing-man to the export business, taking up the slack when exports decline.
Kenya, in comparison to Ethiopia is a somewhat easy going origin with their infrastructure vastly superior, guaranteeing driving upcountry to visit cooperatives and estates is an easy ride.
Each year Kenya struggles with the ever increasing trend of growing houses rather than coffee, seeing huge swathes of farmland cleared and coffee uprooted. Land values have risen excessively, and the prospect of one substantial lump sum entices many a hard working farmer to retire. This phenomenon is not only subjected to the surrounding areas of Nairobi, but up country as well.
The price for quality coffee remains competitive in comparison to its bordering countries and we are seeing some good levels being reached for main crop top grades.
I managed to visit the famous Jungle Estate situated high up in Nyeri highlands. It was originally established in the 1920s and was named Jungle because of its dense indigenous bush.
Similar to its neighbouring estates, SL28 (created by Scotts Laboratories) is the main varietal that is grown on Jungle Estate as it has proven time and again to be the most consistent in producing top cherry and healthy yields.
Not only does the estate strive to farm and process coffee to an extremely high standard but its passion and commitment continue in its care of the workforce, both permanent and seasonal. It is rare to find an estate that has a nursery which takes care of the hand pickers children if they are below five years of age. Furthermore the estate has donated 10 acres of land for a school to be built and also foster an education programme that offers annual scholarships for 20 children in the area.
The estate is expected to produce roughly 900 bags this season, some way from their peak of over 1800, but considered average in the eyes of the owners.
We hope to secure further quantities from this fabulous estate this year as we love to buy coffee from a source that prides themselves on the coffee they produce and their attitude and care towards their workforce.
The collective mix of exporters that we work with still hold the same value as DRW and It was great to see that they continue to grow even with the many challenges that East Africa presents.
We look forward to offering our new season coffees soon!