Farmer Relations: Ethiopia 2016 (Part 3)

Author: Jess Pernsteiner, Farmer Relations and Outreach Coordinator
Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

Day 3

Kero! Using the few Sidama words that I had asked Dame to write out for me, I attempted to greet the children, people and even farmers we were working with. Using only the most basic phrases, “Eto-te” (How are you?) and most frequently “Galatemo” (Thank you), I was reminded of how difficult it can be to try to connect when dealing with a language barrier. The past few trips that I’ve been on, I’ve found myself in Spanish-speaking countries. Being confident in my abilities to communicate in Spanish, I found it easier to connect and open up the opportunities for more direct conversations. On this trip, I found myself realizing how different and limiting the dynamic of interactions can be when the amount you can express without the assistance of an interpreter is significantly limited. And, we soon discovered we were working with speakers of both Amharic and Sidama. Dame, from SCFCU as well as Haile Fufa, an Ethiopian government employee, (who was also providing part of the producer training) both speak Amharic. The 14 attendees of the workshop on Wednesday & Thursday consisted of managers and committee members from 6 of the cooperatives within Sidama Union: Fero, Bokaso, Hunkute, Taramesa, Telamo and Shilicho. All were also farmers, and had traveled from their own communities to attend the workshop. Although native Sidama speakers, Dame assured us that many of the farmers can understand Amharic, but they did seemed more confident when speaking with Awgichew (pronounced Agicho), our interpreter who was fluent in Sidama, Amharic and English. With his connection to the community, Awgichew was able to engage the farmers in a more open conversation that allowed us to better connect and bridge the gap created by a language barrier.


Haile Fufa, provided a formal government-sponsored presentation and training on the current coffee market and best practices to ensure standards for providing the highest quality coffee continue to be met. After the formal presentation, Brad, Glenn and myself were invited to give a brief presentation on our companies, to further continue the discussion about the importance of fair trade, coffee quality and our connections to farming partners for our three roasteries.


Day 4

The second day of the workshop was coordinated by Florent and Ellen from Coop Coffees. Based on Florent’s previous experience with farmers in Sumatra, he had planned a cupping workshop for the 14 members (from the 6 different member cooperatives from SCFCU). With Awgichew, Haile (sent by the Ethiopian government to provide part of the training) and Dame (SCAA Q-grader and lead cupper from SCFCU), we split into 3 groups of 4 to 5 farmers, to allow for ample opportunity for tasting, questions and discussion. As Florent began to explain the process of cupping, one of the farmers commented that he was skeptical that this exercise would provide them with any new knowledge about coffee. “We have been drinking coffee since we were children,” he stated. “We have been drinking it, caring for it and growing it. What can you teach us that we don’t already know?” Florent, acknowledging the question and their extensive experience in growing coffee, explained that we were hoping this would provide an opportunity to taste and possibly think about coffee in a new way, and assured the group that we would discuss the results at the end of the workshop.


The cupping was organized into 4 rounds- first to establish a baseline for levels of sweetness, and acidity, and then to assess the coffees. The first and second rounds involved fruit tasting, the third, cupping unwashed (natural) Sidama coffees, and the fourth, cupping washed Sidama coffees. To provide the best opportunity for evaluating sweetness, we provided a sampling of 3 fruits- and included both a ripe & unripe plate to sample. We didn’t disclose to the farmers that we were including unripe fruits, but instead requested that they sample both, and make note of the flavor differences as well as their preference. We sampled ripe & unripe pineapple, banana and coffee cherries. After the group discussed different tastes and preferences, we asked them to compare to the visibly ripe (bright red) and unripe (green) coffee cherries. The group that I was part of was quick to explain how important it is to pick ripe fruit, including ripe coffee cherries, as ripeness directly affects the level of sweetness. After the group discussion, we did a similar exercise, but to focus on acidity. We had everyone sample banana (to assess fruit with very low acidity) lemon (to assess high acidity) and passion fruit juice (a balance of sweetness & acidity). Again, we followed the same practice that allowed everyone to share what they tasted and what they preferred. Florent made a point to explain that while everyone in the group could agree on the same conclusions- ripe fruits were the sweetest, banana was least acidic, lemon was the most acidic and passion fruit juice has a balanced level of sweetness & acidity, it was still important for everyone to understand that personal preferences may not be the same. Florent stressed this point, to convey to the farmers that while certain characteristics and properties of a fruit or coffee will be identifying traits, it still can vary from an individual’s preference, as taste is qualitative, perceptual, and subjective.


In cupping the natural coffees, Florent and Ellen had roasted 3 samples of Sidama beans, as well as one sample of quakers. In the coffee world, the term quaker refers to a bean, or rather, seed that does not roast properly. They tend to be most often from seeds that are under-ripe, or sometimes called immature, that end up in the batch for roasting. For a healthy dose of info on defects, and in particular, quakers, see this informative article: “Detecting Defects” by Andi C. Trindle for Roast magazine. In the more common wet-process of washed coffees, they float and area more easily removed. However, with natural and semi-washed coffees, quakers can be a bit more prevalent, as these coffees are dried with the whole cherry intact, and are not separated by the gravity separation process that utilizes water. When roasted, quakers have a very distinct burnt popcorn or peanut flavor, which unfortunately can affect the flavor of the entire cup.


We did not explain quakers to the farmers, nor did we advise them that we were including a roast of only quakers as one of the coffees they were sampling. We performed a cupping of all 4 coffees, and encouraged them to note: aroma, flavor, acidity, sweetness, body and their preference of each. When discussing the particular distinctions of each coffee, one individual, when asked about coffee #4 (quakers) commented “the coffee is silent.” And, nearly everyone in our group preferred the same coffee, which had been scored by Ellen and Florent as the highest quality coffee. Interestingly enough, the outlier in our group actually preferred the quakers, which again sparked the conversation amongst everyone to remind that coffee and preferences are subjective. When we met with the other 2 groups, we heard similar results. One other farmer had also said that he preferred the quakers, yet everyone could agree that coffee #1 was the highest quality, with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.


After lunch, we performed another cupping, but with 3 of the grade 1 (highest quality) Sidama coffees, and with 1 coffee that was rated grade 2. Again, we allowed for conversation and discussion about the differences, flavor notes, and overall preferences, and the group also came to the conclusion that coffee #1 was received as the highest quality. Florent did share with the group which coffees came from which particular cooperatives, but made a point to explain that just because one of the coffees was grade 2, this does not reflect on all coffees that had been received from that cooperative. However, as all the farmers were able to agree on which coffee was the highest quality, it provided an opportunity for further discussion on maintaining high standards, for growers, for SCFCU and for Coop Coffees.


The cupping workshop led to an engaging conversation about quality, and how quality directly reflects price and payment. Florent provided a list of the price paid per pound in USD for green beans, explaining that “Ethiopian coffees are among the most expensive coffee we buy. Aside from Yirgacheffe, Sidama coffee is currently the highest.” While Yirgacheffe is the highest, Florent explained that Coop Coffees purchased significantly more Sidama coffee- as they had bought 11 containers of Sidama ($3.30/ lb) but only 2 containers of Yirgacheffe ($3.80/ lb).


The price of $3.30/ lb is the price that Coop Coffees pays to SCFCU. However, the amount that the farmers actually receive is much less. Based on what I’ve calculated, in 2015, the farmers received about $0.30/ lb for their coffee:


  • In 2015, members of Fero Cooperative received a first payment of 12 birr/ kg

(equivalent of about $0.55/ 2.20 lbs → $0.25/ lb)


  • In 2015, members of Fero Cooperative received a second payment of 2.25 birr/ kg

(equivalent of about $0.10/ 2.20 lbs → $0.05/ lb)


In one of the most transparent and honest conversations about trade and fair payment that I’ve been a part of, Florent and the other members of my group revisited the farmers’ questions about prices. We again discussed the birr/ kg that farmers receive for their coffees, and how they feel just a few additional birr would be helpful, particularly since they hire labor during the harvest. On Tuesday, we had asked the 4 members of Fero what would be “enough”- that is, what farmers would consider a “fair” price. They shared that they had hoped for 15 birr/ kg from the first payment, but only received 12 birr/ kg. Instead of the amount received: ~$0.55/ 2.20 lbs, or $0.25/ lb on the first payment, if they receive the increase they are requesting of 15 birr/ kg, it would provide them with ~$0.68/ 2.20 lbs, or $0.31/ lb – the difference- $0.13/ 2.20 lbs, which equates to a mere ~$0.06/ lb increase for the farmers, for the first payment. It’s still, such a small amount. It’s shocking to me to realize this is the price that is “fair” and that $0.06 is significant. When looking at these numbers, I still can’t comprehend how this is “fair” and how this income is enough for them to be able to support their families.  


Florent, while acknowledging it is certainly possible that Coop Coffees could pay more, also offered an invitation to farmers to collaborate and consider alternative options that Coop Coffees could help to increase profit for the farmers. Florent reminded the farmers there are many layers in this market where that additional payment could be lost, and rather than directly promising to pay a higher rate to SCFCU for green beans, he suggested they consider alternative options, investments, such as drying tables or new equipment, recognizing that there may be other options to decrease work and increase the profit for the farmers. We ended the discussion by encouraging the farmers to collaborate and propose new project & investment ideas to SCFCU, as Dame is in frequent contact with Florent and Coop Coffees staff. While we didn’t provide an immediate solution, I admired Florent’s approach to encourage the farmers to approach change in a way that would actually best serve them, with a greater overall impact.


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