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Ethiopia – September, 2007

‘No Chains Around My Feet But I’m Not Free’

No, Ethiopia is not a concrete jungle by any means but this line certainly applies when it comes to the national coffee industry’s relationships between the cooperatives and cooperative unions. Sadly this traditional beauracracy controls the fate of the majority of coffee producers across the country. To be honest this can be a dangerous topic to pursue as a buyer, the power of these cooperative unions is immeasurable, but it’s the Stumptown’s obligation to bring transparency to our customers. The cooperative unions are failing their producers by not fulfilling contracts, blending coffees from the different cooperatives and allowing shipments to be delayed for months on end. Speculation can be fatal but one’s mind wanders when thinking about how pre-financing funds and premiums are filtered back to the farmers as well. It’s another impenetrable wall between farmer and roaster. We spent a week in the southern Ethiopian coffee producing zones of Sidamo, Gedeo and Yirgcaheffe seeking the right to ship for the producers we work with.

Although the Stumptown will not abandon the farmers held in limbo by the unions, we are beginning to pursue other avenues: the privates. Private washing stations are becoming better at quality focus, paying farmers proper prices in a timely fashion and understanding the needs of their customers. Our Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Wondo coffee comes from a private enterprise, the Wondo Trading Group, which seeks to fortify relations across the supply chain. We have big plans to solidify our relationship with them by seeking even more transparency with payment, traceability to farmers and, of course, quality improvement. We’ve begun putting the necessary time and visits into this relationship, which is akin to planting flower seeds in your garden. With careful nurture and constant attention we intend for this relationship, and coffee quality, to blossom into something beautiful. Stay tuned.

We also visited an old student and friend of mine, Solomon Worku, at his privately owned washing stations in Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. We are constantly searching out open-minded, visionary producers in each of the countries we work in. Sharing ideas and experimenting with quality is the only true way for growth in the supply chain. Solomon is a godsend. We’ll be back in November, during the peak of the harvest, to begin altitude separation of lots, processing experiments, implement new drying techniques and make other analytical attempts at learning more about just how top quality is attained. Keep an eye out for more about his Koke, Korate and Kamuto coffees in months to come.

The trip ended as it began, with several intense cooperative union meetings, even though I was disgruntled with not receiving a single bean from the 3 cooperatives we bought from this year in Yirgacheffe, the Union promises change. We laid out a blueprint for them that, if followed correctly, will get the coffee to us on time and get their farmers higher wages then they have ever seen before. The ball is in their court now. Look for a progress report at the end of they year after our peak harvest visit in November.

-Aleco