Ethiopia – trip to origin

Haya dede (my country is beautiful) >> proud words of a coffee farmer we met in a wild coffee forest in Kaffa.

CoffeePirates’ two weeks road trip through Ethiopia.

1st day – Addis Ababa to Yirga Alem
We start leaving the crowded and noisy capital Addis Ababa as soon as we can by heading in the direction towrds Sidamo region. The eight hour drive on the rough, dusty roads is a real challenge with all our bones hurting but very rewarding is the arrival in the small village Yirga Alem. We passed a lot of small villages, wonderful lakes in the far famed rift valley and were thrilled to make our first steps into the daily life of people on the country side.
Main income for most families is farming: vegetables, fruits and in some areas coffee. When we entered Sidamo region we were amazed by how many families grow coffee in the backyards of their homes. A lot is grown for home use, everywhere we can see little coffee stands where women roast coffee fresh, by just brewing it over open fire. People sit together and drink coffee “three cups in the morning, three cups after lunch and three cups in the afternoon” one old woman told us while she put some tiny parts of frankincense into the fire.


It’s a bit of a challenge to communicate. We try to learn some words of Ahmaric language as english is not very common, but with a smile and some hand signs, people warmly welcome us. Two white strangers, having coffee with them, it’s not happening there very often, so it’s really fun sitting all together.

For our first night, we were sleeping in one of the traditional housings, round huts made of wood and covered by straw. Now our journey through „real“ Ethiopia is begins…

2nd day in Shakisso
We wanted to go in the direction of Shakisso to visit the coffee farm Suke Quto, where we get our coffee for the PiratesBlend from.
The road from Yirga Alem to Shakisso is in a quite good condition but from Shakisso to the farm the roads are really rough compared to yesterday. There is no asphalt any more, construction works for new streets stopped as the government decided not to put more money in the sothern regions. We need more than an hour for 20 km drive.

On the way children are waving at us, they shout „farangi, farangi” and all laugh when they see us. There are hardly any tourists passing through this region. On our whole journey through the countryside we only meet two more farangis.

After a long and winding road finally we meet with the farmers of Suke Quto. It was a warm welcome and all the workers took their time for a tour of the farm, washing station and wonderful surrounding coffee plantation. There we had an introduction of new varietals, planted two years ago. The farmers hope for the first harvest of coffee cherries in the coming season.
We have an interesting insight of the plans for the near future, and see the construction work for new washing channels, high beds for drying washed and natural processed beans. And the best: All beans are 100% organically grown and processed!
It is always good to see farms, but in this case it was something very special, because the Suke Quto is one of our three coffees which we are using daily in our PiratesBlend and it was not clear before leaving Vienna if we would actually be able to reach the farm, because the conversation from Austria to Ethiopia was not possible.

Because of the terrible roads we were too late and our driver told us, sometimes tribes stop cars in the evening, so it’s too dangerous to go back the whole way, so we stayed in Shakisso.
Finally we find a hotel with loud music in the restaurant, but after this day we are sure that nothing can disturb our well-deserved sleep.
By the way: the hotels in Ethiopia’s countryside are quite basic. You are lucky, when the toilet flush is working and you get a room with a shower – hot or cold is secondary 😉
We have a wonderful dinner again and get a big plate of sourdough bread with different vegetable sauces and eat from one big plate. No cutlery is provided and so it was good luck that we have already learnt eating with our hands as locals on our former coffee trip to the south west of India.

3rd and 4th day – Yirga Cheffe
Our tour brings us back to Yirga Alem and further on the the world famous village of Yirga Cheffe. A statue of a colossal coffee pot is situated on the main square of the village and tells everybody „You are in the center of the best coffee region in Ethiopia!“ The village is a busy but very very small trading town, halfway from Addis to the border of Kenya.
On our former origin trips to Kenya (Nyeri and around Mount Kenya) we discussed the idea just taking a bus and heading north in direction to Ethiopia and finally towards Yirga Cheffe. Now we know the streets in this part of the country and are happy that we decided not to come from the south as we would have lost severals days on the highly dangerous roads.

The area around Yirga Cheffe is wonderful. It’s a gorgeous green and densely wooded high plateau with meandering rivers, admirable mountains and valleys as well as panoramic views after every curve. The people are friendly and very obliging. The coffees are mainly coming from small family farmers delivering to washing stations and cooperatives. Most of the varietals are traditional heirlooms, that are passed on from generation to generation. Some of the farmers start to plant special varietals (e.g. Certo 147, Nebar, 71410, 71412,…) bred in agronomical research centers e.g. in Dilla, where the local commodity exchange (ECX) is also located.

In Yirga Cheffe it’s all about coffee. Every house has coffee in the courtyard and we can smell the flavor of freshly roasted coffee at every corner. The coffee, directly roasted on pans over fire, is black and nearly burned but surprisingly excellent in taste when you join the locals in the traditional coffee hut alongside the streets.

day 5 and 6 – Kochere Chelelektu and Dilla
We drive on to Kochere and find our next destination, a specialty coffee farm near Chelelektu. The harvest season is over and we discover the last natural processed coffee beans raised on high beds drying in the sun. We can see the prepared bags of washed processed coffee in the storage buildings ready for the transport to the ECX in Dilla and finally the factories in Addis Ababa.

The coffee system in Ethiopia is not very clear and traceable. Only the few certified (organic, rainforest,…) coffees are traceable, but once the farmers bring the coffee beans to the commodity exchange, the coffee is lost in the compound of nameless beans from a certain region and level of quality. It is a quite disillusioning to experience that the Ethiopian trade system is so nontransparent and direct trade (from the farm to the roasters around the world) is not welcomed by the government.

day 7,8, 9 and 10 in Kaffa, Bonga and Djimmah (Jimma)
Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa with an annual yield of 4-5 million bags. The beans of every area have their own distinguishing traits that separate them from each other, resulting in making their coffee the best and most known all over the world.
Therefore we are back on the dusty road for more than 12 hours to reach the next region, where coffee originally came and got it’s name from – Kaffa.

The wild coffee forest and birthplace of coffee near the village of Makira Quabale or buni-village (buni means coffee).
It’s a magical experience, to walk through wild coffee trees and finally discover the oldest coffee tree in an untouched virgin forest. And we talk to three of the seven farmers who have the governmental permission to pick the beans from the aka, the wild coffee forest. „We see the crop as a present from god and would never cut a tree in the jungle but we are using the fruits and fallen wood of the forest“ says Stephanus. Asraf, the oldest of the three farmers tells us:“ Yes, we are poor, but we live in paradise!“. Atirse stands close to them silently and nods.

In the village of Bonga, in the heart of the coffee region of Kaffa, we are happy to meet Mr. Negusse, a farmer, who started seven years ago with planting coffee trees in a virgin forest, provided by the government. In the meantime his farm, the Tatmara coffee farm, is a prospering business and he is planning to start an eco-tourism program next year.
We are walking under shade trees of tremendous size, passing by several monkeys and wild beehives, following a stream and reaching a fairytale landscape. We would not have been surprised if a unicorn came around the corner. It’s a perfect dream!
All around you can see flowering coffee trees. The hilly ground is full of the typical smell of coffee blossom. We first smelt the coffee tree in Tanzania years ago and when you smell thousands of coffee trees you will never ever forget this fragrance anywhere between orange blossom, jasmin, vanilla and frangipani.
The farmer is exceptionally communicative and so we start a pro-creative conversation about the quality coffee, planting, harvesting and trading. He is highly interested in the needs of coffee roasters like us and how he can accomplish the high standards of the specialty coffee scene.
It’s not easy to leave this place and drive back to the capital and facing the modern side of the country wich is much different and perplexing after all these delightful impressions.

3 days in Addis
The African coffee conference is taking place over the next days, so great timing for us as we may be able to meet a lot of people from the industry. After the harvest season from November till now, all coffees arrive in Addis in the dry mills (factories) and warehouses. They are ready to be cupped and graded.
We are cupping more than 100 coffees every day from Sidamo A and B, Kaffa, Jimma region and of course Yirga Cheffe. Washed and natural coffees from lousy Djimmah Grade 5 (lowest quality) up to lovely Yirga Cheffe Grade 1. We are taking notes and discuss our results with the Q-Graders (Quality-Grader) from the different exporters.
This years’ coffees are much sweeter than last year. Farmers are also experiencing with new processing methods starting with honey processing and are getting more feedback from specialty roasters to improve the cup quality each year.

We also meet Kayla, director of the „girls gotta run foundation“, a charity project we are supporting by purchasing our Rocko Mountain Reserve Coffee. It’s good to hear stories first hand and be convinced the project is definitely worth promoting. We decide to support the project with an extra donation of € 500,- and continue buying our „Rocko” in the following years.

A short résumé:
Ethiopia is definitely not a country you should start in as an unexperienced traveller because it’s quite tough to travel through and there are challenges to overcome. You should rather start in Kenya or Tanzania to get in contact with the African way of living.
But Ethiopia is amazing and full of wonderful experiences. So, if you want to see the origin of coffee and can stand some discomfort on the road, Ethiopias different regions and especially the coffee areas are worth discovering!

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