Coffee still grows wild in Ethiopia’s mountain forests. Ethiopian farmers cultivate coffee in four different systems, which include forest coffee, semi-forest coffee, garden coffee and plantation coffee.

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. In the tenth century, Ethiopian nomadic mountain people may have been the first to recognize coffee’s stimulating effect, although they ate the red cherries directly and did not drink it as a beverage. The mystic Sufi pilgrims of Islam spread coffee throughout the Middle East. From the Middle East these beans spread to Europe and then throughout their colonial empire including Indonesia and the Americas.

Geography and Environment

Ethiopia is in sub-Saharan Africa, bordered on the west by the Sudan, the east by Somalia and Djibouti, the south by Kenya, and the northeast by Eritrea. Ethiopia’s landscapes are covered in beautiful earth colors. The country has several high mountain ranges that maintain tropical cloud forests. The Blue Nile, or Abbai, is the chief reservoir for drinking water.

Ethiopia’s population is nearly 75 million people, many of whom struggle to make a living from their production and export of primary goods. Sixty four percent of the population doesn’t have access to clean and safe water systems. Fifty percent of the population lives in economic poverty. The majority of the communities don’t have access to electricity. There are many reasons for this poverty, however, the combination of regional conflict and dependence on exporting primary agricultural products are often cited as obstacles to more inclusive sustainable growth.

Crisis, coffee and politics

Ethiopia’s history is full of dramatic changes. Over the last four decades, the Ethiopian people have lived under three different forms of government, which include a semi-feudal imperial, a military rule with Marxist ideological orientation from 1974-1991, and a federal governance system from 1991 until the present. All of these periods have been accompanied by dissatisfaction, armed resistance and rebellions.

Ethiopia has also confronted economic, social and environmental problems including a war with Eritrea from 1998-2000. This recent dispute with Eritrea as well other historical conflicts has provoked many damages, including lost lives, limited access to the land, emotional trauma, and extreme hunger. The financial cost of the war, according to the Ethiopian government, was about US$2.9 billion (although other sources have put the financial cost as high as US$5 billion).

The most recent coffee crisis occurred within a context of chronic economic poverty and amidst these persistent social conflicts. In 2003, coffee prices plummeted to their lowest levels in Ethiopian coffee history. The prices no longer covered farmers’ costs of production, and this generated a variety of problems. Many producers abandoned their farms in Ethiopia’s Kaffa and Oromia regions and migrated to the city. Other farmers have turned to non-coffee crops. Farmers’ incomes were reduced and families were often not able to buy basic material necessities including clothing, food and medicine, construction materials to repair their houses, cover the costs of important social and religious ceremonies, and their children’s education. Despite these difficulties most Ethiopia farmers are still dedicated to coffee cultivation.


Arabica coffee, or jasminum arabicum laurifolia, has always grown wild in the forests of the south-western highlands of the Kaffa and Buno districts. The total area covered by Arabica and other types of coffee is about 400,000 hectares. Total coffee production is about 200,000 tonnes of clean coffee per year. This directly or indirectly affects the livelihoods for over 15 million people in this county. Ethiopia’s economy is based on agriculture. Currently agricultural activities represent 45% of the GDP, 85% of employment, and 90% of foreign exchange earnings.

Coffee still grows wild in Ethiopia’s mountain forests. Ethiopian farmers cultivate coffee in four different systems, which include forest coffee, semi-forest coffee, garden coffee and plantation coffee. About 98% of the coffee in Ethiopia is produced by peasants on small farms1 and it is the country’s most important export. Ethiopia is Africa’s third largest coffee producer. There are about 700,000 coffee smallholders in Ethiopia, of which 54 percent are in semi forest areas. Coffee has been part of their indigenous cultural traditions for more than 10 generations.

Ethiopian coffee is one of the most popular coffee origins in the world. However, Ethiopia must compete and partner with the coffee companies, which generally have more market power and earn higher profits. Annually, the average Ethiopian coffee farmer earns about $900 per year. The women who work in the coffee processing warehouses can make as little as $20 a month8. At times the government has played a more active role. In 1952, the government developed a coffee classification and grading system and then modified it in 1955. Ethiopian coffee certification began after the establishment of the National Coffee Board of Ethiopia (NCBE) in 1957. The NCBE’s aims were to control and coordinate producers, traders, and exporters interests and to improve the quality of Ethiopian coffee. More recently, partnerships with small-scale Fair Trade roasters, like Equal Exchange, have helped the Ethiopian farmers find a fairer deal for their coffee.

Ethiopian Cooperative and Fair Trade movements

Farmers’ organizations have existed in Ethiopia throughout different historical periods. Most of the first level cooperatives were established during the military government, which ruled from 1974 to 1991. The cooperative system provides their small-scale farmer members with services that include coffee processing, credit, human and financial resources for rural development. As of 2004, Ethiopia had 4,052 coffee cooperatives.

The Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (SCFCU) is an excellent example of what is possible through farmer organizing and connection to Fair Trade coffee roasters. SCFCU was formed in 2001 as a processing, marketing, and exporting union for 47 primary cooperatives located in Ethiopia’s Sidama Zone, in Southern Ethiopia. The union represents some 85,000 small-scale farmers. Equal Exchange currently purchases from four of these cooperatives: Telamo, Abela Galuko, Fura, and Howolso, each of which is located in Shebedino Woreda.

Source: Equal Exchange
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