Siobhan Norton talks to smallholder coffee-growers in the south, where getting a fair price for the crop is slowly transforming lives

By Siobhan Norton |

Thirty years on from famine in Ethiopia, the country has seen huge change. The capital, Addis Ababa, has become a thriving hub – it is nicknamed the Dubai of Africa thanks to a construction boom that is rapidly changing the skyline. Hotels, shopping centers and new infrastructure have sprung up in the rapidly modernizing city, thanks in no small part to massive Chinese investment.

A day’s drive away down bumpy dirt roads in the Yirgacheffe region, however, time has all but stood still. Chickens and donkeys have as much right of way on the roads as the occasional coffee-laden truck. The country still depends largely on agriculture, and coffee forms almost half of its GDP – it is referred to here as black gold. Yet the people growing the valuable beans are still subsisting on their land, hostage to changing weather patterns and barely scraping enough of a living to see them from one end of the year to the next.

Coffee is the lifeblood of the community – not just a source of income but a basis of social events and, just as in the rest of the world, a morning essential. Breakfast time in the Birhanu household is very much a social occasion. The room is filled with chairs, and about a dozen people are eagerly awaiting their morning cup. The walls are festooned with posters of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and Bollywood idols. Zinabua, the head of the family, glances up. “I don’t know who they are,” she says. “I just like to look at them.”

You know the beans are nearly roasted when you hear the first crack, apparently. For even the uninitiated, the treacly malted scent that is beginning to emerge is unmistakeable. Zinabua carefully stirs the coffee to ensure every bean is evenly roasted, as the aroma filters into every corner of the tiny, straw-roofed room. Once the coffee beans have been roasted, they are ground in a pestle and mortar, brewed, and poured into thimble-sized cups.

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