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Hello from Ethiopia!

Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin. Photo by Peter Giuliano. Well, I’ve been in Ethiopia for about a week now, and haven’t written any reports yet. The reason is, I’ve been super busy! Let me tell you all about it.

I’m here wearing two hats: my first is as Vice President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Here’s the story: Last year, the country of Ethiopia made some dramatic changes in the way they manage their national coffee sector. Coffee is both culturally and economically important to Ethiopia—coffee’s birthplace is in Ethiopia, and every Ethiopian regards coffee as part of their national heritage. In addition, coffee exports are by far the largest source of income for the country. So, when the Prime Minister decided to engage in a program of market reform in the Ethiopian coffee sector, it was a big deal. Enter Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin, an incredibly charismatic and insightful woman who has made market reform in Ethiopia her life’s work, from her studies at Cornell and Stanford to her career at the World Bank. Dr. Eleni, as she is known in Ethiopia, was given the task of adapting her innovative model of an African-created commodity exchange—developed to improve markets all over Africa—to the Ethiopian coffee industry. This was a monumental and controversial task, and her genius and enthusiasm has made her a celebrity in Ethiopia and abroad—she was the subject of The Market Maker, a PBS documentary, and her work has become a touchstone for economic discussion and research worldwide.

Peter visited Ethiopia with a small delegation representing SCAA and its sister associations in Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, Dr. Eleni’s introduction of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was marred by controversy in the coffee world. The introduction of the ECX corresponded to the national government’s tightening of regulations in the coffee industry, which had grown lax over the past few years. The market reacted with suspicion and anger, since certain coffee projects (like our favorite Idido Misty Valley) now fell outside the system and would not be possible. This all began to emerge late last year, and as chair of the SCAA’s Symposium, I was able to add an emergency session to the schedule, where Dr. Eleni came in person to explain the changes to an upset coffee industry. It was a bit of a bloodletting, but what emerged was a working group between the ECX and the SCAA to try and adapt the new Ethiopian system to the needs of the Specialty Coffee marketplace. Sound complex? It is. Dr. Eleni, myself, and a small task force have been engaged since then in work to introduce enhanced quality, transparency, and traceability to the innovative Ethiopian coffee system.

An important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies.Last week, the ECX hosted a conference in Ethiopia to introduce and discuss this work with the Ethiopian coffee sector. About 150 Ethiopian coffee exporters, farmers, traders, and policymakers gathered in Addis for this important conference. I came with a small delegation representing SCAA and our sister associations in Asia and Europe. It was a huge deal here, the conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks! We engaged in a busy four days of discussion and negotiation, and we achieved a lot! I am so proud to have taken part in this work, and I am especially proud that Counter Culture’s innovations in direct trade with coffee farmers had a profound effect on those who work in the coffee industry here, and our direct trade system helped provide some of the groundwork for ECX’s introduction of an innovative “Direct Specialty Trade” auction system where buyers like us will be able to purchase lots directly from farmers and farmer groups in an open, modern marketplace in Addis. Exciting!

The recent ECX conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks. The work itself was thoroughly enjoyable, not least because an important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies. Just before the opening remarks, the main parties of the conference shared a coffee ceremony at the front of the auditorium, demonstrating our understanding and respect for the cultural importance of coffee here. The coffee ceremony never stopped for the next four days, and I could pop out of a policy-making session at any time to sit down for a cup of fragrant, sweet Ethiopian coffee. Awesome! In the end, we emerged with a very positive and concrete set of proposals to the Ethiopian government, which will be rolled out over the next few months. If you’re interested in the details, you can read ‘em here!

I spent the rest of my time in Addis learning more about the innovative ECX trading system, which takes coffee trading to a whole new level. It’s truly amazing. I also spent lots of time with the exporting community, including our old friend Abdullah Bagersh, and new friends from across the industry. It was great to talk shop and get the scoop on what is happening with this year’s harvest, which is just getting underway in the countryside.

Peter's final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. My final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. Dilla is in the south of the country, in the region known as Sidama, and we made the long trip through the dramatic and captivating rift valley by bus. We arrived to a major local event—the unveiling of this new system is a really exciting thing for the coffee community in places like Dilla. The media were in attendance again, as were local government officials, the Minister of Agriculture, and the local elders, the King and Prince of the Gedeo people, the primary ethnicity in this part of Sidama. We were welcomed effusively with dancing and speeches, and Eleni and I were given traditional Gedeo outfits by the elders to make it all official. Excellent! It was a great way to end what I’m sure will go down as a historic meeting in the modern history of the Ethiopian coffee trade. We then embarked on a series of visits and dinners to local traders, who all wanted to celebrate Dr. Eleni’s innovations and the new era of the Ethiopian coffee trade. Many lambs were slaughtered for the occasion, and we attended at least five huge feasts of injira bread, roasted lamb, and coffee ceremony. What an experience.

We all spent the night in beautiful huts in Yirga Alem, and the next day I embarked on the second part of my trip, this time wearing the hat of a coffee buyer, exploring Sidama, Yirga Chefe, and parts beyond. I’ll leave that story for the second part of my report. Until then, Bunafi naga hinabina. (May you never lack coffee or peace.)

I miss you all,
-Peter

Next: the road to Yirgacheffe!
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