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Coffee Growing in Ethiopia


Ethiopia is Africa's leading exporter of Arabica coffee, earning over $310 million in 1997. Small private coffee plantations contribute about 90% of the country's coffee, while large state-owned plantations account for the rest. The land area under coffee cultivation is difficult to determine because plots are fragmented and interspersed with other crops. It is estimated, however, that Ethiopia has over 320,000 hectares of coffee trees. Annual production ranges from 200,000 to 250,000 metric tons, depending on weather and prices. About 35% of total production is consumed locally. The Ethiopian government is encouraging private investment in the coffee industry, which they hope will lead to the expansion of large-scale commercial plantations and improved quality and productivity.

Coffee: From Berries to Beans

Once the coffee berries turn bright red on the trees, farmers must pick them within two days or they will dry. Once plucked, the farmers have 12 hours to get the ripened cherries to a pulpery, or coffee washing station. Farmers in distant villages far from a washing station must sundry the beans themselves, then take off the husks and transport them to market. Visitors to small coffee farms can see the beans drying on mats, blackened from the sun. Farmers, however, prefer to get their berries to washing (pulping), stations to take advantage of higher market prices for "washed" coffee.

At the pulping, the berries are soaked in water for 72 hours. The vats are drained and the berries flow through sluices onto open trays for drying. Berries are dried in the sun for six days but only between sunrise and 11 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to sunset to avoid intense sunlight. After broken or dirty berries are discarded, the beans are bagged and trucked to Addis Ababa for sale in the daily coffee auction.

Many new coffee-washing stations have sprung up along the roads surrounding Jimma, the traditional centre of Ethiopia's coffee industry. However, overbuilding of washing stations in the area means many stations are under-utilised. Competition among washing stations is so intense that managers are paying higher prices for berries and collecting them directly from the villages, saving farmers the trouble and expense of getting them to a station by themselves. The price of the berries has risen from less than one birr (15 cents) per kilogram three years ago to more than 2 birr per kilogram (30 cents) this year. During the picking season, station employees work for two straight months with no days off or holidays. Each station can handle up to 10 tons of berries a day.

Coffee Auctions

All exported coffee, washed and sun-dried, goes to either Addis Ababa or Dire Dawa for auction to export firms. Dire Dawa serves as the auction and export centre for the sun-dried harar brand of Arabica coffee grown in the area. Exporters resident in Dire Dawa attend the daily auction at the export association offices. Twenty bowls with several kilograms of each coffee batch up for sale are displayed in the auction room with information on the growing area (especially whether it is highland or lowland coffee). The auction is conducted by the government's Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Authority, which takes a random sampling of three kilograms from each shipment, grades it and puts it on display.

Agricultural Extension

Extension agents from the Jimma coffee plantation development enterprise select 15 model farmers who are trained in modern farming methods and then encouraged to demonstrate these methods to their neighbours. The extension worker shows them techniques in preparing beds and mats for coffee, and introduces green manure, or nitrogen-fixing plants, that reduce the amount of fertiliser needed. The office also sells new seedlings that are resistant to coffee berry disease. The new seedlings are grown on a nursery site for one year then sold to farmers. The new varieties mature in the fourth year, while older varieties needed seven years to flower. With improved practices and better seedling varieties, farmers can now produce ten quintals per hectare, as opposed to six quintals per hectare under the old method. In addition to extension agents, a new training centre opened up in Jimma recently for coffee farmers.


There are several coffee co-operatives operating in the Jimma region. Members pool their resources to purchase supplies and inputs, such as fertiliser. A few co-operatives have plans to build their own pulperies so members can cut out the middleman and obtain higher coffee bean prices. The co-operatives also lend money and provide health care services.

Government Plantations

State-owned plantations cultivate about 21,000 hectares of coffee, with five large farms located in lowland coffee-growing areas of Tepi and Bebeka. The government has its own washing stations on these plantations. At the goma plantation near Jimma, one of the largest state plantations with over 1049 hectares, employs 700 permanent and 3000 casual workers during the production period. The washing station on the plantation can process 6 tons of cherry in one hour.

Aquapulpers and Artificial Dryers

Several government plantations are using artificial dryers as an alternative to sun drying in areas that receive a lot of unseasonal rain, such as the lowland plantations at Tepi and Bebeka. In addition, several large plantations now use Aquapulpers. Aquapulpers are machines that accomplish both pulping and mucilage removal at the same time. These machines can be transported to remote coffee-growing regions and wash small quantities of berries for farmers who cannot get them in time to a washing station. Aquapulping gives farmers a more profitable alternative to sun-drying their berries and increase the amount of washed coffee the plantation can bring to the auction. The Goma plantation has one aquapulper in use at present with an additional three on order.

Promoting Organic Coffee

The Ministry of Agriculture is encouraging farmers to continue growing coffee organically and promoting this quality on the world market. Most of Ethiopia's coffee at present is grown organically; that is, without the use of pesticides (though fertilisers and even an occasional fungicide are applied to coffee trees). In addition, there are no enzymes used in the washing stations or in the fertilisation process. The government is trying to obtain formal designation for its organic coffee in the hopes that this will improve the marketing potential and prices for Ethiopia's coffee, particularly in the west where organic products are highly desired.

Coffee is Ethiopia's most important industry. It accounts for more than 60% of Ethiopia's export earnings and provides the primary source of income for many thousands of small farmers. Coffee has a long and revered history in Ethiopia and is an important component of Ethiopian culture and society. Even the word "coffee" is reportedly derived from the "Kaffa" region in which it was first grown. Ethiopia's goal is to share its high quality product with more consumers around the world.


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