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Coffee Origins: Ethiopia

For those living in first world luxury, little thought is given to where your staple morning coffee originates from. As much as this caffeinated beverage plays a vital role in working day life, not many can confidently state its outsourcing heritage. However, practically all the coffee drunk in the present day is grown in tropical regions, with Ethiopia known to be one of the main sources of coffee bean production.

But as simple as farming cherries may be, Ethiopia has also had its fair share of genocide, political instability and climate threat to battle against. This has, in turn, affected the country’s crop growth rate, with many Ethiopians struggling and even surrendering their farms in the face of adversity. As one of the country’s top sources of economic income, coffee beans are heavily relied upon to ensure basic third world living. Here, we uncover just how Ethiopia’s chequered history has shaped the coffee bean production seen worldwide, today.

The rise of coffee beans

Situated in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is cloaked in earth-coloured terrain. It's boundless vista and lofty altitudes are home to an abundance of tropical cloud forests, making this vast expanse the perfect environment to grow coffee in. A region aptly known as Kaffa establishes itself as the inaugural spot for coffee growth, with a vast cherry plantation originating in this particular district of Ethiopia.

Both myths and real life anecdotes tell of how the coffee cherry was first discovered and used, with many citing its growth in popularity down to the stimulant it contained. Universally now known as caffeine, back then this mystery substance was simply an alkaloid-packed bean with striking energising effects. Despite each fruitful narrative, one thing was for certain - coffee cherries were a staple addition to the diet of local tribes and individuals looking to boost their stamina.

Fast forward several decades and now, Ethiopia exists as one of the largest African producers of Arabica coffee. In turn, the bean has become the country’s most important export, with over a third of Ethiopia’s 75 million strong population depending on the crop to live. Delve a little deeper into the country’s third world poverty and we uncover that 64% of the population doesn’t have access to clean and safe water, 50% live in economic poverty and a vast majority live without electricity. With such distress affecting a substantial group of humans, it’s easy to see why the coffee bean is so treasured.

Various elements contribute to Ethiopia’s tragic poverty, but there are two vital factors that are consistently circled back on… both the country’s reliance on farming agricultural produce, and internal regional conflict.

Two Ethiopian Girls brewing coffee using a traditional Jebena.

Political conflict and coffee crisis

Over the past 40 years, Ethiopians have lived under three various government structures. Each has contributed to forming the rich and chequered history that is spoken about and will continue to be spoken about, for many years to come. These three separate governments consist of a semi-feudal imperial, a military rule during 1974-1991 with poisonous Marxist ideologies, and a federal governing system that we see in place this present day. Unsurprisingly, such political unrest goes hand in hand with armed resistance, widespread discontent and even rebellion.

Notably, the country’s war with Eritrea from 1998-2000 is most protuberant. Combined with various internal conflict, this horrific combat resulted in a vast loss of life, emotional trauma and severe famine. It’s also been the cause of limited access to land resources, which has, in turn, affected the country’s production of coffee. Both the looming threat of anarchy and Ethiopia’s existing third world poverty prompted the beginning of a local coffee crisis, with 2003 seeing the lowest coffee prices in all the country’s farming history. As the levels dropped, so did the farmer’s chances of turning over a profit, with funds unable to even cover the cost of production. This ultimately had a knock-on effect on their families. As with no stable income, there was no way of providing basic living essentials such as food, clothing, education or medicine, let alone cover the cost of home maintenance. As a result, Ethiopians were forced to abandon their suffering crops. They migrated inland instead or turned their attention to other agriculturally-grown local produce.

Whilst Ethiopia reels from the effects of these historical events, many farmers still remain loyal to their coffee cultivation. What’s more, the country has been offered a more substantial quality of life in the coffee department, thanks to government efforts. In 1952, a coffee classification and grading system was developed, and combined with the establishment of the National Coffee Board of Ethiopia (NCBE), it has helped to curb the coffee crisis. Now, production, trade and export methods are controlled and coordinated to improve the quality of Ethiopian coffee. That and recent partnerships with Fair Trade coffee organisations have helped to ensure Ethiopian farmers receive the profit they deserve.

Climate threat and future growth

Government aid may have positively modified the way in which coffee is exported, but unfortunately, Ethiopia has another enemy to face. Just as bloodshed from political unrest eases, climate change threatens the country’s ability to farm its most cherished crop. Higher temperatures and declining rainfall across the summer season has become a worryingly problematic issue, with many farmers experiencing far less frequent harvests.

But unlike war, there are ways in which humanity can overthrow this natural nemesis. Untouched regions within Ethiopia could prove more suitable for farming coffee. Which means mitigation efforts to relocate the current plantations to these areas of higher altitude could be a positive step towards a more sustainable farming future. Doing so, however, requires ample resource, which many struggling farmers do not have just yet.

As a result, we try our best - as Ethiopia’s caffeinated neighbours - to remain truly conscientious in the outsourcing of our coffee beans. The government has already provided many Ethiopians with the opportunity to benefit from the global economy, but we also realise that lending our own helping hand is just as fundamental to the country’s growth and welfare, too.

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