Jan Komarek, our Green Coffee Buyer and Head of Quality Control at Bailies Coffee Roasters shares his insights on Ethiopia and the difficulties associated with traceability and transparency.
With the introduction of our Ethiopian microlots we felt it was appropriate to disclose why our newly launched Microlot coffees from Ethiopia are not traceable to the washing station or the farmer. Yes, not traceable but read on to learn why.
Behind every coffee label is a great story. So, when Jan scheduled the Ethiopian Sidamo microlot coffees for roasting, we couldn’t help reflect on what it took to get it here and the challenges that exist in Ethiopia.
It all began before Christmas 2016 when Jan announced he was travelling to Ethiopia to meet farmers and to buy coffee. Travelling to various farms around the world comes as no surprise but when Jan highlighted some of the risks and the fact that he would be non-contactable for a few days we couldn’t help but worry. Oh, and on top of that he had to be back in time for the birth of his first new born baby who was due within weeks.
Our first two Ethiopian coffees are now available in our new sunset inspired microlot branded bags.
Birthplace of Coffee
Without a doubt, some of the best coffees on the planet come from Ethiopia, Furthermore, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Yet it is incredibly difficult to get the quality and direct relationships with its farmers. In this blog post, we discuss the difficulties associated with Ethiopian coffee traceability and transparency.
Our ambition would be to buy beautiful coffees through our Direct Trade model as we currently do in many other countries, but unfortunately, the laws in Ethiopia surrounding coffee exportation makes this impossible at the moment. This, therefore, prevents us from having full traceability for most coffee we source here, including the most beautiful ones that deserve to have their stories told and producers rewarded.
Ethiopia currently has 3 ways of selling green coffee:
- Private farmers (Smallholders)
- Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX)
A large majority of Ethiopian smallholders have just a couple of trees in their garden and therefore aren’t considered “private farmers” by Ethiopian law. This label is reserved for only the wealthiest that own large plantations. Private farmers have the ability to export themselves, however most of their coffee is of commercial quality with some exceptions.
Most smallholder farmers deliver their cherries to a cooperative or private washing station. Cooperatives belong to Cooperative Unions and are government-owned. These Unions sell the cooperative's coffee, with traceability. By providing this traceability, the unions have a great advantage over the private washing stations and due to this most cooperatives lack the will or incentive to produce excellent coffees, therefore, purchasing amazing microlots from cooperatives is virtually impossible.
The most extraordinary lots typically arise from smallholder crops sent to private mills. Many of them are competitive, flexible and see the benefits of producing high-quality coffee. But all of them must sell their coffee to ECX, there are no exceptions to this rule. Over 95% of all Ethiopian coffees go through ECX and this is where traceability is lost.
In the past, the traceability was lost only on paper. The coffees delivered to ECX weren’t unloaded from delivery trucks. Knowing this, washing stations began to register as certified exporters and each time they delivered coffee to ECX, they would try to buy back the same lot on the same day and in many cases they would receive the same truck with their coffee.
However, this came to a halt around 3 years ago when the ECX collection warehouses started unloading the coffee from each truck as they came in from the washing stations and began mixing it with all of the other coffees of the same region and quality grade. This has resulted in the complete loss of traceability. No one can receive a lot from a single washing station.
A lot of washing stations have good relationships with long term buyers. When ECX was introduced, they ensured the buyers that they can recognise their own coffee and buy it back, despite not having any proof for it. Most buyers, including ourselves, accepted this explanation. But when the coffee began to be mixed with all the other coffees from the same region, most of the washing stations and exporters decided to adopt a new strategy: “There is non 0% chance that at least some of the coffee in this lot came from my washing station, therefore I will say that I have traceability.”
When buyers asked how are they able to track their coffee through ECX they simply replied that they have an exception or that they know people on the inside of ECX.
In the past, we’ve been guilty of blindly trusting this information. But after my visit to Ethiopia in December 2016 I understood that some of the coffees we sold in the past were not traceable. They were still beautiful coffees and they were produced by smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, but they came from ECX and although they were sold by the respective washing station, they were blends of many coffees from the region.
This made me think a lot about the reasons why traceability is so important to Bailies and what can we do to improve. In theory, traceability is good for many reasons:
- Verifying that our money reached the producers
- Identifying possible quality improvements
- Checking whether the coffee is grown sustainably and ethically
- Investing in future improvements
Exporters, importers and roasters wanted to believe in non-existent traceability because it allowed them to charge more money thanks to nice story-telling and beautiful pictures. Some of them even put a ‘Direct Trade label’ on these coffees, which is misleading.
We aim to be as transparent as possible regardless of whether it’ll have a financial impact on us, so this year we will have some beautiful coffees from Ethiopia but the traceability will be limited only to a region, not a single washing station. These coffees were grown by thousands of smallholders in Ethiopia, processed by many washing stations and with the help of our Ethiopian exporter Heleanna Georgalis we picked some of the best lots and carefully processed them. None of these coffees will have a Direct Trade label because it’s simply not possible.
We believe this is the right thing to do and we hope that you, our customer, will understand and forgive us for selling not fully traceable coffees in the past. It has taken us 2+ years to fully understand Ethiopian legislation and traceability, mostly because the law is written in Amharic (mine is a tad rusty...) and has many exceptions and loopholes. One of the most common responses I received on my trip was “In Ethiopia, the law isn’t black and white.”
Despite admitting that there is only so much we can do, we will keep our focus on Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has recently announced that they might allow some coffees to go through ECX with traceability in the future. There have been some failed trials last year, but a new system has been announced and everyone is hoping for change.
Direct trade isn't easy
We have made our Direct Trade rules intentionally difficult for ourselves. Only the best farms from our long-term relationships will comply with all of the requirements. But this is necessary if the label should carry true meaning and value. We really hope that you agree with us and will support our transparent approach.
The traceable coffee that we will have this year from Ethiopia is Hunkute coop, Sidama cooperative union. If traceability is important for you or your business, we recommend you to buy this incredible coffee when released.
In the meanwhile we would recommend purchasing our newest Ethiopian Sidamo washed coffee.