RNY on Location: Ethiopia Coffee November 2015

specialty coffee cherries on a tree in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee – home to the greatest wealth of diversity and to thousands of varieties undocumented by the coffee industry. A country rich in culture, Ethiopia has over 80 different tribes of people.  These tribes all have their own language, customs, and traditions.

In November 2015, some RNY traders including Richard Borg were fortunate enough to meet with our suppliers in Ethiopia.  They travelled the countryside and visited coffee farms and mills around the country.  They set out to absorb as much information as possible about a unique, interesting and complex origin.

specialty coffee producers on a coffee farm in Ethiopia


We flew in to Addis Ababa. After resting overnight from our long flight, we hopped on a small plane to Jimma.  Jimma is a famous coffee town and actually the origin for a majority of the coffee exported from Ethiopia. The Jimma region historically produces a lower grade naturally processed coffee.  You can see evidence of this driving through the villages.  Nearly every small house has a small raised bed (maybe three feet on each side) with cherries of every color drying.

We came to Jimma to visit our partners, Tracon Trading.  Tracon Trading has a plantation about two hours west of Jimma, nearest a town called Gera.  We have been purchasing an excellent Grade 1 washed coffee from them for the past 2 years and a natural coffee starting last year.

Their plantation is a large one, 1000 hectares, with coffee planted on half of the land. Tracon plans to incrementally plant the rest of the available land over the next 10 years.

At 1900 meters above sea level, it sits much higher than most of the coffee land in the Jimma region. It is much cooler, and they had been experiencing more rain than is usual for the season.  There were hardly any ripe cherries on the trees, but they were packed with green fruit. Soon enough, however, picking will be in full swing and the new crop from Gera estate will be under way.

Tracon Certifications & Responsibility

Tracon is very close to completing the requirements for obtaining Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certifications.  In a few years they hope to have Organic certification as well.  Currently no pesticides are used, however, obtaining Organic certification is a long process that can take a number of years to complete.

Tracon commits themselves to the welfare of the more than 500 workers who tend the plantation. No one under the age of 18 is permitted to work the farm.  They also provide housing for the workers who need it, in addition to water and electricity. Additionally, they have built a school for the workers’ children.

Specialty coffee farm nursery at Gera Farm in Ethiopia

Nursery At Gera Farm

Specialty washed coffee at Gera farm in Ethiopia

Washed Coffee At Gera Farm


After spending two days in Gera, we set off on the very long and bumpy drive to Awassa.

Awassa is the capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region.  This is a resort town on Lake Awassa and was a good stop-over point on the way to Yirga Chefe.  Awassa is also home to the largest ECX (Ethiopian Commodity Exchange) delivery center.  Here producers tender their coffee to the exchange to be graded and stored before they can sell it to an exporter on the ECX trading floor.

Awassa is where most of the coffee sold as Sidamo is tendered.  While there wasn’t too much going on during our visit in early November, the graders there might cup 50 to 100 samples per day when the crop is in full swing in December and January.

During our trip the graders explained their process for evaluating all of the coffee to us.  Believe us, it is very complicated and a little bit difficult to wrap your head around.  We will spare you the minutiae here but will happily discuss with you over the phone if you have some time – give us a call!

Specialty coffee producer sampling a delivery at the ECX Delivery Station in Awassa Ethiopia

Sampling A Delivery At The ECX Delivery Station In Awassa

Specialty coffee waiting to be sampled at ECX Delivery Station in Awassa

Coffee Waiting To Be Sampled At ECX Delivery Station In Awassa

Yirga Chefe

From the delivery center, we left for Yirga Chefe.  Once we drove through Wenago (a town just to the north of Yirga Chefe), one thing that surprised us was the height of the coffee trees. We saw some that were 25 to 30 feet tall; these were not shrubs but proper trees!

Unfortunately, the tops were full of red cherries that it seemed difficult to pick – maybe some pruning is in order? Every few minutes while driving down the main road there was another washing station, with wet mill and raised drying beds. We visited a few of these: the Konga washing station where our Natural Konga 3 originates, another washing station in Konga called Wote, and the Chelelektu washing station from where we receive some of our washed Yirgacheffe Kochere. Visiting these places were wonderful.  Seeing the ladies sort through parchment while singing was something we will never forget, and the scenery was gorgeous. Yirga Chefe is surely a special place.

Specialty coffee raised beds at Konga Washing Station in Ethiopia

Raised Beds At Konga Washing Station

Ethiopia Coffee from Hambela Farm

From Yirga Chefe our next stop was the Hambela farm, another private plantation, this one owned by our partner, METAD. We were all extremely excited to visit this place, because it is the origin of one of the finest Ethiopian coffees we have had the honor of bringing to the States.

The Hambela plantation is (depending on which road you take) 50 or 80 km down a dirt road from Yirga Chefe in the Guji region. It was a rough ride – the road was very muddy and at one point it looked like the Land Cruiser Richard was riding in ahead of me was going to flip over.  Thankfully, our drivers were skilled and fearless and took better care of us than I could have hoped to do myself.

Hambela is one of the most beautiful places I have seen with my own eyes. 300 plus year old shade trees cover the farm, every time you crest a hill or round a corner you expect to see a dinosaur or something. The soil under your feet is so spongy and soft – you can tell how fertile and ideal the land is here for growing coffee. They are finding that with proper management their trees are yielding fruit within 2.5 to 3 years.

Processing Methods at Hambela Farm

For their washed coffee they have a Colombian Penagos wet milling machine.  This machine allows them to use only 1 liter of water to wash each kilo of parchment (instead of 6 liters when washed the traditional way). For their naturals they have on site an Ethiopian made dry hulling machine.

We are really excited to see new arrivals from METAD.  For a project only a few years in the making, the quality is already so excellent.  We expect to see more great things from them in years to come!

Specialty coffee nursery at Hambela Farm in Ethiopia

Nursery At Hambela Farm

Specialty coffee raised beds at Hambela Farm in Ethiopia

Raised Beds At Hambela Farm

Specialty coffee eco-pulper at Hambela Wet Mill in Ethiopia

Eco-pulper at Hambela Wet Mill

Ethiopia Coffee Commodity Exchange

After Hambela we took two days to drive back to Addis. The last stop of our trip was to the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) trading floor, so we could see the trading in action. It was really interesting. All of the sellers wear a green coat, and all of the buyers wear a tan coat.

During the different trading sessions for different types of coffee, the seller will say their price and hold up their hand. When they find a buyer to agree to their price, they give each other a high-five and then write up the sale with the clerk on the side of the trading pit.

The increment for buying and selling is pretty confusing – it is unsorted parchment sold in Ethiopian Birr per Feresulla (a 17 kg unit of coffee). This makes it somewhat difficult for us to estimate our costs even if we keep track of the prices on the ECX website.  This is because it doesn’t include milling and sorting costs, and the grades of parchment sold on the exchange are not the same as the export grades we are used to seeing.

What’s to come for Ethiopia Coffee

Ethiopia has some of the most interesting coffee in the world but it can be really frustrating to try to deal with the lack of traceability available on the majority of coffees purchased through the ECX. Some good news from the ECX came up while we were there: starting this year they are planning on instituting a traceability program for specialty coffee.  They will be tagging and coding bags so they can trace the origin of the coffee back to the specific washing station or mill. We are excited for this new development and hope it can allow us to provide you with better information about your coffee in the future!