Fairtrade coffee is Ethiopia's lifeblood but while the drink is available in abundance, food is not

Siobhan Norton talks to smallholder coffee-growers in the south, where getting a fair price for the crop is slowly transforming lives

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The Independent Online

Thirty years on from famine in Ethiopia, the country has seen huge change. The capital, Addis Ababa, has become a thriving hub – it is nicknamed the Dubai of Africa thanks to a construction boom that is rapidly changing the skyline. Hotels, shopping centres and new infrastructure have sprung up in the rapidly modernising city, thanks in no small part to massive Chinese investment.

A day’s drive away down bumpy dirt roads in the Yirgacheffe region, however, time has all but stood still. Chickens and donkeys have as much right of way on the roads as the occasional coffee-laden truck. The country still depends largely on agriculture, and coffee forms almost half of its GDP – it is referred to here as black gold. Yet the people growing the valuable beans are still subsisting on their land, hostage to changing weather patterns and barely scraping enough of a living to see them from one end of the year to the next.

Coffee is the lifeblood of the community – not just a source of income but a basis of social events and, just as in the rest of the world, a morning essential. Breakfast time in the Birhanu household is very much a social occasion. The room is filled with chairs, and about a dozen people are eagerly awaiting their morning cup. The walls are festooned with posters of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and Bollywood idols. Zinabua, the head of the family, glances up. “I don’t know who they are,” she says. “I just like to look at them.”

You know the beans are nearly roasted when you hear the first crack, apparently. For even the uninitiated, the treacly malted scent that is beginning to emerge is unmistakeable. Zinabua carefully stirs the coffee to ensure every bean is evenly roasted, as the aroma filters into every corner of the tiny, straw-roofed room. Once the coffee beans have been roasted, they are ground in a pestle and mortar, brewed, and poured into thimble-sized cups.

It’s good coffee. The local farmers know this, and are fiercely proud of it. In the Yirgacheffe region, the Arabica bean is prestigious and renowned for its fragrant, zesty flavour. Once everyone has perked up, breakfast follows, with huge plates of kocho – a slightly cheesy-tasty flatbread made from enset, or “false banana”. This is not a fruit but the pulp of a tree, fermented and made into a dough. It is a staple breakfast food here, and a lifeline during the difficult months when people are struggling to make ends meet. Today it is accompanied by a hunk of meat on the bone, but this is a rarity. Meat is non-existent during the hungry months.

In Yirgacheffe, the land is lush and covered in dense vegetation, with a morning mist hanging low over the forest canopy, under which coffee is interspersed with mango and avocado. Despite the greenery, however, the realities are more stark. Further north, the worst drought in 50 years is taking a toll, and here the last rainy season was disappointing, and there is talk among producers of the seasons shifting. They are all hopeful that come July and August, there will be decent rainfall – the coffee crops are fragile and weather-dependent. 

It is those summer months that are the toughest for the people in the region. Right now, with the harvest just completed, things are pretty good. The farmers have sold their crops, and have a bit more money, which means some meat on the table. In the rainy season, no harvesting or drying is possible, and people’s scant savings are drying up. Hungry months are so common around the world that they have different terms in different countries – “the thin months”, “silent months”. Here, it is known as chulga, or food suffering. The only thing that stands between some people and starvation is false banana.

Zinabua is a Fairtrade-affiliated coffee farmer, one of the thousands of smallholder farmers in the Yirgacheffe region, and one of three women on her local co-operative board. Fairtrade sets minimum prices for commodities so that farmers have some security, and are not hostage to market fluctuations. This means they can save money, or take calculated risks with new investment. On top of this there is the Fairtrade premium, a sum of money over and above the minimum price which is funnelled back to the people from the co-operatives, using a democratic process to decide where the money can best be put to use. This could be for a new truck to transport the beans, a new school building, or to fund a shopping centre where vital food items can be bought by members at cost price. 

Her husband helps out on the smallholding, but as a married female farmer who is head of the household she is a rarity in Ethiopia – most female farmers are widowed or divorced. She has built a second home, complete with corrugated iron roof, and improved her lot by investing in and selling machinery. “I was very ambitious, even as a child,” she says. “I completed primary school, even though the nearest was in Dilla (12 miles away). I would have continued with my education but my family put pressure on me to get married.”

Zinabua recently got electricity for her home, which she said changed her life. “Having electricity means I get more information, I know what is going on in the world,” she says. At the age of 35 and now a grandmother, she is still fiercely ambitious. “I wish my husband would help more – I still have to cook and take care of my family on top of my work,” she says. “But I want to demolish this house and build a better one – and my dream would be to live in a more urban area.” 

Migration from the countryside to the city is on the increase in Ethiopia, as people bid for a slice of the apparent prosperity enjoyed in the cities. Other coffee farmers are switching to growing the drug khat, which is more drought- and pest-resistant than coffee and less labour intensive. Coffee sells for about 12 birr (40p) per kilo – a vast improvement on the 1 birr per kilo a few years ago, but still there is much that must be done to earn those 12 birr.

About half of Ethiopia’s coffee is transported to market by pack animals. Pesticides and fertilisers are rare – good news for organic certification but bad news when crop yields are low. Once in the base centre, the ripe coffee “cherries” are either washed and “wet processed” or dried in the sun for several days, before being sorted by hand – a painstaking process to remove any beans that have become damaged. After being graded, the beans are bagged and sent to a processing warehouse in Addis Ababa, where the coffee is labelled, inspected and prepared for shipping.

The rural sorting stations are mostly staffed by women, who sit amongst the piles of beans and sort the good from the bad. Are the majority of the workers women because it is such a poorly paid job, less than £1 a day? No, they insist: women are chosen because the work requires a delicate touch and attention to detail. “Women do a better job,” says Andualem Shiferaw, deputy manager at Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Union. 

In Fero, the manager says the Fairtrade premium has helped to provide measures to improve the women’s working conditions – including a fire extinguisher and first-aid kit. At the sorting station, I talk to a couple of the women. “No, it’s not hard!” laughs Elfnesh Gebiba. The 20-year-old insists she is happy in her work, which begins at 8am and ends at 5pm. Her friend Emushe agrees. “We sit and talk with our friends while we work – we joke around, we have good times.” 

Do they gossip about their husbands? “No, we never gossip!” Do you bicker? “No!” They laugh and glance at each other – we’d caught the tail end of a minor scrap earlier between the friends. Emushe isn’t sure what age she is – she thinks 25 – and has five children, all at school. “I am very happy that they go to school. My husband works in the town and can be away for days, so while I am at work the children are at school. My goal is to work very hard and improve life for my family, and see them go to college.” Do they ever tire of coffee? “Never. We love coffee and drink it every day. It has made our lives better.”