By Alma Likic, Marketing Manager, PLITEK and NCA Next Gen member
Recently, Alma Likic, Marketing Manager at PLITEK and NCA Next Gen member, interviewed Yisehak Awel, a third-generation coffee grower and exporter from Mullege Coffee, for a discussion about the history of his company and the current coffee growing situation in his home country.
But first, a little history about Ethiopian coffee:
Ethiopia has long been considered the place of coffee origin. According to legend, a goat herding monk noticed that when his herd was nibbling on the bright red berries of a certain tree, they became more energetic (“jumping goats”). The goatherder chewed the fruit himself and confirmed his discovery, which he then shared with others at the monastery. The rest is history: Word of this energizing bean spread, and by the 15th century, coffee was being sipped across the Arabian Peninsula, making its way to Europe by the 17th century and soon spreading around the world. To this day, coffee is critical to Ethiopia, accounting for 70% of all its export revenues and employing 15 million Ethiopians.
The flavors of Ethiopian coffee are notably diverse – from citrus, bergamot, and florals, to candied fruit and even tropical fruit flavors. It’s principle coffee-growing regions can be divided into the following: Sidama/Sidamo, Harrar, Yirgacheffe, Limu, Jima, and Ghimbi/Lekempti.
There are three coffee production systems used in Ethiopia: Forest Coffees, where wild-grown coffee is harvested by the local population; Garden Coffees, grown in small holder plots around homestead or other dwellings along with other crops; and Plantation Coffees, a very small percentage of Ethiopian coffee, grown on large estates.
The following interview with Yisehak Awel has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did Mullege Coffee come to be?
My grandfather, Awel, started Mullege Coffee PLC in 1953. His beginnings were humbling as a lone farmer within the confines of small city called Areka in the southern part of Ethiopia. His big ideas weren’t as restrained as his economic situation for which he found a solution; He started as a farmer selling to wet mill owners. To increase sales, he managed to negotiate with other farmers to buy their red cherry coffee to expand and diversify his product line, having an advantage and opportunity to grow. He did that long enough to be able to own his own washing station and buy from multiple red cherry farmers in southern Ethiopia to sell parchment coffee directly to the exporters. And by 1996, thirty-three years after its inception, and with my father, Mustapha, joining the family business, Mullege Coffee started selling coffee directly to the European market.
What is the socio-economic situation in Ethiopia?
The socio-economic status in Ethiopia may not be ideal, but through farmers’ growth in wages, there is some optimism of that continuous growth in the years to come. The productivity is still at an infancy stage. The most common farm size is 1.98 acres, limiting each farmer’s opportunities. Farmers’ inability to scale their crops encumbers growth at a more rapid pace, which ultimately affects their overall income. Despite this, the small but steady growth over the last decade has given everyone a glimmer of hope to see more significant changes to the country’s infrastructure to improve the lives of farmers.
What are the biggest challenges for young Ethiopian coffee producers? The greatest opportunities?
Scale of production is a major challenge. Most young farmers inherited land from their parents which they share amongst their siblings. Farm lot sizes are extremely small ranging from 1.5 to 5 acres of land. Therefore, the cost of production is high due to low output. However, there are tremendous opportunities in diversifying crops. Avocado trees are used as a shade tree for coffee. There is an increase of demand for Avocado fresh fruits and avocado oil for both local and international markets.
Is there a sense of excitement about coffee for young producers?
Not quite. Young people want to work in an urban environment and pursue careers or entrepreneurship.
What is coffee consumption like among producers?
Ethiopia consumes more than 50% of its production. Coffee is a ritual and part of our lifestyle. Majority of young people consume coffee.
How do young coffee producers view sustainability in coffee?
There isn’t enough awareness when it comes to sustainability of coffee among young producers. Those who are aware challenge the logic of sustainability since the monetary return is low. I’ve had a farmer who said to me “we barely have enough to produce let alone to sustain.”
Any current events/forces outside of coffee affection young coffee producers in Ethiopia?
Urban migration is a main factor affecting young coffee producers. There numerous industrial projects coffee growing region by local and international investors. Wages are very attractive and young people prefer the urban lifestyle.
Any message to your Next Gen counterparts in North America?
The perspective and perception of farmers has already changed. Farmers are aware and exposed to what’s happening in the global coffee value chain. As young coffee professionals in consuming countries you have different challenge than your predecessors; we all need to come together to convince coffee farmers to keep producing coffee.
What is the impact of Covid-19 on coffee growers and exporters?
As exporters, we have been negatively impacted by the Covid-19, but we’ve still managed to sustain during these unfortunate times. One of the reasons is because we serve the international market as well as the local market. And the local market has not been affected as much. Ethiopia consumes over 50% of the coffee produced. Coffee growers and exporters have been able to maintain their local customer base. Additionally, the government has provided incentives to farmers with a goal to increase farmland for coffee growers in certain areas like Jimma and Leemu, which will contribute to increase in farmers’ output. Because of the mass consumption of coffee locally and government initiatives to sustain farmers, coffee growers have been able to weather this storm.
How would you describe your experience with NCA (events) to young professionals looking to join?
I have been attending NCA events since 2013. The contents of the presentations are very insightful and informative about the coffee industry. It is by far the best event for networking with potential clients, industry experts, and catching up with colleagues from the entire coffee supply chain. In the past few years NCA has focused on engaging young coffee professionals with the Next Gen initiative. Joining the NCA is worth for me to take a 16 hour flight every year for this 3 day event.