Ethiopia has a reputation for some of our planet’s most fascinating varieties of Arabica coffee, with coffee deeply entrenched in the country’s culture and customs. However, coffee from the Guji region is a relative newcomer to this scene featuring many ancient coffees.
A mineral-rich part of Ethiopia, the fertile forests of Guji that cover the hills surrounding Shakiso were, for many years, off-limits to most Ethiopians. For decades, the government only allowed existing residents to live there.
Older visitors tell tales of how you would need a signed permit to enter the area and would undergo a thorough pat-down when leaving – to make sure you weren’t walking away with gold or other valuable minerals. Things have changed a lot now, and the forests and hills surrounding Shakiso are no longer closed off.
Some 40 km away from Shakiso, Faisal’s washing station at Mulish was the first in the area. Located at an altitude of around 1750 meters above sea level on a slope leading down to the Mormora river, the 4-hectare washing station opened in 2014. Although getting to the washing station is difficult, the location is ideal because it is close to the outgrowers who no longer have to travel long miles over arduous terrain to sell their coffee.
Faisal makes it a point to ensure the Mulish washing station benefits the community. “Our outgrowers are our backbone”, he says, explaining why he places so much importance on working with the community and meeting their needs. Faisal’s first step in the area was working with the community to build classrooms for the local school.
In addition, the washing station helps train the farmers to improve coffee growing practices, thereby further improving the already excellent quality of Mulish coffee. As of early 2020, Mulish purchases coffee from 880 outgrowers in the areas surrounding the washing station.
Many of these smallholders are relatively new to the area, most having moved here to farm over the past ten years. Some have come from areas close to Mulish, in the Guji zone; while others have moved, with their families, from as far away as Harar because of government relocation programs. Besides coffee, many of the farmers’ families also work with cattle and honey and grow other cash crops. On average, each household works 4 hectares of land.
The smallholders’ farms in the area are at slightly higher elevations than the washing station, most around 2000 meters above sea level. Planted among the towering trees of the old forests here, the coffee trees are young and are of three major types. The first is a varietal developed at the research center in Jimma. Labeled 4741, this varietal is resistant to disease and ideal for the Guji area.
The other two varietals common to this area are indigenous ones. Each type of coffee ripens at a slightly different time of the year and is processed separately at the washing station. The washing station itself is well-equipped and capable of washing 7000 kilos of coffee per hour at full capacity. Once the 400 beds are full, the washing station does not accept more coffee.
Although relatively new, coffee from the Guji forests of Ethiopia is gaining more recognition around the world. As a result, farmers are positive, as are exporters like Faisal. However, there are still challenges to face, and one of the major ones is the fast-rising cost of living in Ethiopia.
The inflation rate in Ethiopia has been steadily rising, and in February 2020 was over 20 percent. On the other hand, global coffee prices around the world have not been rising. This leaves the Mulish washing station in a difficult situation. The prices Mulish pays its outgrowers – while above par – cannot rise as fast as the cost of living does because the global coffee rates aren’t rising as fast.
This leaves the farmers with less profit for each harvest. Faisal hopes to find solutions to this ever-widening gap, partly by discussing the situation with buyers and partly by offsetting some of the outgrowers’ costs by helping meet more of the community’s needs, particularly those of children in school.
Another challenge is the Mormora river itself. While the powerful river waters the land, at times it can be a raging torrent impossible to cross by foot, cutting off farmers from the other side of the river during harvest season. The ideal solution would be a bridge, but the cost of building one is prohibitively expensive.
Despite their challenges, Faisal and the Mulish smallholders are hopeful for the future. The washing station plans to make some improvements in the coming years, including setting up facilities for specialty dried coffee; improving ecologically sustainable practices; and investing more in the community, with special focus on setting up a high school for the farmers’ children. Moreover, the washing station’s investment in training the smallholders and maintaining high standards is paying off, with Mulish coffee consistently graded high and winning awards.