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The future for Ethiopian coffee farmers

In the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopian farmers are adopting new practices to enhance a way of life that’s been passed down for generations.

Ethiopia’s future depends on coffee. One of Ethiopia’s most important commodities, coffee accounts for about 30 percent of Ethiopia’s exports and employs nearly 15 percent of the population. Jimma is a region in the central southwest part of the country that is known as the birthplace of Arabica coffee. People have been farming coffee for over 1,000 years in Jimma. It’s common to hear a farmer say that a coffee plant on their farm was planted by their grandparents or parents. Coffee impacts every part of life in this area; it is their past, present, and future.

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Jafare Mohamed stands amongst her beloved coffee plants. She’s recently planted young coffee plants and trees to support her growing coffee production. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

Nearly 95 percent of the coffee produced in Ethiopia is grown on small-scale rainfed farms. Ethiopia farmers are facing challenges, including increasingly erratic rainfall, rising temperatures, poor management of coffee trees, fluctuation of coffee prices and degradation of soil, that are adversely affecting their income opportunities the country’s coffee production.

Partners in sustainable coffee production

In 2017, with the support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, iDE began working with farmers in Jimma under the Sustainable Coffee, Honey, and Vegetable Value Chain Development project to help farmers increase the productivity of their coffee farms, while also creating alternative sources of income in high-value vegetable and honey production, and improving their access to profitable markets.

Over the course of the one year project, iDE worked with 286 farmers to help them gain access to better seeds and seedlings, irrigation technology, and training in climate-smart agriculture, as well as supporting farmers in diversifying their farms.

In order to water their crops, many small coffee farmers rely on rainfall, which has become more erratic in recent years, disrupting the growth cycle of the coffee plant. Without consistent rainfall, the coffee plant won’t flower appropriately. Also, higher rainfall 10-12 weeks after the plant flowers and produces berries increases the risk of disease, such as a fungus called Coffee Rust. In partnership with Jimma University’s Agriculture College, iDE and university researchers continue to test drip-irrigation technology to initiate on-time flowering and to fortify berry production. 

The project also promoted diversification of agricultural activities. For example, Tahir has expanded the production on his farm to include honey. Producing coffee and honey are symbiotic—honey bees pollinate the coffee flowers and in turn get the sugars they need to make honey. 

“Young people don’t have jobs. They just sit around at home, idle. Since we are poor, this is our start,” Tahir  said, considering the future. “We want to do more. We want to learn and work. We need help to continue. There’s no way to go back, just go forward.”

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Bringing agricultural innovation to new communities

With continued support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, iDE is expanding the work in Jimma under the new Sustainable Coffee Production for Conservation of Ecosystem Services and Support for Forest-Based Livelihoods project with a goal of working with 470 farmers and reaching another 530 indirectly through 2020.

Coffee farmers in Omo Bako, a community in Jimma, used to work autonomously and weren’t getting good returns for the intense physical labor that coffee farming requires. In early 2019, iDE encouraged these coffee farmers to come together to form the Omo Bako Coffee Group.

The Omo Bako Coffee Group gathers for a meeting and starts with coffee and diffo dabbo, a type of bread shared during gatherings and celebrations. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

To be part of the group, each member must own land and grow coffee. Of the 40 members, only three are women. Women in Omo Bako, a predominantly conservative Muslim community, typically do not own land. The three women in the Omo Bako Coffee Group, however, inherited land from their husbands when they passed away.

“Before we got organized, we didn’t have vision. Now we have a vision,” said Jafare Mohamed, the group’s female leader.

The Omo Bako Coffee Group has both a female and male leader. For Jafare Mohamed, this is the first time she’s ever held a leadership position

Jafare Mohamed on her farm. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

This vision of the future has already made a difference. In learning to prune and stump their coffee plants, Jafare and the other farmers are increasing the productivity and health of their plants. Pruning and stumping encourages the branches to grow out and produce more fruit while also reducing the likelihood of pest infestation.

Investing in the long-term health of coffee plants

In 2019, the government launched a reforestation campaign. iDE distributed 5,000 tree seedlings (acquired from its partner, Jimma Biodiversity Institute) to plant on coffee farms, providing shade for the plants.

Coffee grown in direct sunlight is more productive, yielding 1500 kg of coffee per plant in a harvest. The plants, however, have a significantly shorter lifespan (about 5 years) and produce lower quality beans. These plants are also more susceptible to disease. Shade grown coffee plants can live over 20 years and produce a higher quality product. iDE and Jimma University are working to increase the yield of shade grown plants through improved seedlings and better management. 

Shade-grown coffee produces more resilient, higher-quality berries. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

Because coffee plants take three to four years to mature, many coffee farmers working with iDE believe that an investment in the long-term health of a coffee plant is more productive than the short-term return from direct sunlight coffee. 

However, this investment goes beyond the plant to also include the soil. Abdo Kano, the Omo Bako group’s male leader, said that in the past, their soil would wash away in a strong storm, carrying with it all their hard work. iDE has trained Abdo and the group to make soil bunds to prevent this form of erosion. 

“Our children will learn from this work and know how to grow better,” said Abdo Kano.

Abdo Kano on this farm. (Photo by Emily Karol/iDE/2019)

A brighter future

With higher quality coffee and greater bargaining power through their group, the Omo Bako farmers hope they will be able to earn more from their coffee. They plan to use the extra income to establish a processing mill, so they can process the coffee themselves for export rather than selling to a co-operative.

“What makes me proud is that we have a future,” said Abdo. “We see a brighter future because we are learning and improving.”