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Technoserve’s East African connection

From the February 2017 issue.

American nonprofit Technoserve is working to connect some of East Africa’s remotest, and most remarkable, coffee regions to the world market.

Coffee farmers

In the fevered imaginings of any adventurous coffee prospector, there will always be a jewel out there somewhere in the remote wilds. Beyond a bend in the river, among the great unwashed beans, there must be another undiscovered masterpiece of coffee.

Agaro was one of these miraculous discoveries in Ethiopia’s rust-colored Jimma highlands in rural Oromia, at the end of a road that locals liked to say “was deeper than it was long”.

It was here that the team from venerable US nonprofit Technoserve struck coffee gold in a region whose modern reputation for providing the dregs of coffee production was at odds with its 8th-century heritage as one of the original coffee lands. In fact, beans from the area were so poorly thought of that they were known as Jimma 5, because they had all five problems associated with poor farming, including cracked beans, overripe “foxie” beans, unripened “quakers” as well those chewed by insects. Jimma 5 became a byword among buyers in Ethiopia for bad coffee.

It took someone from Technoserve wading across a river to talk to coffee growers on the other side to realise just how wrong the conventional wisdom was in Agaro.
They found a village of coffee farmers who would get caught out every year when the river swelled and became hard to cross just as the coffee bushes ripened. Savvy traders would lure them across with promises of good prices that would evaporate when they got there.

Facing an arduous return crossing, the farmers preferred to sell for a pittance than return empty-handed. What they needed was a loan to pay for a wet mill to wash the coffee fruit down to the bean, and a bridge to give them a reliable, year-round connection to nearby markets.

A loan from Technoserve achieved both of these outcomes. Today there is a coffee cooperative known to specialty traders, such as US specialty sourcer Red Fox Coffee Merchants as the “crown jewel of the west.”

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