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Stars align for Ethiopia

From the May 2020 issue.

The inaugural Cup of Excellence competition and an open export market are creating new opportunities for producers in Ethiopia.

This year, Ethiopia is hosting its first-ever Cup of Excellence  (CoE) competition, the annual Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) event that identifies and celebrates the highest-quality coffees around the world. The auction this summer is the culmination of years toiling on the farms, weeks of cupping and scoring, and navigating daily hurdles as the novel coronavirus spread globally and threatened to cancel the competition.

Given all the resources invested and record-levels of interest by farmers, ACE and its partners worked hard to ensure the competition stayed its course, albeit safely and with necessary modifications. The only major change, at the time of print, was the location of the inaugural event.

For the first time in the CoE’s 20-year history, the competition will take place outside of origin due to travel and social-distancing restrictions of the coronavirus.

The top 150 pre-selection winners were stored in the Addis Ababa CoE Center before being sent to ACE’s homebase in Portland, United States, for national and international judging rounds from 30 March to 10 April.

“Our members and board of directors have been demanding that we bring on Ethiopia at all costs,” says ACE Executive Director Darrin Daniel. “Ethiopia is such a good fit for CoE for so many reasons: the coffee quality, diversity of regions, coffee culture, and history of the country. Everything we think about coffee comes back to Ethiopia, so some might say it’s a no-brainer.”

But he explains that picking the next new competition country is not nearly as simple as throwing a dart at the coffee belt map. First, there needs to be a certain level of quality for a country to qualify. Then there needs to be an organising partner in-country to help facilitate the various stages and a mandate from the host country to make it a national program. Lastly, proper infrastructure and funding is necessary to license the program and work with ACE, among other costs.

“They have to really want us to be there,” Daniel tells Global Coffee Report. “There has to be a profound desire to work within our standards because they’re very difficult standards and it’s not a cheap program. But if these countries really care about their producers, the impact for producers is pretty immeasurable. That’s what makes the stars align.”

For Ethiopia and the CoE, the stars truly did align. After liberalisation of the sector in 2017, ACE finally had the inroads into the country that it needed. It partnered with the Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Authority (CTA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Feed the Future initiative.

According to Ian Chesterman, Chief of Party in the Feed the Future Ethiopian Value Chain Activity, the CTA organised a series of briefings across all of the key coffee production areas that were attended by more than 2800 farmers in late 2019, and then followed them up with a national radio and print media campaign.

Daniel says a typical first-year CoE competition sees about 400 to 500 entrants, but Ethiopia received a whopping 1462 submissions, 300-plus more than the previous record holder of Colombia.

“I think the interest is just testament to how excited they were that CoE was finally coming to Ethiopia,” admits Daniel. “Farmers [often] have a degree of skepticism when a foreigner comes in with a plan and promises to get high prices for them. That’s when you normally see people sitting back and waiting to see how the first year goes. That clearly didn’t happen here.”

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