I was packing in Dublin, trying to squash my life into two suitcases to move to Addis Ababa, when a friend asked why I would spend a small fortune on a Comandante coffee grinder. I explained that I would be spending hours and hours traveling to different washing stations and farms in my new job with Tropiq Ethiopia, and I might appreciate having good coffee in a thermos during the roadtrip.
I am both new to Ethiopia, and the job of coffee sourcing. In Dublin I was working as a barista and, eager for experience and adventure, I accepted a job with Tropiq in Ethiopia, having no idea what I was signing up for.
I was born and raised in Brazil and this is the kind of coffee production I understand. Just a few months ago, when I thought of a coffee farm, I imagined rows of perfectly aligned trees, interspersed with specific crops planted to give the best support to the coffee. In other words, precision farming. This is far from the reality in Ethiopia, which I was to discover on my first trip to the south with the GM of Tropiq Ethiopia, Alex Lenouvel Hansen.
I was constantly reminded that I was now in coffee’s home country. Coffee trees simply grow in Ethiopia, and it was common to see five to ten trees behind wooden houses, or interspersed in native forest reserves. That would be like finding coffee growing in the middle of the Amazon, something unthinkable for a Brazilian.
On most Brazilian coffee farms, soil is carefully monitored and treated with fertilisers, trees are checked regularly for disease and herbicides or fungicides are applied if necessary. In Ethiopia inputs or other interventions during the crop cycles are practically zero. Even so, I did see suppliers helping neighbouring smallholders, advising for example on important practices such as regular tree pruning.
The Threat of Violence
We were in Yirgacheffe heading back to Dila after three long days. That day had been particularly tiring, with visits to two sites and several farmers, and many long drives in between. The rest of the team was in one car and I traveled with our lovely clients from Austria, Jasna and Dieter, in the second one.
Our driver, Elias, had a contagious joy. He played lively Ethiopian music throughout the trip, and devoured the local dish of Fitfit with incredible speed. We even tried speaking in Amharic, which was disastrous due to my very poor grasp of the language, but Elias always suffered my attempts with great patience.
Tensions in Ethiopia at the time were high. The activist, Jawar Mohammad, had accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him, which made things worse. The roads between Hawassa and Addis were closed which meant we might not be able to get home. Elias was on the phone frequently with family members living in Ambo, keeping us apprised of the situation.
Elias’ wife and two daughters were hiding out at home with all the doors locked, and it was clear that Elias was worried for them. Then he received a call and learned that his brother’s home had been burned to the ground, and his brother had died in the fire. I immediately said that Elias could stop the car and we would go with the rest of the team in one vehicle so he could go directly home.
“I’ll take you to Dila safely,” he replied. For the rest of the journey he kept his hands firmly on the steering wheel, while silent tears streamed over his cheeks.
My mother always says a painful truth is better than a sweet lie. Here was my first encounter with the painful truth of living in Ethiopia, where violence lies just underneath the surface of everyday life.
Connecting through coffee
One thing that made me feel immediately at home in Ethiopia is a sense of hospitality that is so similar to my own culture in Brazil. Coffee is central to that hospitality in both countries, we make coffee any time, for anyone. Give us a spare five minutes, we’ll be preparing some coffee. In Brazil we serve coffee from a thermos, in Ethiopia coffee is served in the Jabenas. In both cases, coffee is connecting people.
Through shared cups of coffee I met some warm and welcoming people, like Berattu, the 97-year old matriarch of Mr Kebede Maro’s family. When I asked her if I could take a picture, she opened me her arms. This was the most intense and genuine welcome that I could have.
Another such connection was meeting Sissay, my co-worker and teacher in both roasting and Amharic. Sis, as I call her, has always treated me with such gentleness and openness that it is hard to believe that Ethiopia is not my home country.
During the trip, we also visited the Aricha Washing Station. After the visit the washing station management team took us to a restaurant to treat us to some local cuisine. When our portion arrived, Simret, the site manager who had been our guide until then, stuffed a portion of injera (Ethiopian gluten free bread) with Shiro (traditional Ethiopian sauce) and offered to feed me. That gesture, according to Alex, was to demonstrate that I was welcomed and taken as a friend by all.
And that’s exactly how I felt.
My friend who laughed at my decadent grinder purchase back in Dublin had said, “Come on Laryssa?! Don’t you think farmers will have a grinder? They are coffee farmers!” Well, no, they don’t have precision grinders or fancy pour over equipment, nor do they employ precision agricultural techniques on their farms, but through a simply ground and brewed coffee, they know how to make someone feel welcome.