[I want to preface this by stating that I am not an economist. Nor am I a specialist on the state of Africa or the Ethiopian economy. While I consider myself educated, read and travelled I will not pretend like I am expert, largely because I believe the topics to be covered are complex and deserving of a respectful approach.]

Currently, I find myself in Ethiopia for the first time trying to wrap my head around the coffee sector and how speciality coffee intertwines in the largely traded commodity. In short, it is unlike anything I have seen at other origins. It is complex, a bit confusing, and far reaching. Honestly, it would be easy for me to be critical. In fact, most of the speciality coffee scene holds that stance, but I cannot help but think that there has to be something good in it. Perhaps then, if even for a moment, it is necessary to step outside my speciality coffee perspective and try to determine if this is a positive step for the economy of Ethiopia at large.

To make this case it is probably more appropriate to let the economist and founder of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, Elini Gabre-Madhin, explain what she envisioned. In 2007, she spoke at a TED conference in Tanzania some eight months before the ECX inception.

I believe many of her points are valid but one in particular on which I would like to comment:

It does not take long to realize Africa is not the western world. Sure there are things you can chalk up to cultural differences but there is an ease to the western world. Perhaps the comparison is most apparent when you travel to the rural areas of both cultures. In a western country like Australia things might slow down a bit and perhaps move in a direction that is not as ‘PC’ but by and large it is still submits to the sophistication of the larger whole. In Africa, as you travel to the rural countryside, where coffee is grown, you see poverty. You see extreme circumstances inhibiting people from progressing. So, to speak to Elini’s point that there was, and is, inefficiency and an inability to capitalize in the market is utterly evident. Most of what I observed were small-scale farmers who, at most, might produce 10 bags of coffee and would struggle to connect beyond the most immediate trade circles.

The hope of the ECX to connect the farmer, via trade, to something global is actually worthy of a bit of praise.

How I saw this in action was with the remote terminals. I posted a picture on the 5 Senses Twitter page but there are giant electronic boards listing the prices for coffee, both locally and internationally. Farmers can now become aware of coffee’s current market value and, thus, educate themselves. Where else in the world do you see this happening? We in the specialty world talk about helping the farmer, and, in fact, many of us do. However, education and awareness of the global market is such a massive task that tackling it culturally needs to be addressed not only from internationals but also, and more importantly, from the country where the farmer resides. I am not naive to think that this will happen over night or without complications, but it is a huge step and the information is there, as Elini describes, for the farmer to ‘entitle’ themselves.

Now, I know that most of what I have written does not put to rest the frustration or want for furthered traceability nor does it address those who have the size and means to connect in an overseas partnership.

The ECX simply was not built with the specialty market in mind. It is a real time commodity trading platform much like the prominent Chicago Board of Trade.

Within its current system, regionally graded coffee is as specific as one will get. There have been some workings around a ’second window, or DST (Direct Specialty Trade) model, which would facilitate an auction/trade of specialty prepared coffee via the ECX, but it has proved to be largely unviable. Yet, in light of this frustration, I do think it important to describe what I experienced in the office of the Awassa ECX receiving warehouse.

Awassa is one of several regional warehouses where local mills or even farmers bring all their coffee. As truck after truck of coffee come into the warehouse, samples are immediately brought into the office where they go through a moisture reader. The targeted percentage of moisture is set at 11.5% by the ECX. If the sample is at the appropriate percentage then the coffee is received. After this the sample is sorted by screen size, primary and secondary defects are counted, odour smelt and an appropriate score is then given. This physical score is weighted at 40% of the overall grading of the coffee. The sample is then roasted, cupped and scored based on cup cleanliness, acidity, body and flavour. If the overall total score reaches above an 80 then the coffee is evaluated again but this time with an SCAA score sheet. It is also worthwhile to note that in this office there were five Q-graders. Two cuppers and a supervisor cup every sample. This way each sample can post an official Q-grading score.

I could not help but be pleasantly surprised by my visit to the Awassa ECX office. Their receiving and grading systems were as sophisticated and thorough as I have seen. I am not entirely sure what I had hoped for but for whatever reason it actually softened my hardened critical stance and allowed me to wonder if there is something to this ECX and thus, also, for Ethiopia.

Undoubtedly, I will continue to push for an avenue to better purchase specialty coffee within Ethiopia. However, this trip also leaves with me a sentiment that actually cheers for the ECX and the overall economical good I believe it is reaching for.

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