Volunteering in coffee: Ethiopia

coffee, Ethiopia, history, organoleptic, quality, taste, Volunteering -

Volunteering in coffee: Ethiopia

This blog was originally published on February 20, 2015

Here at Daylight Mind, we try to always remember we have things pretty good in the United States.  We consider ourselves fortunate and we recognize that we have a very talented crew who can often do much more in the coffee industry than our little business requires.  Thus, we’ve decided to offer our assistance in ways that don’t directly benefit us but will hopefully help others in the coffee industry.

Thus, we recently sent our Chief Science Officer, Shawn Steiman, on a volunteer assignment to the coffee motherland (Ethiopia).  He spent a bit over a week working with the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), headquartered in the small town of Gelan.  The following is his story.

Statue at OCFCU

The statue, a man picking coffee, at the entrance of the OCFCU headquarters

This volunteer assignment was part of the Farmer-to-Farmer program, a USAID funded and U.S.-based program to send volunteer experts from the U.S. to work with groups around the world.  The coordinating organization was Catholic Relief Services.  This was my second Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer trip; my first was in Haiti in 2013.

The general purpose of my assignment was to help the OCFCU in any way I could.  The OCFCU is a huge operation.  Basically, they are a coop of coops.  It is owned by 311 primary cooperatives (wet mills, essentially) and has a total membership of more than 288,000 farmers.  It serves as the seller, exporter, and advocate of all those farmers and primary cooperatives.

Their primary request was to identify coffee traceability technology and software to coordinate that, warehouse logistics, and admin services.  Secondarily, they wanted me to work with their quality control department to offer what knowledge and experience they deemed valuable.

While I’m not a logistics expert, I was able to suggest a system for them to use as well as connect them with several companies that could help them implement the hardware and software systems required.  While volunteer assignments are to be fairly self-contained, the scope of the system they desire is well beyond any volunteer’s abilities.  Thus, the project can only move forward by hiring a company who specializes in this area.  I intend to continue participating in this project as time progresses, if for no other reason than to facilitate its success.  If the OCFCU adopts my recommendation, I think they’ll see a huge gain in efficiency and cost savings over time.

My work with the quality department was a little less successful, unfortunately.  I did get the opportunity to cup with one of their cuppers a few times but otherwise, it seems they didn’t prepare for my arrival too well and were unable to squeeze me into their schedule.

Tadesse preparing a cupping

Cupping in the OCFCU cupping lab


While rarely overtly stated, part of being a volunteer in a foreign country is to learn about the culture of that country and bring back that experience to the U.S.  While I could write a lot about the food, the National Museum of Ethiopia (I saw Lucy!), and even a bit about daily cultural practices, I’m not going to.  Instead, I’m going to write about coffee (duh!) in Ethiopia.

Many travelers talk about the Ethiopian coffee ceremony as a valuable part of their experience in the country.  While I’ve witnessed the ceremony (this is my second trip to Ethiopia), my experience is that rarely is there anything ceremonial about it.  Sure, on important occasions, there is some pomp and circumstance.  Mostly, though, the “ceremony” is just people making coffee to drink. 

First, let’s talk about the coffee they drink.  Like most producing countries, the highest quality coffees are reserved for the export market.  Bringing in money from abroad is a big help to economies.  While this is good on a country-wide, economic level, it means that the locals don’t get to drink the best of the best.  Rather, they drink lower quality coffee, no matter who they are.  As a coffee professional who appreciates the world’s most complex coffees, it is always a shock to be in a producing country and drinking mediocre coffee!

While the quality may not be up to my usual standards, it is more than made-up for in cultural experience.  Coffee is drunk by everyone, everywhere.  Nearly the entire country roasts their own coffee (almost daily).  Every half block in any town there will be a vendor, of some sort, selling coffee.  I’ve never met a vendor who wasn’t incredibly friendly and patient with my lack of knowledge of the local language (while there is a national language, Amharic, there are over 80 tribal languages that are still actively used around the country).

The coffee is brewed strong by U.S. standards; I’d guess a water:coffee ratio of 15:1.  The resulting brew has a lot of body and is often bitter.  Thus, sugar is a staple everywhere and it is often added before the coffee is served.  While I never use sugar in my coffee, it is hard to pass it up when a friendly woman, bearing a big smile, is offering it to you.

Coffee is always served in small portions, in adorable cups (with saucers) that hold less than 60 ml (2 oz).  Besides sugar, the other common item added to the coffee is an herb, locally called tenadam (Rue; Ruta chalepensis).  It is meant to be stirred in the coffee for a short time to lend some of its flavor.  In the cup, it is a subtle addition and hard to discern, but by nibbling on the herb, the flavor screams out at you.  I describe the flavor as being primarily essence of lilikoi (passionfruit), some evaporative-menthol taste, and a bit of spiciness.

Ethiopian coffee with tenadem

A typical cup of Ethiopian coffee with a sprig of tenadam

It is hard not to enjoy and appreciate the coffee, even if it is a completely different taste experience than I’d normally choose.  There’s something a bit magical about drinking coffee in the birthplace of coffee with the people who discovered and developed it.  If you ever get the chance to visit Ethiopia, don’t pass up the opportunity to try the coffee.

In all, it was good to be in Ethiopia and I’m glad I could help the OCFCU in some way.  I advocate for every person from a developed nation to visit a developing nation, it is quite enlightening.  There seem to be ample volunteer opportunities, too, at least in the coffee world.  I’ve already got another one planned for March, in Haiti.

If you have any questions or want to chat about my experience, feel free to add comments below or email me.

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