by Sebastian Simsch
(Seattle Coffee Works Blog) — Even before the flight to Ethiopia for this season’s visit to our coffee partners there, I was apprehensive about the country’s political situation. Ethiopia has long been governed by an authoritarian regime providing stability to an otherwise unstable region (Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen are all directly neighboring or nearby countries). At the same time, the government has been criticized for well-documented human rights violations. The country continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with an explosive population growth of around 2.5% per year. It also has seemed on an economic upswing in recent years withdouble-digit GDP growth and quite a few major infrastructure projects underway (e.g. hydro-electric damn on the Nile, new highways to the South, new train line from Addis Ababa to the port city of Djibouti, light rail in Addis Ababa).
There had been political protests all summer long this year. From distant Seattle, at first it seemed as if the main reason for political unrest was the fact that the largest ethnic group (the Oromo) was not represented in government. Ethiopia, I had understood from previous visits was ruled by the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group which had also been the ethnicity of the last Ethiopian emperor (this was, in fact, not quite the correct understanding as the last emperor was of both Amharic and Oromo descent). I thought the rift was mainly Oromo vs. Amharic government as seen frequently in the last couple of decades.
But as I learned quickly during this visit, the political landscape in Ethiopia has changed, with Amhara and Oromo people now often protesting against the minority government under prime minister Desalegn, a member of the Tigrayan ethnic group (which is around 6% of the total population compared to 34% of Oromos and 27% of Amharas).
I am in no position to fully understand, let alone document, the political landscape of Ethiopia (check out this concise overview of recent developments). I did just want to write a quick note about what happened in the famous coffee town of Yirgacheffe last week.
Last week’s events in Yirgacheffe
I heard that 28 of the approximately 40 private washing stations were burnt down in and around the small town of Yirgacheffe. It’s unclear who the arsonists were. As a good friend confirmed, none of the washing stations in the cooperative system (Yirgacheffe Union) were destroyed, and also 13 private washing stations were spared.
What exactly happened here can only be speculation. Did the locally defined ethnic groups in Yirgacheffe (mainly Gedeo) mean to send a signal to the minority of mostly new-comer Amhara and Oromo private washing stations owners who have been so successful in helping build the Yirgacheffe brand in the last four decades?
Did some of the cooperative movement want to get rid of what they perceived as greedy business people owning the washing stations? (Private washing stations and cooperative washing stations usually pay similar amounts for coffee cherries on the day of picking, but the unions often also provide a second, post-season payment to the cooperatives’ member farmers – something most private washing stations and their owners have not traditionally done.)
Was the government trying to penalize the hard-working private washing station owners for simply doing well in a country run by a semi-socialist government?
We might never know. All the same, what happened last week was a tragedy for those involved. The burning of washing stations and at least one private dry mill located in Yirgacheffe seems to have had little to do with the goings on in other parts of Ethiopia. It seems the overall political situation was simply used to settle scores unrelated to politics in the country at large. Again, this is just one interpretation, and likely we’ll never know.
What the burning of 28 washing stations means for the 2016-17 crop year in Yirgacheffe coffee remains to be seen. Friends from Yirgacheffe directly affected by this tragedy said they’ll be able to rig together provisional working washing stations in the next two or three weeks. They will try to get as ready as they can to process this crop’s coffee cherries. If they don’t, there is sure to be a shortage of processing capacity in Yirgacheffe this year, and that might mean any number of things:
coffee cherries left on the trees because there won’t be enough processing capacitity;
lower quality because washing stations won’t have enough drying space to process the coffee;
lower availability of Yirgacheffe coffee and increased prices for the coffee that does come through;
further decreased income for already poor small holder farmers in the Yirgacheffe region.
However we look at the situation, it’s a disaster, something the Yirgacheffe region can hardly afford. Please send your thoughts (and if you like, prayers) to all involved. All of Ethiopia and specifically the people in tiny Yirgacheffe can use all the help they can get to pull together after this huge upset.
Note: The author was in Ethiopia from October 13-16, 2016. Because of the current state of emergency, he was not able to leave Addis Ababa during that time. All the information in this blog post is from Ethiopian friends who are involved in the coffee industry and specifically in Yirgacheffe. The pictures were shared with the author with the explicit request to share them further. No names are provided here to protect all parties involved