Even before the flight to Ethiopia for this season’s visit to our coffee partners there, I was apprehensive about the country’s current 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 with double-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 I thought the main reason for political unrest was the fact that the largest ethnic groups (the Oromo and Amahara) did not feel adequately represented in government. The realities of Ethiopian politics are way more complex than that. On October 9, 2016, the Ethiopian government declared a State of Emergency for the entire country.
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. Some friends thought the burnings had to do with native Gedeo people sending a clear message to private washing station owners who mostly settled in the town more recently (a few decades ago). Other friends thought there might be some tension between the cooperative system and the private washing stations. Other theories were floated which I am in no position to judge or confirm.
We might never know. All the same, what happened last week came quite surprising for the private mill owners and 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. Again, this is just an interpretation, and I’ll leave it others to give a more authoritative interpretation of what happened.
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:
a) coffee cherries left on the trees because there won’t be enough processing capacitity;
b) lower quality because washing stations won’t have enough drying space to process the coffee;
c) lower availability of Yirgacheffe coffee and increased prices for the coffee that does come through;
d) 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.
This entry has been edited after initial publication for some inaccuracies.