Africa’s second most populous country, Ethiopia has become one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, with the African Development Bank anticipating that it will see an average GDP growth of 6% between 2023 and 2024. Yet, Ethiopia faces significant challenges that are hindering its progress in achieving lower-middle-income status and alleviating food insecurity for the more than 20 million citizens who suffer from it. In particular, climate shifts and extreme weather are having a detrimental impact on agriculture and threatening the future of Ethiopia’s coffee sector. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dagmawi Iyasu, an Ethiopian public health practitioner and coffee researcher, suggested how Ethiopia’s coffee sector may, however, be the key to a sustainable future for the country as a whole.
Ethiopia’s Agricultural Economy
Agriculture accounts for 40% of Ethiopia’s GDP, 80% of its exports and around 75% of its workforce, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Thus, as rising temperatures, increased drought frequency and other climactic shifts reduce growing seasons and alter arable land, building climate resiliency is vital for mitigating poverty and famine and sustaining economic growth. Significantly, with targeted action, Ethiopia’s coffee sector has the potential to expand and thrive despite climate instability.
Coffee: A Valuable Export
Already central to Ethiopia’s economy, coffee accounts for some 25-30% of its total export earnings and, according to a recent study, around 25% of the population relies upon coffee as a direct or indirect source of income. The Arabica coffee bean, widely consumed globally, is native to Ethiopia, where it has thrived for centuries and generated valuable jobs related to coffee cultivation, processing, roasting, packaging and transport. However, with drastic environmental shifts compromising the Arabica and other beans’ ability to thrive, Ethiopia faces threat of losing up to 59% of its coffee-growing regions by the end of the 21st century.
Accordingly, large coffee producers and smallholder farmers alike are exploring ways to preserve an environment conducive to coffee bean cultivation. While some are moving whole coffee plantations to higher altitudes, others are planting trees to provide shade that offsets higher temperatures while countering the effects of deforestation.
One company that Iyasu noted is Moyee Coffee, which, he said, “uses the Blockchain technology to setup a fair chain system.” The company is introducing solutions to not only sustain coffee as a socially and culturally valuable crop, but also to promote Ethiopian exports, ensure Ethiopian coffee farmers a fair living wage and protect the environment.
For instance, in 2019, Moyee launched a tree-planting program to promote reforestation, increase farmers’ incomes and achieve its goal of reaching “net zero emissions by 2030.” The program is part of a larger effort to help smallholder farmers “improve the quality of their coffee” while protecting local forests and equalizing the global coffee chain. “By working in the coffee industry, we’ve become climate activists out of necessity,” the company’s website explains. “At Moyee, we believe the root cause of deforestation — and the climate change deforestation catalyzes — is poverty.”
Moyee’s efforts to tackle both poverty and climate change by helping some 100 smallholder farmers implement “environmentally-friendly farming methods” point to how Ethiopia’s coffee sector could help advance sustainable growth. “Coffee cultivation systems are diverse and have evolved as an adaptation mechanism to the environmental context of the area,” Iyasu explained. “Coffee is still a social crop and the 6.7M smallholder farmers that also grow coffee on a plot less than 0.9ha do so for their own household consumption.”
This suggests that, historically, big farms producing coffee on an industrial level have been the exception rather than the rule in Ethiopia, where, among subsistence farmers, “the average portion of land dedicated to coffee is less than 0.2 hectares,” according to Iyasu. Rather than high yields, these small producers value the rich and distinctive flavor and heritage of Ethiopian coffee, which is traditionally grown under the shade of forest canopies with the requisite time to mature.
Conserving Forests and Local Livelihoods
Ethiopia’s coffee farmers therefore deeply understand the importance of forest conservation. “The country takes climate change seriously and it is now a national agenda. As a result, there is long term effort with visible success to reclaim degraded land streams through aggressive reforestation programs,” Iyasu said. Exemplifying the success of such efforts, Haile Coffee, one of Ethiopia’s largest organic coffee producers, is working to conserve forests while fostering sustainable growth for local farming communities.
Unfortunately, much Ethiopian forest coffee is simply sold as bulk, low-grade product due to poor marketing and processing. With funding from the U.K. Department for International Development, Partnerships for Forests and TechnoServe have been collaborating to promote an alternative. They are working to help Ethiopian coffee farmers gain premium market access, which allows local communities to protect their forests while securing their livelihoods.
“I do believe the coffee cultivation system and the industry across the value chain is very sustainable in Ethiopia,” Iyasu summarized. “However, there is a desire to expand large scale commercial farms that want to bring economy of scale into the industry. I personally don’t think that’s the path forward for Ethiopia.”