Ethiopian Coffee: Opportunities and Constraints

Ethiopia is the largest coffee producing and exporting nation of Africa accounting for around 25 percent of the total export earnings and livelihood of 15million coffee farmers. Most of these farmers grow coffee trees alongside crops like bananas or beans in small parcels of land. For many of these farmers, coffee is their single most important source of income.

With a multitude of distinct flavour profiles, Ethiopian coffee is often branded as premium coffee variety globally. There are two main causes for this. One, Ethiopia is the chief repository of an array of genetically diverse varieties of Arabica coffee, and this diversity is evident in the distinct flavour that it offers. Two, it has complex climate and landscape with along fertile soil, optimum temperatures, sufficient rainfall resulting in each location producing a unique flavour profile.

The coffee varieties from Ethiopia best known to the outside world include Harar, Limmu, Nekemte, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe coffee along with other lesser-known varieties. This diversity in flavour profiles adds a unique edge to Ethiopian coffee and makes it an ideal candidate to meet the demands of the specialty coffee sector.

Another major advantage of Ethiopian coffee is that 90 percent of Ethiopian coffee production is organic, by default. Also, Ethiopia is the only producer of natural forest coffee Arabica with coffee grown under the shade of trees (shade or forest coffee).

The positive perception of the country as the birthplace of coffee and deep-rooted coffee culture, well-established high-quality coffee brand, adequate land, and low-cost labour, favourable government policy has opened wider doors for Ethiopian coffee sector.

Despite favourable conditions, coffee farmers face many challenges. The average yield per hectare remains very low at 0.72 metric tons per hectare which is much lower than the Arabica coffee-producing countries like Brazil and Costa Rica.

The reasons for low productivity include low planting densities due to the space required for shade trees; erratic climate, aging stock due to lack of pruning/stumping or replacement of seedlings; diseases and pests; soil health, etc. Inadequacies like production, processing, storage, and functioning of the domestic and international markets are also another major challenge faced by Ethiopian coffee farmers.