We are not going to tell you that everything is hunky-dory in Ethiopia, that everything is perfect, that the coffee farmers are happy, or that the future is bright, because that is certainly not true. While there have been improvements in the humanitarian situation caused by the war, the economic and climatic situation is only getting worse. Temperatures are rising and rainfall is falling in a pattern that could lead to a 25% drop in production by 2030, and inflation is hitting hard, reaching 34% per annum last December.
For a coffee importer, (I think we all share the same opinion) Ethiopia is the most challenging origin, but at the same time the most rewarding in terms of travel experience and coffee quality. Quality is part of the establishment, from a genetic and terroir perspective Ethiopia is always expected to have unique, complex and intense cup profiles, but there are problems related to human intervention that do not allow these high expectations to be realised.
Today in the world of specialty coffee, Bourbon and Typica are the most important Arabica coffee varieties. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that Bourbon and Typica were the seeds brought from Ethiopia to Yemen, and from the latter they spread throughout the world, forming the basis of modern Arabica coffee cultivation.
It was the French who attempted to introduce coffee three times from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion), in 1708, 1715 and 1718. Genetic studies have confirmed that only a small number of plants from the second introduction and some from the third introduction they were successful. Until the middle of the 19th century, Bourbon coffee did not leave the island.
Coffee has been traded for commercial purposes for 400 years. From there, it has spread to approximately 70 countries where it is currently grown. The Dutch were the ones who began to establish economies of scale around the production and export of coffee. Later they grew coffee in Java and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The first exports from Java to the Netherlands occurred in 1711, and the Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation in history and the first to export coffee on a large scale.
During these four centuries, a pattern of neo-feudal behaviour has been generated, which has forced small coffee growers to chain themselves into ultra-dependent relationships with large landowners or multinationals, which have caused multimillion-dollar profits for large companies, in addition to the concentration of land, marginalization and slavery. This is how this business model has been perpetuated until today.
For the specialty coffee industry, certifications are like the second wave of coffee, they are out of fashion! They no longer serve their purpose, and this is because the needs of consumers have changed and have become more diverse and complex. What specialty coffee lover wants to drink a bitter coffee at Starbucks, when they can just as easily have a fruity Kenya lightly roasted at an independent coffee shop?
This phenomenon also occurs at the farm level. For example, the coffee farmer no longer wants the 0.2 USD/LB that Fair Trade offers him, but instead wants a direct and ethical trade with the importer of microlots who will pay him 4 USD/LB or more. Paying for the inspection of organic coffees has also lost its meaning, with climate change there are cultivation areas where it does not rain for months/years, and the coffee grower must use chemical fertilizers, otherwise they lose the harvest.
Coffee prices have skyrocketed for various reasons. Among them, the low production due to climate change, the logistical problems of the pandemic, generalized inflation and the war in Ukraine. The latter has considerably reduced access to inputs such as inorganic fertilizers, which has not only increased the costs of coffee production, but has also significantly reduced the profit margin of coffee farmers.
Russia is the world's biggest fertilizer exporter, but its war with Ukraine has disrupted shipments and pushed up prices for natural gas, a key ingredient in fertilizer manufacturing. Ammonium nitrate and urea, the two main sources of nitrogen fertilizer, are the most widely used fertilizers in the world. Fertilizer prices had already more than doubled in the last 18 months, affecting coffee growers around the world.
Why would you prefer one over the other, if they are only separated by an imaginary border? A coffee grown in northern Burundi has exactly the same microclimate, varietal, process and terroir as one from southern Rwanda. There is no difference other than the name of the origin until this point of the production process, although there are many differences in various aspects.
Both economies are overwhelmingly agricultural, and widely diversified farming is practiced throughout their territories. Arabica coffee is the main commercial crop and constitutes the main export of both countries. Being much more important in terms of total foreign exchange earnings for Burundi than for Rwanda, because the latter economy is more developed and diversified.
Is specialty coffee a trend of experimental fermentations or a movement that seeks to generate profound changes in the way coffee is marketed in the world? What do we gain by talking so much about experimental fermentations if they rarely achieve exceptional cups? Can experimental fermentation really improve the quality of a poorly harvested lot? Are the experimental fermentations fully controlled or are there random elements that influence their final result?
Apparently today it is no longer enough to produce washed, natural or honey coffees; A very good lot of washed Bourbon variety from Burundi seems to have lost its charm. In our opinion, there is something wrong with this industry, if we have to put orange peel or cinnamon sticks to add flavours to a lot! Fermentation in specialty coffees has never been and will never be controlled, at least until the day when the entire productive structure at origin is modified, and a technological level such as the one that exists today in the wine industry is reached.
We often think that Burundi is not talked about enough in the specialty coffee industry, and at Kilimanjaro Specialty Coffees we want to change that idea and give this wonderful country and origin, which produces some of the best coffees in the world, the place that it deserves, on the African podium alongside Kenya and Ethiopia.
One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is landlocked and has an equatorial climate. Burundi is part of the Albertine Rift, the western extension of the East African Rift. This is important because the soils of the Rift Valley are volcanic and very fertile. Its cultivation areas are characterized by producing a cup with intense phosphoric acidity, full body with some fruity notes and complex flavour.
Our industry often forgets how important small farmers are to the work we all do every day. We can verify this every time we meet at events like the last World of Coffee in Milan, where the focus is mostly on competitions, machinery, influencers, but apparently no one realizes that without small coffee growers none of this would be possible, and they keep being ignored as they have been for 400 years.
The current times are stormy, for no one in the world it should be a mystery that climate change is affecting our lives in a radical way. To no one either, it should be a mystery that inflation is hitting the pockets of the world's poorest people, and this particularly impacts coffee farmers who, despite record coffee prices, have not seen their income levels improve. Finally, due to the war in Ukraine, the shortage of fertilizers could cause a deficit of almost 20% in coffee production in 2022, in addition to the food crisis that it is already affecting various parts of Africa.
Coffee is a biennial cycle crop, which means that coffee trees have high productivity in one harvest and low production in the next, due to the plant's need for recomposition. This phenomenon has a greater influence on coffee of the Arabica species, and a greater economic impact on those origins that have only one harvest a year, as is the case in Ethiopia.
During the 2022 harvest in Ethiopia, production was affected by a negative biennial cycle, where flowering decreased due to the need of the plant to recompose itself after a very productive period last harvest 2021.