The creation of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) in 2008 significantly limited farm-level traceability. In a noble effort to reduce nepotism and fraudulent marketing by bad actors in the chain (both of which directly hurt farmers’ chances in the market), the Exchange instituted a nationalized system of purely empirical quality analysis. This was achieved by anonymizing coffee deliveries to government-run sensory analysis hubs throughout the country. In these labs, samples would be cupped and the entire lot would then be profiled by region and grade only, for internal auction to exporters. Where all of this backfired was in relationship markets: longtime microlot buyers, like Royal, could risk losing access to very established producer partnerships as their coffees were blinded in the Exchange; and, enterprising coops, unable to show their coffees directly to buyers, found it more difficult to find their coffees a consistent home for the highest value.
In response, Royal, with support from select cooperatives, led the formation of the Single Farmer Lots Program, in order to break off single farmer lots from the larger cooperative blends sold through the ECX, taking custody of these precious coffees through a direct sale. The program is a unique micro-channel of almost unprecedented specificity in coffee supply from Ethiopia. Farmers with the drive and means to sell direct are supported by Royal, and, in turn, our most enthusiastic buyers of Ethiopia coffee have access to a portfolio of single-farm lots, un-diluted by the typical cooperative- and exporter-level consolidations. The Single Farmer Lots Program represents a very sweet end to a chaotic recent chapter in Ethiopia’s coffee history, and we think it’s a model for what ought to be a generation of start-up relationship farming in Ethiopia’s world-famous southern zones.
Annual farm visits from Royal CEO Max Nicholas-Fulmer and regular communication with farmers through Haile Andualem, Royal’s representative on the ground in Ethiopia, has been an essential component for ensuring that farmers and washing stations are following strict farm management and post-harvest protocols. The results have been increasing cup quality and higher returns for the individual producers that Royal has come to count on for great coffee year after year.
Bekele Heto, at 52 years, grows coffee on his 38-acre farm near the town of Worka-Sakaro located in the south-eastern corner of the coveted Gedeo Zone-- the narrow section of plateau dense with savvy farmers whose coffee is known as “Yirgacheffe”. This more remote corner of the Gedeo plateau centers its commerce around the trading city of Gedeb, a bustling outpost that links commerce between Gedeo and Guji zones, and, it must be mentioned, produces some of the most beautifully perfumed and candy-like natural coffees one can find in all of Ethiopia. The communities surrounding Gedeb reach some of the highest growing elevations for coffee in the world, and are a truly enchanting part of the long drive into Guji.
Bekele has been cultivating coffee for 14 years but with the help of the single lot program he has been able to sell his coffee as a micro-lot in recent years. Coffee is Bekele’s main source of income that he uses to support his family of 14. Ripe cherries for this natural processed coffee were carefully hand sorted and floated to remove less dense coffee beans. Next the cherries were dried on raised beds for 15 to 20 days and turned regularly to avoid over-fermentation and mold. Raised beds are carefully constructed to ensure proper air circulation and temperature control, for optimal drying. Cherries were covered during the afternoons—a very characteristic technique for drying cherry in southern Gedeo, where the midday sun is searingly intense. Once the cherries finished drying to the necessary 11 percent moisture, they were transported to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to be milled and prepared for export through the YCFCU.