We talk to the Ethiopian farmer who won first place at the first-ever Ethiopia Cup of Excellence in May.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Featured photo courtesy of the Alliance For Coffee Excellence
Editor’s note: Last week we wrote about the first Ethiopia Cup of Excellence competition in May, and how the judging was able to be completed during COVID-19 restrictions; the COE Ethiopia auction is June 25. Today we feature a discussion with the competition’s first-place winner about his sun-dried Sidama coffee.
Negussie Gemeda knew his coffee was good. Though he is not a trained cupper, the coffee farmer—who has three hectares of land in the Bura woreda in Ethiopia’s Sidama Zone—had heard repeatedly from coffee buyers that his coffee was specialty-level.
With that knowledge, he decided to enter the first-ever Cup of Excellence competition in Ethiopia this spring, choosing his sun-dried natural coffee as his competition coffee. It turned out to be a wise choice: Negussie accomplished the impressive feat of earning first place out of 1,400 entries in the first Cup of Excellence Ethiopia, with his natural earning a score of 91.3.
We talked to Negussie to find out about his approach to coffee, his experience in Cup of Excellence, and more.
The interview was done over Skype with Seble Teweldebirhan Bezabehe, the Addis Ababa-based communications director of USAID’s Feed the Future, translating from Amharic to English.
Chris Ryan: Can you tell me a bit about your background? Did you grow up with coffee farming?
Negussie Gemeda: I was born in a farming family, but we never had coffee. I joined the coffee business in 2007 because I knew people who were growing coffee and getting a good return from it, so I was encouraged by that. Before that, I was working in agriculture, raising livestock and growing other crops. So I had land and was a farmer, but not a coffee farmer until 2007.
How did you learn how to grow specialty coffee? Were you trained?
I live around Sidama, which is prominently a coffee-growing area, so I knew a lot about coffee and coffee quality even before I joined the business because my neighbors, friends, and everybody grows coffee around there. I learned as I started farming—year after year I would learn new techniques and get support from the extension service, from the government, and from development partners. Everyone comes and teaches us about specialty-coffee quality, from picking the red cherries to processing to the market. I acquired a lot of information over the years. But the only problem has been that the price is never good. Quality doesn’t pay most of the time. We were discouraged for a long time to produce specialty coffee because it takes a lot of time and effort and energy, and when the price comes, it’s always low. For the last two years, the price has been improved because people buying specialty coffee are coming to our area, and that has been really encouraging, and I have been communicating with all the farmers around me so we can grow really good coffee and follow all the guidelines to produce quality coffee. For this competition that’s how we prepared, because we knew that the return would be really good.
How do you normally sell your coffee?
I’ve never directly sold my coffee to the international market. I always sell it to exporters. Starting from last year, an exporter who usually exports specialty coffee bought my coffee. This year, another exporter who’s also known to export specialty coffee exported it. So specialty-coffee exporters are now interested in my coffee because the quality has improved.
How did you find out about the Cup of Excellence competition? How did you prepare to enter it?
I heard about the competition from the staff at Feed the Future in Ethiopia; they were giving an orientation about Cup of Excellence in my area. I heard them talking about the competition and how it will benefit all of us, so I got their contact info and got more detailed information and advice on how to prepare the coffee. As far as preparation, I was committed to quality, regardless of the competition. I wanted my coffee to get me some more money, and I was talking to the exporters, including one that bought some of the coffee this year, and they said if it’s quality coffee we’ll pay more for it. So I made sure that everyone working for me strictly applies all the agronomic practices from picking to storage and everything, so we took really good care of the coffee and we wanted it be really good. I was not surprised I won the competition because we invested a lot in the preparation.
What makes your coffee so good, in particular your natural?
I give a lot of credit to the environment. The area where I’m growing my coffee, it’s well-known that it’s a suitable environment for coffee. Every time our buyers cup the coffee, it scores really high. So I think nature really helped. Plus, I’ve got my buyers tasting my coffee. I’m not a cupper and I don’t really evaluate coffee myself, but the buyers from last year and this year, everyone says the coffee is really great, so that’s why I chose this coffee for the competition.
How do you feel about this honor? Does it make you feel different about how it will be appreciated now?
I think my win is historic because Cup of Excellence was held for the first time in Ethiopia and I am the first winner. That gives me a lot of pride. I’m also very proud that I presented Sidama coffee, which I believe is one of the best coffees in Ethiopia. The fact that my coffee is now going to be around the world, and my neighbors and others farmers will get all this market opportunity and their coffee will get to new destinations, that gives me a lot of pride. I’m very happy, I feel lucky and proud, and I’m committed to continue growing high-quality coffee.