Report from the 4th World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia, Part 1

The conference included a trade show section where good coffee was being brewed and served both using traditional methods (pictured) and modern styles, with third-wave baristas.

World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia investigates timely issues such as gender equity and farm profitability, but misses consumer-driven sector


In my 16 years working in coffee, I have been lucky enough to travel the world experiencing multiple facets of the massive industry behind the beverage that excites so much of us: coffee. My recent experience at the 4th World Coffee Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, however, revealed some next-level stuff.

While many people reading this could taste a well roasted and properly extracted cup of coffee and easily determine roughly where that coffee was grown and perhaps even that coffee’s Arabica cultivar, we have only arrived at this level of specialization on the consumer level in the past 20 or so years.  In 1882, long before we tasted coffee for its many unique nuances, coffee was established as a soft commodity and began being traded on the futures market. In1962, the International Coffee Organization (ICO) was established to manage the global supply of coffee, set export quotas, and attempt to help balance pricing for coffee based on supply and demand, similar to other soft commodities: cotton, cocoa, sugar, wheat, soybeans, etc.

The International Exchange, a publically traded, for-profit corporation, trades all of the world’s Arabica futures coffee contracts in New York City. While the values of these commodities are based on physical stocks globally, the system has been far more beneficial for the Global North, especially since the export quotas were abolished in 1989, and prices have been at the whim of free, unrestricted trade regulations. Unfortunately, the actual farm workers producing coffee ”even of the highest quality ”have more often than not received the short end of the stick as a result of this system.

In the past 20 years, as specialty and œthird-wave  coffee have become a bigger part of everyday Western life and valued more by a certain segment of the consumer market, coffee prices have not reflected this added value. The Specialty Coffee Association of America tells us that over 30 percent of American adults drink specialty coffee everyday (and likely spending more money on it) ”so why has the farm-gate price for coffee not changed during this specialty revolution?

The 4th World Coffee Conference took place in early March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The 4th World Coffee Conference took place in early March in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

To understand the larger contributing factors ”and potential solutions ”a bit more, I travelled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend the 4th  ICO World Coffee Conference, an event that only takes place  once every four to six years; the last conference was held in Guatemala in 2010. The purpose of the event is to facilitate discussions around the most critical challenges facing the global coffee supply sector. The forum was held at the UN Conference Center in Addis Ababa and was certainly one of the more formal coffee events I have ever attended. I felt a little underdressed not wearing a suit everyday, but as I was relegated to the press balcony, I didn’t feel too out of place. The large UN conference hall itself is very formal: each seat has it’s own microphone that attendees could use when called upon to ask a question, much like being in a congressional chamber.

Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn, inaugurated the conference with a surprise opening speech. Because of security concerns, Mr. Desalegn’s presence and keynote had not previously been  included in the original program. The Prime Minister was joined by about 10 other high-level coffee personalities for the opening ceremony, including Mr. Robério Oliveira Silva, Executive Director of the International Coffee Organization. During the opening remarks, there were four general coffee-supply sector challenges mentioned throughout:  gender equity, climate change, productivity, and farmer profitability. During the first press briefing, we learned that although we are going on a second year of a global deficit of coffee stocks, the C Market price for coffee remains quite low as a result of Brazil’s weak economy. In fact, it became clear on the first day that regardless of the ongoing talk and concern surrounding about the œproblem  of low farm-gate prices, as the largest producer in the world, Brazil’s supply sector still influences the coffee price that nearly every small-holder farmer in the world is paid.

Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn, opened the conference with a surprise speech.
H.E. Mr. Terferra Derebew, Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources,  opened the conference with a surprise speech.

After the first couple of sessions and a stroll around the small trade show floor, I got more settled into the event and got a better idea of my fellow attendees. Naturally, the supply sector was well covered: producer groups, ministers of agriculture, exporters, NGOs, certifications, transport companies, etc. There was also quite a bit of international government official representation at the conference, and a healthy number of importers and roasters from around the world. I soon came to the realization that among the nearly 1,000 attendees at this conference, every facet of the coffee supply chain was represented except for one major player: baristas. In fact, as the third-place finisher in the 2003 United States Barista Championship, I was the most accomplished barista at the entire conference, which isn’t saying much. This reality became even more evident during our coffee breaks, when the coffee being served was stale, over-roasted, and improperly extracted ”pretty much undrinkable without a healthy dose of sugar.

While the theme of the conference was œNurturing Coffee Culture and Diversity  and some of the panel topics included œWorld Coffee Consumption Trends  and œTrends in Specialty Coffee,  there was zero representation from the barista community, even from within Africa. Baristas have played a huge role in catalyzing many of these trends and educating consumers in an effort to place a higher value on coffee, but they were nowhere to be found at this conference. This was a gathering ”and a rare gathering at that ”of players in the global coffee sector at the highest level discussing challenges within the industry and how to make coffee better across the entire supply chain; and having these conversations while drinking some of the worst conference coffee I have ever tasted. This missed opportunity would probably be my only criticism of the conference. Even if only Ethiopian coffee was served, it would have been great to have local baristas prepare properly roasted coffees highlighting Ethiopia’s diverse growing regions and processing methods. This would have facilitated engagement between the future and current leaders of the coffee industry, fostering progressive side-conversations on how to take our beloved plant and beverage to the next level.

The conference included a trade show section where good coffee was being brewed and served both using traditional methods (pictured) and modern styles, with third-wave baristas.
The conference included a trade show section where good coffee was being brewed and served both using traditional methods (pictured) and modern styles, with third-wave baristas.

Walking around the trade show floor was a bit of a different story. As Ethiopia is a country with a strong internal consumption, many of the booths had well-trained baristas making some decent coffees. Further, many of the exporters and farmer groups with a presence at the trade show offered their coffee both traditionally (boiled in a jebena), as well as with a more modern brew method (pour-over or espresso), and Ethiopia is the only country in the world where you would see this as commonplace at a trade show, which I found pretty cool. One such booth that was preparing exceptional coffee was BNT Coffee, an exporter who focuses on very high-quality coffees and works with some of the best roasters in the world. If you are reading this, you have probably tasted an Ethiopian coffee that was sourced by BNT. BNT’s coffee was roasted properly and they were making Hario V-60s (along with traditional coffee) at their very nice looking booth. I ended up coming up with a number of excuses to find my way back at the BNT booth for many samples.

Generally, much of the content on the first day focused on the themes of the conference I mentioned: gender equity, climate change, productivity, and farmer profitability. There wasn’t too much mind-blowing information presented on the first day, other than what you would assume: climate change is a huge problem for small-holder farmers (and the global supply); there are huge gender inequalities in the coffeelands and improved gender equity will lead to a more sustainable coffee supply sector; farmer productivity needs to increase; and farmers need to be more profitable in order to viably continue growing coffee as a source of income. I thought one of the more interesting points that was brought up had to do with sustainability: how farmers need to understand that being more sustainable will lead to being more efficient, and in the long-term, more profitable. However, sustainability initiatives at the farm-level require investment that most small-holders don’t have access to, so it requires all stakeholders in the supply chain, including a change in government policy in some cases.

Look for part 2 of Stephen’s report from the 4th World Coffee Conference on Tuesday, March 29.


image1Since Stephen Vick began his coffee career 15 years ago, he has travelled the world with a goal to have an influence on coffee quality from farm to cup. While working for Seattle’s Zoka Coffee, Stephen competed in the USBC and became a WBC judge. After joining Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland as the Director of Training, Stephen started traveling to coffee growing regions, judging for the Cup of Excellence, spending more time cupping, and developing a greater understanding that most of the challenges in producing a quality cup of coffee are hurdles that are faced by the producer. In 2008, Stephen shifted gears and joined Sustainable Harvest to work on a project in Kigoma, Tanzania, were he worked with the Kanyovu Cooperative to improve quality and market linkages by building washing stations an training cuppers in identifying quality. For two years after, Stephen worked with Intelligentsia Coffee as an East African field agent and Quality Control Manager. In 2012, he joined Blue Bottle Coffee and worked there as the Green Coffee Buyer before relocating to Nairobi to work as a consultant as well as launch a technology platform, Beanstock, with a team of San Francisco-based software engineers. Stephen also sits on the SCAA Sustainability Council.


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