Bullet train black gold awaits Ethiopian roasters

by Zelalem

On a typically sunny January day in southwestern Ethiopia, smallholder coffee farmers gather beneath red, blue and orange canvases, propped up by wooden stakes, to watch and participate in a coffee-tasting competition with demanding Japanese standards.

Naomi Nakahira, a coffee adviser with Ueshima Coffee Co. (UCC), one of Japan’s biggest coffee companies, smells and slurps his way, along with three internationally qualified Ethiopian cuppers, through a selection of the farmers’ natural forest coffees, marking them for aroma, taste and the like. The majority score 80 or above out of 100 — enough to be classified as specialty coffee.

This February, commuters on the Tokaido Shinkansen, running between Osaka and Tokyo, can pass their own judgment on the product when a previous batch of coffee from the Belete-Gera Forest is sold on Japan’s famed bullet train.

“This natural forest coffee has the potential to become a brand in itself, like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee,” Nakahira says.

The connection between Japan and Ethiopia is not an unlikely one. UCC organized the monthlong promotion as part of a project started in July 2014 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a governmental body focused on development through technical cooperation. The project aims to improve the standards of forest coffees, farmers’ incomes and livelihoods, and also protect 3,296 hectares of forest. The coffee sold on the shinkansen will come in cups carrying a small paragraph explaining the coffee’s background.

“The community here has similarities with the Japanese culture of my grandmother’s generation,” says Eri Hirayama, a petite-but-tough JICA volunteer. After working in Tokyo’s corporate world, Hirayama decided to break clean and work for two years in Kaffa, the region in which the Belete-Gera Forest lies, helping local products, such as coffee and honey, gain markets in and outside of Ethiopia. “Everyone respects the harmony of the community; they take their time to ask how someone is. Much of the modern world has lost that beautiful culture. That’s why I enjoy it here,” she says.

And of course the connection is helped by Japanese customers liking great coffee and Ethiopia producing quality beans. Nakahira says forest coffee in Belete-Gera is characterized by small crops rich in flavor and taste — and especially rich in variety, with the forest harboring delectable options such as coffee that tastes winey with hints of jasmine and orange, coffee with hints of raisin, violet and mango and coffee with shades of strawberry, cherry and lychee.

Only three countries globally produce forest coffee: Ethiopia, Brazil and Yemen. However, only one country grows coffee in indigenous natural forests: Ethiopia, the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Legend has it that coffee was first discovered by a curious Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, many centuries ago in Kaffa. He spotted his goats eating red berries on a shrub, after which they became particularly energized. Kaldi gave the berries a go — and the rest is coffee history, with the word “coffee” said to derive from the region.

Despite Ethiopia’s unique coffee legacy, however, the Belete-Gera farmers struggle to get all of their forest coffee accepted by international markets — hence the project to bring the entire crop up to the high international standards that have emerged over the past 20 years.

During the 1990s, Nakahira explains, the global coffee industry experienced a market trend known as the “third wave” where coffee drinkers started to frequent specialty and gourmet coffee houses to buy coffees unique in flavor, which could prove interesting origins — and for which they were willing to pay more.

As consumer awareness toward issues such as quality, ethical production and eco-friendliness increased, the popularity of coffees certified “Organic,” “Rainforest Alliance,” “UTZ,” “Bird Friendly” and “Fair Trade,” etc., also grew. In Japan, itself a growing coffee-savvy nation, past UCC surveys show Japanese customers rank eco-friendliness the third-most important factor (after quality and price) when selecting coffee.

More than 2,000 coffee farmers are participating in the Belete-Gera project — and it’s hoped another 3,000 can join — increasing their incomes by selling coffee certified by Rainforest Alliance, an NGO working on conservation in 30 countries.

In addition to UCC and JICA, local involvement comes from the Oromia Forest and Wildlife Enterprise, a regional organization established to safeguard what is left of Ethiopia’s forests.

“We can certify and sell our coffee with a premium as it is more attractive, and this has led to benefits,” says Hussein Abdullah, chairman of a Belete-Gera Coffee Cooperative, which represents farmers. “Now, we are confident we can keep the forest for the next generation.”

Those at JICA are more cautious, noting how the rates of deforestation, brought on by a need from families to cut down trees for money, still continue to be a concern.

“Forest conservation remains key,” says Fumiaki Saso, who works at JICA’s main office in Addis Ababa.

While watching the tasting competition, another journalist remarks how he is impressed by JICA’s simple approach, which appears to be producing results. When the project terminates in 2019, he reasons, there is every chance the local community can continue on its own.

“If the work started by the project continues,” Nakahira says, “it could establish Ethiopian natural forest coffee as a specialty market leader and stop deforestation.”

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