For International Womens Day, March 8th, I intended to write a word on the topic of women in coffee. Then, two things stopped me.
First, the tragedy in the Ukraine drew my thoughts single-mindedly to our sisters there. What are they suffering in these icy cold, terrifying and uncertain times?
The second blocking point was that I wanted to write about our extraordinary dry-processed Ethiopian coffee: Abyssinian Mocha, a coffee exported by a Greek woman, born and raised in Ethiopia, who I’ve known for a number of years. But I assumed it was sourced from men, so not the right story to tell on March 8th.
Turns out I was wrong! When I spoke with Heleanna, she gave me 2 pieces of news, the good and the bad.
The bad news first, is that the exact provenance of our Abyssinian Mocha is a long-held family secret. And when she says long, Heleanna really means it.
Back in the day, Greek stone masons from the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos were contracted to work on the construction of the Suez Canal. As they ventured inland, they discovered that the Kingdom of Abyssinia was a Greek Orthodox Kingdom. Here they felt welcome and so they settled down. Heleanna’s Great Grand Uncle followed these same footsteps, settling in the township of Hirna, East Harargue in 1906, where the coffee trade was thriving . Back then, coffee from the Harar Region was the only commercialized coffee to be exported from Ethiopia. It was carried by donkey from remote farms all the way to Dire Dawa – the largest trading town in the Harari state – whence it was sold by exporters who shipped it on to Yemen and Europe. The family thus entered the coffee trade very early on, although the export company was only established in 1971 by Heleanna’s father.
Harar coffee became famous for its deep, rich blueberry notes . This type of coffee was called “Abyssinia”, because that is the Amharic language word for Ethiopia. And Mocha, because Al Makha was the Yemeni port that coffee was historically shipped from.
The good news I am incredibly excited to share is that even though Heleanna cannot tell me its exact provenance, she did tell me this Abyssinian Mocha comes from a group of between 50 and 70 women coffee collectors – meaning they buy the coffee from individual farmers, some of whom themselves are women! For years, Heleanna worked with an incredible woman who fought to eradicate FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in her region. After long discussions, Heleanna and her friend concluded that by trading coffee from women collectors, these ladies could become more independent, self-reliant and thus gain access to freedom, education and development. Heleanna’s family company established a direct relationship with them, buying coffee that they processed, and advancing them loans so they could purchase the cherry, or raw coffee fruit.
As a woman, Heleanna shares my perspective on the plight of women in coffee. But as an Ethiopian woman exporter, who works in the field of coffee, her words carry more weight than mine. This is what she has to say:
“I personally cannot live happily knowing that I am working, living a better life where I can afford education for my daughter, but people around me are having a hard time. Women are the ones mostly working hard, not only in coffee, but in everything else in Ethiopia: carrying heavy loads, taking care of the kids, producing food, picking the coffee, carrying water etc. But their efforts are not recognized nor paid. All the money in coffee goes to the men, and most of the time it is not accounted for nor spent wisely.
I know it sounds very patronizing, but if a man spends his money on Khat (a local drug) or alcohol, what remains to pay for school fees, clothing and a better family life is not enough. When I say ‘improving the lives of women’, it means paying them directly so that they are in control of their own income, allowing them some form of independence. When I build or repair schools, I know that more children will attend and benefit. Ultimately more women will also have access to education and benefit from seeing their kids attend.”
But let’s not forget the coffee itself. A dry or natural processed Arabica (as opposed to a washed) means the coffee cherry has been harvested and then dried whole. Done badly, this can result in a very poor-quality coffee. But dried carefully on raised beds or platforms, turned regularly in the penetrating sun of the Ethiopian Highlands, the coffee beans can absorb all the deep, sweet notes of their surrounding fruit. The result; a wildly sweet cup that to my nose smells almost like fig jam, or a very sugary rum. This was the ancient way of processing coffee and given its intoxicating flavours, I understand why the drink became so popular.