Coffee is Ethiopia’s top export, valued at $851 million in 2014. Coffee sustains the livelihoods of 15 million Ethiopians, according to the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is working to nudge the industry to higher levels of success.

Game-changing investment

A worker at an Ethiopian coffee cooperative holds a handful of ripe red coffee berries. (USAID)

While coffee is a well-established product of Ethiopia, its value chain has yet to reach its full potential. That’s why the U.S. targeted Ethiopia’s coffee industry as a focus of its Agribusiness Market Development project, part of the Feed the Future initiative. Through the project, USAID trains smallholder coffee farmers in better harvesting, processing and storage methods that improve their beans’ marketability.

Alemu Abagero is a coffee farmer in Oromia. Before the training, he harvested ripe, overripe and unripe coffee cherries together, then dried and sold them to the local market.

Now Abagero selectively picks ripe cherries. He sold an initial lot for processing, earning 20 percent more than he had typically earned. He dried another lot in a well-ventilated area to maintain its quality, then sold the cherries later, again at a good price. He staggered picking to allow the plants to remain healthy and to produce every year.

Since 2011, Ethiopia’s production of coffee per hectare has increased 45 percent in areas where USAID works, said USAID’s Robert Sauers.

Aid is good. Trade is better.

Abagero’s story is local. Nevertheless, it is one part of a larger push toward high-quality coffee and more trade with the rest of the world. USAID helped to improve Ethiopia’s coffee-washing system and to simplify its coffee grading. It worked with Ethiopians to expand traceability so buyers would know that Ethiopia is the source of the coffee they brew.

A technician grades a batch of Ethiopian coffee. (USAID)

Traceability “is a game-changer investment” with significant benefit to both coffee producers and buyers, according to Sauers.

In May 2013, the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange coffee laboratory became the first in Africa to meet the quality standards of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The recognition increased the value of Ethiopian coffee brands and earned them confidence from U.S. and other international buyers.

Five months later, the East Coast Impact Angel Network, a group of investors in the United States, invested in a new coffee-processing facility and in training for more local farmers.

As a sign of the growing reputation of Ethiopian coffee in the world, in 2016 Ethiopia will host the International Coffee Organization’s fourth world coffee conference.

To learn about meeting international standards for food produced by your community, look to the U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius. Small farmers do well to band together in cooperatives, which help them establish a reputation as the source of quality products. Interested in starting a cooperative? Learn more about them from the International Co-operative Alliance.