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Mapping Coffee in Ethiopia part one

Paul Little
16 April 2013
Blog team: 
Kew photographer Paul Little has just returned from accompanying a field trip to the Highlands of Ethiopia to research the impact of climate change on the vital coffee crop. Read part one of his diary of the trip.

Day 1 - 19th March

Late start due to prolonged and random breakfast and we hit rush hour as a consequence. We pick up our driver and leave Addis heading for Jimma. As we make our way further from the city, the tin-roofed shacks give way to more traditional thatched and mud-walled huts. Saw my first wild baboons by the road near Welkite. There was a distinct temperature difference as we descended from the cool heights to the dry valleys. As the day wore on, we entered hilly terrain dissected with numerous valleys and dry river beds. Among the valley trees of the plains, numerous nests of the weaver bird dangled and danced like grassy Christmas baubles. The valleys were comparatively lush and lined with trees: acacia, eucalyptus, figs, palm and false banana (Ensete ventricosum). We stopped for lunch in Seka, at a cafe where I enjoyed my first taste of strong Ethiopian coffee - thick and black as pitch. I've been learning my coffee descriptives: this one had been thoroughly brewed and was smokey and nutty with citrus notes, finishing on a blend of palpitations, shakes and mild seizure.

An Ethiopian Jebana (coffee pot) is heated against charcoal and frequently topped up (Image: Paul Little)

Day 2 - 20th March

Awoke at sunrise to find it still puzzlingly dark, the reason revealing itself with flashes of lightning and a crescendo of rain on the hotel's metal roof. Skipping breakfast we hastily bundle into our truck and set out for Yayu. We soon find ourselves travelling though coffee plantations which are remarkably biodiverse, with many species growing under the shade of various native trees.

Ethiopian coffee plantations can be remarkably biodiverse, many species growing under the shade of various native trees (Image: Paul Little)

The forest was occasionally punctuated by shiny, corrugated metal processing stations. Already people are going about their business. A boy does press-ups over a ditch as monkeys gaze down from their tree. We pass a long procession of children clutching their books on their way to school. So many little scenarios flash past before I can even raise a camera. I sit back and soak it all in. By 8am we've ascended to over 2000 m above sea level, beyond the range of coffee. This all accords pleasingly with the satellite data our GIS specialist Jenny has brought along. At last, in Bedele, we pause for breakfast. The others opted for scrambled egg but I venture the local option. It's a delicious mix of beans and spicy sauce with scrambled egg. It's scooped up with torn-off chunks of bread, a tricky challenge when it's polite to only use one's right hand. We find a roadside cafe where we stop for coffee.

A characteristic coffee processing station, constructed from corrugated metal (Image: Paul Little)

Day 3 - 21st March

We stop at a gleaming, corrugated metal compound inside which is a coffee processing plant. The overseer knows our partner, Dr Tadesse, and is very obliging in showing us about the facility. He goes to great efforts in starting up the coffee mill so that I am able to film the milling process. The milling machine is a huge, roaring mechanism of spinning belts and wheels and not a safety rail to be seen. I clamber over it as I try to record the various stages of the process, intensely aware of my dangling camera strap. I film the coffee beans going in, through and out of the fearsome contraption.

"The coffee milling machine is a huge roaring mechanism of spinning belts and wheels..." (Image: Paul Little)

The young lads operating it take great delight in demonstrating how they can haul a sack of close on 70 kg onto their backs and carry it to the store. Outside on the veranda some 30 or so women patiently pick through the beans, discarding any bad ones. They giggle and turn away whenever I point my camera towards them. Out in the yard three youths shuffle back and forth through an expanse of beans, turning them with their feet to dry in the sun. They walk together with their arms over each others' shoulders like old friends sharing confidences. This is something I see quite often on the street here. Men happily strolling along hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm in a way we British would interpret as decidedly romantic! Not so. Merely a rather sweet Ethiopian expression of friendship.

"Three youths shuffle back and forth through an expanse of beans, turning them with their feet to dry in the sun.." (Image: Paul Little)

We travelled for 30 km or so before pulling over for a brief survey of the local coffee plants, and found ourselves in some wonderful managed, moist, afro-montaine forest. Our first discovery was a magnificent false banana (Ensete ventricosum) about 5 years old and 5 metres high.

A magnificent false banana (Image: Paul Little)

Then a mighty old buttressed tree (Schefflera abyssinica). This led us on to a lovely, mature, wild coffee plant (Coffea arabica) in a perfect setting to be photographed, so I spent some time on it whilst the others made a plot survey nearby.

Wild Coffea arabica near Metu (Image: Paul Little)

Coming back to the car, there was a clear boundary of deforestation. For lunch we stopped in the nearby town. My stomach was in no mood for spicy tibb, but I was able to snaffle most of the potato portion without the others complaining. Skipping coffee for a cold Pepsi brought a welcome sugar boost. Leaving the town we passed a traditional round thatched hut sporting a shiny white satellite dish. Now I'm hoping to pass another with my camera ready. We've been steadily gaining altitude up to a height of 2300 m. Farmers in this area surround their properties with fences of euphorbia and grow crops of enset, a relative of the banana.

We stopped briefly to photograph a Lily of the Nile (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and were approached by some boys selling green peaches. Not yet ripe, they were delicious all the same.

- Paul -


26 April 2013
When will part two be published? I would like to read more. The pictures illustrating the blog are wonderful.
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17 April 2013
Love your mixture of visuals and taste descriptions. The wild banana tree photo has a real feel of Marianne North's colour palette. Visit her gallery to see what I mean.
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