THE STORY BEHIND KONGA
In addition to being the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia is quite possibly the most complex country for the production and distribution of that precious, miraculous liquid that gets us up and at ‘em. (Did you know that the Ethiopian government has classified over 6,000 unique coffee varieties and that they estimate the final number will eventually top out around 10,000?) No matter how many people you talk to from every side of the issue, getting to the crux of growing and selling coffee in Ethiopia demands an exhaustive knowledge of the country’s political and (agri)cultural history, and even then you would need to allow ample room for interpretation. That said, this is a modest effort to introduce you to one of our favorite coffees, Konga.
Founded in 1975, the Konga Cooperative is located in Yirgacheffe, the most densely populated part of Ethiopia and the country’s leading producer of coffee. It began with a group of 275 women and over 1,000 men and it has since grown to nearly 4,000 members. Compare that to Capucas, one of the most well-known cooperatives in Central America, which has around 300 members. The reason for this is because in Ethiopia people cannot be landowners. They only have squatting plots which are handed down within families, so an Ethiopian coffee farmer is working a very small area and will typically only produce 1-4 bags of green coffee per season. In Honduras, the producers own multiple acres of land, so their co-op consists of fewer members who all work larger farms which produce much more coffee per member.
For decades, Ethiopian farmers would sell their coffee directly to the local washing station and from there it would disappear behind the mysterious veil of commerce, leaving them with no access to basic market information and no real opportunity for growth. To address this issue, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was formed in 2008, a modern-day marketplace with the aim of protecting everyone, from sellers to buyers to consumers. Co-ops and washing stations were forced to unionize. All the coffee was grouped by type and quality to ensure the co-ops were being properly rewarded according to market value. Suddenly there were systems in place that helped facilitate sales and transparency.
This was a wonderful development in the sense that a coffee buyer could travel to an ECX warehouse, sample a number of delicious coffees from various unions that represented multiple co-ops, make a purchase and be done. But it’s an issue for roasters like ourselves who build entire coffee programs on foundational relationships with small producers. It’s nearly impossible to trace an ECX coffee back to the farmer since the lots are often grouped and blended.
The workaround for this situation is that unions can bypass the ECX and sell directly to coffee buyers, so Irving Farm’s Dan Streetman was able to establish ties with the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union—which includes 24 separate cooperatives and over 50,000 farmers—and that led him to the Konga washing station. This is the second year that we’ve offered coffee from Konga, and it’s the first year that we’ve committed to buying all of our washed Ethiopian coffee from this single co-op. By purchasing coffee directly from Konga’s union, rather than the ECX, we’re able to trace the coffee and ensure that the farmers will receive a second payment.
The farmers bring their ripe coffee cherry to the washing station where they’re paid immediately by the co-op. Once it’s processed and sold through the union to a roaster like Irving Farm, the co-op gives 70% of the profits back to the farmers (keeping 30% for administrative costs) and they make a collective decision about what to do with this second payment. In the past they’ve put it toward schools, roads, medical clinics and electricity. This year they chose to purchase school supplies for the children.
In February of this year, Dan was able to visit Konga along with our Director of Wholesale, Teresa von Fuchs, and they talked to several farmers who were positively impacted by the direct trade through the union, and they noted that it’s providing incentive for younger people to put more pride into their farming heritage. They also learned about a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in which friends and family gather three times a day to discuss their issues and concerns, each time drinking three cups of coffee—one for the host, one for family, and one for country. They claim that this is the reason Ethiopian society doesn’t have mental hospitals or psychiatrists.
Pick up a bag of Konga today and host your own coffee ceremony. In the face of such a full, profoundly complex world, sometimes it’s the simple things that have the greatest impact.
This coffee is certified USDA Organic, meaning its production did not involve the use of synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.