Sidamo (or Sidama - the latter refers to the Sidama people, the former is what used to be known as Sidamo province) covers a large area in Southern Ethiopia spreading through the fertile highlands south from Lake Awasa in the Rift Valley. It is made up of over 20 different administrative areas, or ‘woredas’, with varying microclimates and altitudes; accordingly, there is a big variety of both grades and cup profiles that end up labelled as Sidamo. In fact, the famous Yirgacheffe region geographically lies within Sidamo, though it is ultimately classified as its own coffee region.
Much of the administrative confusion is due to various historical administrative designations and confusion between these and (often conflicting) modern ones. It is important to keep in mind that while all coffees bearing the name ‘Sidamo/Sidama’, do hail from the larger Sidamo territory, they may not hail directly from the Sidamo state (which is a smaller region). Most central-southern coffees from Ethiopia are considered ‘Sidamo’ and are then classified further using specific town names or micro-regions.
In 2008 Ethiopia began the centralization of all coffee exports through the newly established Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX). This eliminated most roasters’ and importers’ ability to provide accurate information on the precise traceability of coffees. Until December of that same year, growers could also sell directly to export markets, but this was subsequently reigned in. Since that time, the difficulty of determining precise provenance in Ethiopia – a cornerstone of specialty coffee – has been a tremendous frustration to buyers in consuming markets.
Today, around 90% of coffees move through the ECX and are cupped according to profile then graded and marked generically for export.
It is clear that the ECX still dominates Ethiopian coffee. Only around 10 to 13% of the coffee grown is now eligible to be purchased ‘directly’ through cooperatives or plantations, which is generally regarded as a step in the right direction for control of sale for farmers and traceability. However, this percentage has remained relatively stable since the founding of the ECX.
Recently, the Ethiopian Coffee Board has introduced a bar-coding system that will enable certain lots to be ‘traced back’ after the initial anonymised purchase on the ECX down to washing station and Central Processing Unit. This system is now, however, is in trial and has only been extended to insignificant amounts of coffee as of the 15/16 system. Even with this new barcoding system, it is important to keep in mind that:
- Prior to bidding the exporter will STILL not be given traceability details. This means that even with barcoding, the exporter purchases coffee in much the same way as they do now: with access only to an area and quality code, eg. Sidamo A4.
- Only after the purchase will the exporter receive traceability details. These details will be standardized and it is unclear to what extent they will, in themselves, add value.
Furthermore, the exporter has no incentive to bid a higher price for such lots since, at the time of the auction, he/she does not know yet whether the lot under the hammer is traceable. In light of this, it is possible that washing station owners putting coffee up to auction will fail to be incentivised to participate in the new program. This remains to be seen, however. We are watching results with interest, as the concept looks promising.