ADDIS ABABA - It is not a controversial statement to say Ethiopian coffee is popular.

In addition to being the genetic point of origin for the coffee plant, the biggest producer of coffee in Africa and the fifth largest in the world, Ethiopia boasts some of the most revered flavors and experiences among coffee connoisseurs across the globe. Sub-regions like Limu, for instance, have become renowned for producing Arabica coffee with a spicy, wine-like complexity. From its hilly origins in the remotes of South Western Ethiopia, it is highly sought by many roasters in Europe and the United States.

As with all coffee in the world, there are real people responsible for the successful cultivation of Limu. Among the producers of Limu coffee in the Oromia region is the Limu Inara Multipurpose Cooperative Society, which boasts 95 primary cooperatives and a membership of 34,687 farmers across the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union. In 2021/2022, Ethiopia produced 496,200 metric tonnes of coffee, and estimated that the 2023/2024 the production will increase to 501,100 metric tonnes. In 2021, Ethiopia exported a total of $1.16 billion of coffee; Germany alone accounted for 75.6 million dollars worth of it.

But that export model is now threatened. With a European Union deforestation law set to be implemented in December this year, coffee exports especially from places like Ethiopia will be greatly impacted. In response, Ethiopian smallholder coffee farmers are betting on technology including blockchain, geospatial AI, GPS, and satellite imagery to comply in order not to lose out on the European Union market.

According to the European Coffee Federation, the European Union imports 3 million tonnes of coffee annually. In 2019 for instance, countries with the most exports of coffee to the EU were Brazil, Vietnam, Honduras, Colombia, Uganda, India, Peru, and Ethiopia in order of quantity. That year, Ethiopia exported 83,722 tonnes of coffee to the EU.

When the European Council gave its final go-ahead for the implementation of the regulation in May last year, it stated that “the regulation sets mandatory due diligence rules for all operators and traders who place, make available or export palm oil, cattle, wood, coffee, cocoa, rubber, and soy from the EU market.”

Before this, developing countries responsible for exporting many of the commodities covered in the regulation wrote a letter in protest. Envoys to the European Union from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Guatemala, Nigeria, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Peru, Honduras, Paraguay, Malaysia, Bolivia, and Ecuador signed the joint letter.

In the letter, the envoys termed the law as flawed and called for cooperative means to combat deforestation instead of the law. “The country assessment criteria and benchmarking system are inherently discriminatory and punitive. Its most likely effect will be to generate trade distortion and diplomatic tensions, without benefits to the environment,” the letter read. With little amendment, however, the council ratified the law hence the December deadline.

The regulation requires of companies wishing to export the commodities to the EU to undertake due diligence on the production of the commodities. The law suggests that the company ought to gather geographic information on the plot of land the commodities were sourced from, assess the risk of non-compliance to the EU deforestation-free regulation, and mitigate risks to negligible levels. This disrupts the norm and introduces a new way in how companies buy coffee from Ethiopia and other countries. While much is needed from these companies, the burden also falls on the farmers who need to comply to remain competitive.

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