Ethiopia's Coffee Growing Regions - A Brief Explainer

Widely known as the birthplace of coffee to professionals and enthusiasts alike, Ethiopia is a land with a particularly long coffee history. Even with the familiarity that many people have with the coffee of Ethiopia, understanding the geographical, cultural, and historical borders that have determined the country’s coffee growing areas can be a lot to try to understand. This challenge continues to evolve as the geopolitical and cultural boundaries of the country shuffle and change. Just in the last decade Guji has earned recognition as a distinct coffee origin, and more recently Sidamo has been reinstated as an official geopolitical region rather than simply a historically dictated coffee growing area.

A colorful sunset at Hafursa Waro washing station in Hafursa Waro kebele

A colorful sunset at Hafursa Waro washing station in Hafursa Waro kebele

This primer is written to provide insight into the intersection of Ethiopia’s politically determined geography and its coffee growing areas, as well as to address how that geography and the culture of coffee production of Ethiopia informs the names you read on your bag of coffee.

Understanding Ethiopia’s geographical subdivisions will help immensely as we dive into coffee naming and identification. The geographical subdivisions are as follows:

  • Region: Equivalent to State, Department, or Province, delineated and named for the majority ethnicity of the people who live in that region
  • Zone: Subdivision of region
  • Woreda: Equivalent to county, municipality, or district
  • Kebele: The smallest subdivision, often containing several villages
  • Growing Area: Geographically defined by the ECX for classification purposes

A Short History of Ethiopia’s Geography

To better understand the growing area classifications used by the Ethiopia Commodities Exchange (ECX) for coffee produced in and exported from Ethiopia today, we must first look at the recent history of the country’s geography. Dating back to 1995 Ethiopia has been comprised of a number of ethno-linguistically determined regional states (called regions) and chartered cities. These regions replaced the provinces of Ethiopia as the country enforced the new Constitution of Ethiopia, which meant the dissolution of the Sidamo province as new map lines were drawn in which the two new regions of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNPR) and Oromia occupying the area previously known as Sidamo.

Maps of Ethiopia, 1995–Present

Maps of Ethiopia, 1995–Present

In 2014, the geographic identification of the ECX's coffee growing areas would shift when producers living in the Guji sub-area of the Sidamo growing area earned recognition as a distinct growing area. Their desire to be recognized separately from the greater Sidamo growing area was due to the distinctive characteristics of their coffee, which is ultimately what earned them that recognition. Then, in 2019, a referendum was held in the Sidamo zone of the SNNPR region in which voters supported a referendum to make Sidamo its own geopolitical region again rather than a subdivision of SNNPR.

Map of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange's growing areas in Ethiopia Map of growing areas in Ethiopia as defined by the ECX

The redefining of Ethiopia's internal borders has caused some friction between the naming and geography of the ECX's map of coffee growing areas compared to the current geopolitical map which is broken into regions, zones, woredas, and kebeles. For example, the Sidamo growing area stretches across the SNNPR, Sidamo, and Oromia regions. Similarly, some woredas and kebeles are broken into multiple growing areas, such as Banko Michicha and Banko Chelchele which call both Yirgacheffe and Guji home.

Classifying Ethiopian Coffees

Prior to the establishment of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange in 2008, coffees from Ethiopia were classified by the central liquoring unit based on their post-harvest processing (Washed or Natural) and their own geographical origin. These geographical groupings were based on shared cup characteristics between coffees grown in neighboring kebeles, woredas, and zones. Washed coffees were attributed to five growing areas—Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Limu, Tepi, and Bebeka—while Natural process coffees were attribute to four growing areas—Sidamo, Djimma, Harrar, and Lekempt.

Today, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) uses names of places to describe coffee origins for the purpose of classification. While the ECX classifies coffee by their provenance, the Ethiopian Coffee and Tea Marketing and Development Authority and the Coffee Quality Inspection Center certify all coffee in accordance with national quality assurance measures.

Fresh coffee cherriesFresh coffee cherries at Negusse Debela's washing station in the Worka Chelbesa kebele

The main coffee growing areas used by the ECX for classification are Lekempt, Djimma, Limu, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe, with newly added coffee delivery centers in Guji and Harrar. While these areas have their own geographical standards set by the ECX, there is a significant disconnect between the naming of some growing areas compared to the geopolitical lines that are currently defined on the map of Ethiopia.

The coffee growing area of Yirgacheffe as defined by the ECX, for example, includes several kebeles inside of the woredas of Dilla Zuria, Wonago, Bule, Kochere, Gedeb, and Yirgacheffe, all within the Gedeo Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region. While each of these woredas are contained within the Yirgacheffe growing area, only one of them has the geopolitical distinction of carrying the name “Yirgacheffe.”

Map of the Yirgacheffe growing area as defined by the ECX

The Yirgacheffe growing area as defined by the ECX

For example, let’s compare two coffees that Ally Coffee sourced this year from the Yirgacheffe growing area.

Koke Washed Gedeb Chelbesa Washed Organic
Region Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNPR) Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNPR)
Zone Gedeo Gedeo
Woreda Yirgacheffe Gedeb
Kebele Koke Chelbesa
ECX Growing Area Yirgacheffe Yirgacheffe

Both coffees were grown in the Yirgacheffe growing area in the Gedeo zone of SNNPR. However, only coffee from the Koke washing station in this example was cultivated in the Yirgacheffe woreda, while Gedeb Chelbesa Washed Organic was grown in the Gedeb woreda.

Rahel Mulat, Ally Coffee's Ethiopia Green Coffee Buyer, at Koke Washing Station

Rahel Mulat, Ally Coffee's Ethiopia Green Coffee Buyer, at Koke Washing Station

Coffees from any of the ECX’s designated coffee growing areas frequently share similar qualities and cup profiles which are synonymous with that particular growing area. However, as with coffee growing regions the world over, each subregion inside of a growing area will have a slightly different microclimate and terroir from that of its neighbors, contributing to a diversity of flavor and other cup characteristics across any individual growing area.

Naming the Coffees and Origins of Ethiopia

Understanding the complexities of how the geopolitical map of Ethiopia intersects with the geographical growing areas used by the ECX can come with some challenges, but hopefully this primer has prepared you to be better informed about exactly where your coffee was grown, harvested, and processed. Our goal, as always, is to provide the clearest and most accurate information about the coffees that we offer, including the most specific geographic location at which they were produced.

We’re thrilled to have Rahel Mulat, Ally Coffee’s Ethiopian Green Coffee Buyer, based in Addis Ababa where she continues to keep us connected to the places, organizations and, most importantly, the people who we can name and thank for the green beans we source each year from coffee’s historical home.

A special thanks to Rahel Mulat for providing information, resources, and insight for this blog post.

Maps included in the above gif sourced from Wikipedia

"Coffee Growing Areas of Ethiopia" map and the map of Yirgacheffe growing area provided by our exporting partners at Boledu Industrial PLC.

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