Sookoo’s washing stations are located in the Guji zone of the Oromia region of Ethiopia. The coffee from this area is sometimes mistakenly called Sidamo Guji, while instead it should be called Guji, or West-Guji on it’s own. This relatively young but already famous coffee area is recognized for its unique and distinctive cup profiles. In this beautiful landscape of forest jungle at an elevation of 2,100-2,350 meters above sea level, you can hear the workers singing cultural Guji songs while moving coffee around.
Ture Waji, famously known as ‘The King of Guji’, is the gentle ruler of Sookoo Coffee, located in the Woredas of Uraga and Shakisso. He has strong connections to the land, its community and farmers, as he grew up in region. After studying, he started as an export and farm manager at his cousin’s coffee farm and company Mormora, and at Guji Highlands Coffee. He was able to start Sookoo Coffee (previously Dambi Uddo), thanks to the trade and coffee liberalization in Ethiopia, building his first washing station and exporting his first coffee under his own brand in 2018.
Sookoo Coffee produces multiple lots across 2 drying stations. This year we found his Laayyoo natural lot, undoubtedly amongst one of the best coffees we cupped during and after our trip. The lot was produced at the Raro Nansebo washing station, located in Uraga, Guji, in the Kebele (village) of Raro Nansebo. The cherries are farmed by a community of washing station registered outgrowers in the Kebele (village) of Teraga.
The word Laayyoo refers to the indigenous tree growing in this area, used for shade on coffee plantations. Its deep roots allow for the falling leaves to offer rich, nutrient dense compost, acting also as a fertilizer for the coffee.
Ture Waji takes time between harvests to educate farmers on good agricultural practices to help improve the quality of their cherry. His company provides pre-harvest loans to farmers who, for example, need to pay labor to do maintenance on the farm, such as weeding and planting. Although we cannot draw a direct relation, this access to finance should mean that smallholder farmers need to draw less upon their family members, including their children. The washing stations employ a ‘woman-first’ policy and the company has built a school for the children. Roads have also been built to improve the infrastructure.
We met Ture Waji on our very first day of the trip, literally 30 minutes after landing, in a hotel lobby near the airport. Ture told us about his track record in the coffee industry with Guji Highlands coffee, his young enterprise Sookoo Coffee, and the washing stations in Guji in the Woredas of Uraga and Shakisho. Sookoo’s company values are Quality, Traceability and Sustainability and Ture is on a quest to carry that out. Although the meeting was brief and we didn’t plan to visit his sites in Guji, little did we know that we would meet The King later down the line again, while visiting a highly recommended service provider (and now friend), Mike from Addis Exporter.
Addis Exporter is run by Mike Mamo, who grew up only a few blocks away from Stephen’s house in Baltimore, Maryland USA (crazy how small the world really is!). Mike is now full-time in Ethiopia, with his company focusing on providing services to a new class of small and medium scale exporters in Ethiopia. His portefolio represents single farmers and washing stations, as well as offering Quality Control and Milling Services. Mike also runs his own washing station in Limu, from which we bought washed and honey processed lots this year (EU warehouse). We set up a meeting with Mike near the end of our trip and heard Ture would be there as well, which was the first time we had the opportunity to taste some of his coffees!
In between our first visit with Ture and our last visit with Mike, we visited multiple washing stations, exporters and farms. We learned about cherry sourcing practices, about how washing stations operate, and how and why final cup quality resulted the way it did with so many lots (both good and bad). Most importantly, we reaffirmed what we had discussed that day in Colombia: that finding collaborative relationships and having the right partners, would be the only way to achieve our goals and hit on the values of The Coffee Quest. All of the above is why we decided to work with Ture and Mike (who are also friends!).
Ture and Mike share our values of Transparency, Collaboration and Quality, and have the ambition to create amazing lots of coffee, by innovating in production and process, and deviating from the standards. With these two gentlemen, their teams, and with support of you, the roaster, we aim to take a more active role in the Ethiopian value chain; we want to not only support and create amazing lots together, but also leave as much positive impact as possible at the farm/producer level.
The lot from Ture Waji has been processed at Sookoo Coffee’s Raro Nensebo Washing Station (located in Raro Nansebo village in Uraga) using the coffee from outgrowers farmers from Teraga (kebele), Urage, in the Guji Zone.
Ture’s work at Guji Highlands as plantation manager and exporter has given him the experience to produce top notch natural coffee, under a quality driven system.
Sookoo Coffee focuses on working with smaller groups of farmers, and by providing technical assistance in the form of education and agricultural and picking practices, they can be assured to receive high quality cherry at their washing stations.
Farmers generally deliver cherry to the washing station at night, so that the possibility of fermentation in between harvest in the afternoon, and delivery at night is minimized. At the station, the cherries still go through an extensive sorting process to remove over and under ripes. While the coffee is still fresh, it is laid out on Raro Nansebo station’s African beds to be dried in the full sun. Sookoo Coffee upholds a maximum layer density of 4cm and moves the cherries around on the beds 6 times per day. This minimizes the potential for over fermentation during drying, as well as the potential for defects.
Total drying time for lots produced using the Sookoo Coffee processing protocol is 21-28 days.
Strict attention to detail is what separates Sookoo Coffee’s product from the usual ECX “Grade 1 Natural”, where quantity and efficiency is preferred over quality. This attention to detail, according to Ture, is the reason for the silky mouthfeel, bright acidity and fruity and juicy nature of his coffees.
We look forward to working with Ture in future harvests, and co-creating more amazing Sookoo Coffee lots! Ture is open to changing the status quo and always looking for ways to improve quality, perhaps by adding some shade drying to the coffees, or special selections at the dry mill. For that, we look for the interest and support from the roasters with whom we work! We believe the quality of the lot supports this write-up, so if you are one of the lucky roasters working with Laayyo, let’s have a chat in preparation of next season to see what we can work on, in collaboration with Sookoo Coffee.
In Ethiopia, many coffees are produced by washing stations that buy cherries from smallholder farmers, as is the case with Sookoo Coffee. This year, the cherry price in Ethiopia, has been very high as compared to other years, even with a low C-market price. The reason for this is the local competitiveness on the cherry market. Difficult climatological conditions, the harvest, especially in Sidamo has been very low. While policy changes and liberalization in the coffee market, the number of exporters competing for cherries rose significantly. This situation create a ripple effect over the entire country, which turned to the farmer’s benefit. Although cherry prices last year were as low as 10 ETB, this year they average around 25 ETB, across the country.
Sookoo Coffee worked with a group of outgrowers for the Laayyoo lot, from Teraga village, in Uraga Guji. Because the farmers are organized, they have a good potential in delivering consistent quality cherries and receive better prices. Sookoo Coffee needs to be sure of quality cherries to be able to produce and export their amazing and high-end product. They paid their farmers 29 ETB for a kilo of wet cherry this year. As additional services, they provide education to improve quality, and loans to help farmers prepare for the season, pay for labor and expand production. Last year, they had a bonus structure for farmers, after a successful export season. This year, they are considering lowering the bonus to 0,5 ETB or skip it all together because of the uncertainty that remains due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sookoo Coffee has a multitude of costs along the supply chain from buying cherry to putting green coffee on the boat for export. For starters, for each kilo of green they between 6 and 7 kilos of cherry. They eventually pay the overhead costs of running and maintaining a washing station, transportation of cherries in the rural areas, processing the purchased cherry. There is also warehousing of the dried coffee, milling, transportation to Addis and then dry milling the coffee for export. In addition to these activities there are overhead costs from their Addis Office, taxes and interest on loans.
In terms of risks, we are not quite certain how to interpret them, but I would like to mention that if mistakes are made in processing coffee, it cannot be sold as a specialty grade 1 and it won’t reap the price intended for it. We hope to provide more insight into risks in a later stage.
The cost for The Coffee Quest for bringing this coffee to market is built up out of transport costs, import and warehousing costs, inventory financing and commercialization. With our gross margin we cover for a multitude of risks, pay for our office, our lab, software and hardware used to efficiently provide you with quality products, and of course our amazing team working with you, with farmers, processors and exporters, are giving you transparency and insight on the work we love to do.
In the below graph, you can see the relation between the green coffee equivalent price paid to farmers, the price received by Sookoo Coffee and the price paid to The Coffee Quest.
In terms of sustainability Sookoo Coffee focuses on organic agriculture, and already has organic certification for one of their two sites in Guji. In fact, based on our visit last year, it appears almost all production in Ethiopia is organic by default. This is very different to many other producing regions, especially in Latin America, wherest immense amounts of fumigation and chemical fertilizer are used.
Sookoo’s Shakiso washing station and their outgrowers are officially organic certified, but our Laayyoo lot from Raro Nansebo is not. Sookoo Coffee is moving slowly towards fully organic. Part of a movement for Sookoo Coffee is the nursery project at a Qaballe, where 3 years from now organic certified coffee will be harvested.
Qeballa is in one of the upcoming regions: the soil is fertile, altitude and forest jungle and its perfect micro climate. With the organic project in progress, we can expect beautiful coffees from these young coffee plants in the coming years.
In the production of natural processed lots, only very little water is used at the mill. Farmers only use natural fertilizers, such as coffee husk and manure. Every year Ture is improving the quality of processing his coffee while learning more about the various effects on the environment. We will assist him on his Quest for sustainable production, and will continue to explore the environmental challenge of producing coffee in Ethiopia.
In preparation for next season, a nursery site has been set up to grow seedlings, to give to the farmers for free! This helps the farmers renovate their plots, scale up production, and secures a consistent production, in both quantity and quality.
The Coffee Quest has big plans for Ethiopia as a coffee origin, and so does Sookoo Coffee. They plan to eventually start with washed coffees at one of their sites in Shakiso and in addition, Ture is working on a collaboration with Mike Mamo of Addis Exporter to setup a joint washing station in Uraga, which they will call Greenspring (named after a road near where Mike group in Baltimore, MD, USA). In addition, once they start with washed coffees, they intend to start with fermentation experiments (in general, all coffee in Ethiopia is fermented underwater for between 36 and 72 hours) to be able to provide different and unique profiles to the market. The Coffee Quest hopes to be part of this development, in cooperation with Sookoo Coffee and we are already preparing for next season, to make this into a reality.