Ethiopia Supply Chain Partner Eden Kassahun On Managing Logistics Through Covid 19

 

Eden Kassahun is one of Red Fox’s most integral supply chain partners and has been since we opened in the business in 2014. Eden and Red Fox co-founder Aleco Chigounis’s history together goes back to her days at Technoserve where they first met in 2009. She helps us manage our Ethiopia supply partnerships with Kata Muduga, Kerchanshe, and Kedir Jebril. Her role couldn’t be more critical to our success in executing early shipments; she manages much of the internal transportation and logistics details within Ethiopia. We sat down with Eden in the Foxhole to discuss her history and unique position in the Ethiopian coffee world, her role in our many Ethiopian partnerships, and the impacts of Covid-19 on the past and upcoming harvest and shipping season. 

 

Aleco Chigounis: Hi everybody, welcome back to The Foxhole. We have one of the most special guests we could have, one of our most critical supply chain partners in all of the world. We’re broadcasting live from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today. Eden is in her office and I’m back in my hotel room. January is easily the biggest month on our coffee acquisition front in the entire calendar year. Part of what we do, part of the success of Red Fox is moving coffee from Ethiopia extremely quickly, something for which Eden’s work is key. We take pride in our ability to get coffee to market as fast or faster than anyone else in the trade. So in order to make that happen this year, I took all the precautions I could. Red Fox is learning how to travel anew all over again in 2021, and it’s a little bit stressful, I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of concern—but this is what we do and we need to serve our client community, so we’ll be out here.

Now, for Eden. She and I have known each other for 12 years since her days back at Technoserve and she’s made an absolutely amazing career for herself since then. I often refer to her as the queen of Ethiopia for Red Fox. The role she plays in Red Fox’s supply chain is both behind the scenes and very much in the middle. That’s an important detail because there’s been a lot of talk over the years of middle men needing to be cut out or not playing the right role, and that’s really foolish and harmful. People play a critical role—from the producer all the way through to delivering that green coffee to the roastery and where it goes from there. Eden is a huge part of Red Fox’s success.

Eden Kassahun: Thank you Aleco, I’m happy to be here. 

Aleco: Could you give us a little bit of a background on how you got started in coffee and how your career has progressed? 

Eden: I joined coffee when I first started at Technoserve. My background education is computer science and software engineering, so I was supporting team Technoserve in IT. When I was working there, I was able to visit farms and learn more about growing coffee for the first time. The intention was for me to go and visit the office, which is up in the country, in Jimma. When I was there, I got the chance to see how the coffee farmers live, how they produce coffee, how they sell, which was not something I had imagined before that. I grew up in the city, and that was my first experience in the field. I saw how producers live and how that shaped their characters and the beautiful coffees they produce, and it was very attractive for me, and I wanted to go deeper into that side. I started to study the profiles, the terms, everything to do with coffee. Naturally I met very good people like you, Aleco, and that’s how I got started.

After a couple years getting closer and learning about coffee, including cupping, I started my small company operating in wholesale coffee. That’s how my business started 12 years ago. 

Aleco: I remember in 2009 when our mutual friend Chris Jordan told me about his project with Technoserve and the Gates Foundation in Limu, an area where a lot of us on the buying side were fairly certain that there wasn’t phenomenal coffee. Of course, you proved us to be incredibly wrong. Those coffees from Agaro, specifically the Nano Challas, the Durominas, the Yukros are just some of the most beautiful coffees in the world, undeniably.

I remember meeting you in the office when I would come in and cup and to see where you’ve gone from there is amazing. You’ve started your own company. You have your own crew there now.

How do you see your current role, responsibility, and objectives in the Ethiopian coffee industry now? How do you run the business?

Eden: Our company is responsible for filling the gaps between the supplier and the buyer, helping overcome the many barriers in that area. Technology is a barrier, language is a barrier, and even the culture, the culture of connecting producers and buyers. They very much need a bridge between them. On top of helping identify good coffees, we facilitate communication and shipment so that buyers get that good coffee on time and can deliver to their clients. It is a big role, and stressful sometimes, but it helps promote new coffees and growth for everyone involved.

Since we started working together, we’ve seen a lot of new coffees enter the field and develop better markets for their product. We’re able to identify and get top-quality coffees, which can bring a large amount of currency for us as a national entity. It also helps to get good coffees for good people, good coffee buyers.

Aleco: I think what you said about facilitating coffee moving quickly might be the understatement of the year. You’re a hero in that regard.

As I’ve mentioned before, Red Fox moving Ethiopian coffee quickly is really a big part of our success, and the role that Eden plays for us specifically in that is managing contact with all the producing groups over the course of the year, communicating with all of us. Once I arrive here—which is usually the end of December—she and I get into the warehouses immediately, like literally the day that I arrive in Ethiopia, and we start to bulk lots together and sample coffees. I roast the samples myself in my hotel room on an Ikawa and then cup them in Eden’s lab the next day. We make decisions really, really quickly. We try to get coffees into the mill as soon as possible which is very difficult in January because you have two very major holidays here in January: Ethiopian Christmas, which is usually the second week of January and then Timket, which is an even bigger holiday than Christmas. So to be able to operate in and around those moments is really tricky, and Eden is able to pull that off on a level I literally have yet to see anyone else be able to do here. It’s really a special thing.

Shifting gears a little bit Eden, can you talk to us a little bit about the pandemic and how COVID-19 has affected Ethiopia, how it’s affected the coffee industry over the last year?

Eden: The economic impact of the pandemic was very severe on the coffee trade in Ethiopia. The disease itself is not necessarily as bad as in many other countries, but it has affected a lot in the coffee trade and trade in general, especially during the lockdown when people were not able to move.

It’s now been three or four months where we can easily move without lockdown. But transport was limited—most of our people use public transport, and most of it was not operating or was operating at limited capacity. And there was little work, so it was really difficult for people to survive, especially in the big cities I think. Then when you go to the countryside, especially the coffee growing areas, there wasn’t much interest in the speciality side of the business, which brings relatively good money compared to commodity business. So that was a huge set of financial problems.

But if you ask about the awareness or people’s knowledge about that, I could say most of our people either don’t know or don’t really trust that there is a disease there. It was really rare for us to see people wearing masks properly, right Aleco?

Aleco: Yeah, especially outside of Addis.

Eden: Especially up in the field and the washing stations, people don’t care. Even people who are coughing—they go, it’s okay, I’m fine, I’m fine.

Aleco: It’s interesting to hear that the virus has been politicized in a different way but almost as heavily as it has in the US, that people think it’s more of a political thing and maybe it’s not actually real.

Eden: Initially when the pandemic broke out, people were in the middle of mass protests. Things were not politically stable last year during that time—of course, they aren’t stable most of the time, but this was bigger, so that every place was rallying for protests and gatherings. When they announced this state of emergency and told everyone to stay at home, not to gather and all this stuff, everyone thought that was to stop the protests. 

Aleco: Yeah, early on there was a heavier lockdown, right?

Eden: Yes, much, much heavier. We were all made to stay at home, schools, off the bus, the restaurants were closed. They were doing thousands of tests per day.

Aleco: How did the pandemic and lockdown itself affect the coffee industry? I know the lockdown happened in the middle of shipping season last year, and it affected interest from the global marketplace. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Eden: It became much harder to manage the coffee. The coffee unions have a lot of management power, and at the time of the lockdown they were operating at just a quarter capacity in terms of labor. And it’s not only the quarter capacity, they also work just half the day. So we really couldn’t get the work done in the same amount of time. It took us more than a month to ship coffees post-processing. The logistics and the quality inspection parts were really terrible. And very little coffee was coming in. The national banks which do permitting were also operating at a quarter capacity, which slowed things down immensely for getting permits to export coffee. All the customs stuff, the truck movements. It’s one of the sectors most highly affected by the pandemic. Because most of the tasks are labor intensive—they require human intervention. 

Aleco: So, along with all of the myriad of issues that you just mentioned, I know that demand in the middle of the shipping season started to fall off. I heard about issues from Japan, from Korea, from North America, from Europe, buyers trying to wash contracts out of fear of what lay ahead for them in their own marketplaces and their own ability to sell coffee, which was a devastating moment here. I know a lot of folks were in trouble last year, and I hope that all of them were able to survive and come back online this year.

But  with that said, I’m curious what your expectations are for the market this year in terms of being able to regain momentum and sell levels of coffee like you had in 2019 in years past. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Eden: I think the impacts will continue affecting especially the high-end coffees, because still, globally we see that demand is still lower. On the other hand, we’ve seen that demand for low grade coffee is higher than it was pre-pandemic. Of course, the season is just starting, but when we see the buyers’ interest and what they ask for, I think the demand will go to the low end coffees instead of the higher side. 

Last year there were a large amount of washouts, especially for high-end coffees, which discouraged most of the people who produce those, especially at the dry mill or washing station level. They ended up having to sell their high-end coffee in the commodity market, even if the coffee had a high value. So it’s discouraged some producers from pursuing high-end coffee, and they’re also dealing with financial constraints as a result. I expect to have less interest from the people who produce special coffee. There’s still that demand for low grade coffee, which shows that a lot of people are drinking coffee at home. That’s how I see it.

Aleco: I can tell you from our perspective, last year we were terrified in March, in April, in May. We’re still a little bit terrified about what lies ahead for us in the marketplace, and concerns about what types of coffee will be of interest to roasters around the globe, and what you said confirmed some of our thinking there.

But I have to say, I feel like we are in a very fortunate industry. I feel like there is a whole lot of resilience in coffee, that people aren’t going to stop drinking coffee anytime soon, and that there’s still a lot of hope and a lot of opportunity for the folks that are able to muster enough moxie to get through this period and come out alive on the other side, alive in the business sense.

So we’re hedging our bets on what we think the market needs. We think that there still is a whole lot of room to sell top caliber coffees at appropriate price levels, at those higher price levels. But I think in general, yes, I agree that there will be a little regression in terms of what people are willing to pay for the moment so that they do get to the other side of this.

I know many farms around the globe are facing a pandemic-induced shortage of coffee pickers. Is this an issue in Ethiopia?

Eden: Not really. Again, you’ve seen that people are not really aware that there is a pandemic, especially at this point post-lockdown. Of course last year there was an issue because of the lockdown shutting down transport, preventing workers from traveling to jobs. But this year, no, it doesn’t really affect us.

Aleco: Eden, thank you so much. We’re going to let you go, unless you have a message or anything you’d like to share before we go. It’s been such a pleasure having you on.

Eden: Yes, thank you very much. Once again, I’m really happy to have met you and been part of this friendship, and I hope it will continue like this. I’m really looking forward to sending over the great coffees. Thank you.

Aleco: I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you and your efforts. Thank you so much. Talk to you tomorrow morning.

Eden: Yes, as usual. On with your roasting, so that you can cup tomorrow.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

 

Red Fox Coffee Merchants Origin & Shipment Update: Q2 2021

Hello friends, coming to you in the second quarter of 2021. We’ve put together a report on the current state of coffee affairs in the areas of the world in which we work. Buying coffee, while never easy or uncomplicated, has become more complex than ever, and we want you to feel included, supported, and looped in as we navigate that process together. With the supply and shipping disruptions we’ve seen over the last year and which we know will echo into the future, every link in every supply chain needs to be managed more carefully than ever. We want to help keep your finger on that pulse and hopefully make your job a little easier. This report contains some details as well as some broad strokes—if anything here piques your interest or leads to more questions, we’re always here to talk, so get in touch

Logistics & Port Updates 

We continue to feel the impacts of the widespread disruptions in trade and cargo shipping brought on by the pandemic and magnified recently by the container ship the Ever Given blocking traffic through the Suez Canal. For Red Fox, the global shortage of shipping containers has made it challenging to find bookings for the fastest, most direct ocean cargo routes that we prioritize. We’ve seen higher shipping costs, more rolled and cancelled bookings across the board on all shipping lines, and big bottlenecks at US ports, particularly on the west coast, that result in delays in getting our coffees unloaded, through customs, and stocked into warehouses. Ports, warehouses, and trucking companies are facing staffing shortages due to Covid-19, causing further logistical challenges and delays. 

We push to get our Ethiopia shipments afloat as early as possible every year, and are especially glad to report that, with the majority of our containers already on the water or arriving on the east coast, Suez Canal-specific delays have only affected a couple of our later shipments from Ethiopia, some of which we have chosen to hold in Addis until bookings can be confirmed, rather than have them sit at port in Djibouti. We know that long shipping times and warehouse delays are frustrating for everyone and we will continue to bring you as much information as possible regarding ETAs, arrival times, and coffee availability as these challenging conditions continue. 

Supply, Demand, & The C Market 

After a near 2 year high of around $1.40/lb towards the end of February, the C market seems to have settled in the mid-$1.20s/lb at the time of writing (approximate 3 month moving average). As Red Fox does not trade or hedge using the C market, there was little direct effect on our US operations. However, as the C market price continued to rise during Mexico sourcing discussions, we kept that $1.40 price in mind while determining what competitive quality premiums look like right now.  While global shipping lines work to renew vessel schedules across the world’s ports, warehouse stocks of green coffee across the global north continue to dwindle per various market reports. This has led to grumblings around increased C Market volatility though we’ve yet to see any major movement to date.   

Mexico 

About 75%-80% of the harvest is currently processed and collected in the central warehouses for bulking and dry milling. The Pluma/Sierra Sur and Mixteca regions are closer to 90%, while some regions in Northern Oaxaca will continue their final round of picking/processing through the first half of April. Chiapas and Veracruz are almost 100% finished with harvest. Our lab in Oaxaca has seen the heaviest 2 week period in our Mexico sourcing history at the end of March and samples continue to arrive from producers and family clusters from new and established relationships. We’re busy cupping offers as well as early preships, bulking coffees, monitoring the dry mill, and making sure coffees are ready to make their way onto the water. April is the primary month for milling across all three states in Mexico where Red Fox sources. Our first container is milled and expected to go afloat this week and four other containers will be milled this week and next.  First arrivals will be primarily community lots from the Pluma/Sierra Sur region of Oaxaca.

There is more competition for container availability this year due to the global container shortage but the big advantage Mexico has for shipping to other North American ports is the frequency of vessels arriving and sailing (most steamship lines call to port of Veracruz every 3 days). We also plan to continue to use the port of Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast for West Coast shipments where transit time is 5 days on the water port to port. We still expect these coffees to arrive in May through June. 

Covid-19 case counts continue to be a problem across Mexico and while a vaccination program has recently begun by the government, the rollout is slow and disorganized. More wealthy Mexicans with travel visas are going to the US to get vaccinations. The government recently released data showing more accurate cases and death counts than was previously being released and were 30% higher than previously reported. Another surge in cases is expected  after the Semana Santa (Easter) holiday where many people travelled and family gatherings are very common. Most businesses are fully open, and while mask wearing is very widespread in public and on the streets, it’s less common in family social gatherings. 

Smaller, more vulnerable communities continue to publicize information and precautionary measures, but many of these precautions unfortunately aren’t up to date and don’t prevent spread effectively. Where the latest science overwhelmingly points to aerosols in gatherings in poorly ventilated areas without masks as the primary method of spread, the smaller towns still focus on hand sanitizer and spraying down the outside of clothes and cars with bleach as the way to prevent more cases entering. We hope to see better information and  realtime science reach these communities quicker in the future.   

Available Lots: Peñas Negras makes its return to the offerings of community lots out of the Pluma/Sierra Sur region, near Juquila not far from the Pacific coast, just straight up the mountain. This community is one of the first to start and finish harvest in Oaxaca and this year’s lot is very balanced and sweetness driven, showing notes of Honeycrisp apple, chocolate syrup, and fresh butter. This and other Pluma community lots in the first shipment arrive to Continental, NJ the first week of May and 2nd week of May to Annex, CA. We’ll also have coffees available by the end of May in Dupuy, Houston and Seaforth, Vancouver this year.  

Ethiopia

Harvest has officially concluded for the season, Addis warehouses are full of parchment and peak shipping period is now underway. Vertical Integration, which allows for producers to establish a price agreement with an exporter prior to the harvest season, continues to play an emerging role in the specialty sector with more direct business concluded than year’s prior. The ECX continues to receive and trade less coffee.  

The Suez Canal incident and rising fuel costs for trucks making the Addis to Djibouti run have caused massive delays for vessels leaving port.  

Covid-19 cases are increasing at extreme levels according to our network on the ground in Addis, though accurate reporting remains difficult to find. Ethiopia received 2+ million doses of AstraZeneca in March per the WHO’s initiative.  

Available Lots: We were fortunate enough to move our first dozen containers, split between Agaro & Guji, prior to the Suez debacle. Fresh crop has arrived to Port of NJ as of 3/30. We expect availability in Continental Terminals NJ in the coming week or so of both Guji and Agaro coffees. ETA’s for coffees coming into both The Annex CA and Dupuy Houston range from to mid-to-late April.  

Kenya 

Kenya is now also in peak shipping season as the main crop has now concluded. 320,000+ bags have been purchased through the auction system and direct purchases since January 1. The fly crop (Kenya’s second, smaller crop) begins later this month and will conclude late May/early June.  

Shipments are delayed per the Suez debacle with lines still unable to communicate new schedules. Some fear a backlog into or even through May. Food grade containers are also at a premium.  

Nairobi is currently in lockdown as cases are now on the rise. Our trade partners are only in their offices on a rotating, need-to-be basis. The first round of 1,000,000+ AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Kenya early March. The government expects 3,500,000+ vaccines to be distributed across the 2021 calendar year.  

Available Lots: Our first shipment arrived to Port of NJ late February and has now been sold out.  Our 2nd shipment destined to CA maintains a mid-April ETD from Mombassa.  

Guatemala

We are hearing reports of another month of harvest in Huehuetenango. Early offers have been outstanding and we’ll see more volume this year from producers from the Santa Barbara municipality. Look for Guatemalan coffees clearing on both coasts in mid to late May.

While travel has opened up between departments, public transportation remains extremely limited. This has exacerbated the shortage of migrant pickers and harvesting continues to be a struggle in most regions.

In vaccine news, Guatemala became the third country in Latin America to start vaccinating its population through the COVAX initiative, which uses the AstraZeneca vaccine. Guatemala expects to receive a total 6.6 million doses this year to reach its goal of immunizing 20% of the population.

Available Lots: We’re currently finalizing selections for an initial container to go afloat later this month/early May.

Peru 

Even though in January 2021 the national economy showed a drop of 0.98%, Peru’s agricultural sector remained afloat and growing. For its part, the Junta Nacional de Café (National Coffee Board) hopes that this year will be strong for coffee production. They expect production to rise 18% compared to last season, and the Cajamarca, Cusco, Amazonas, and Pasco regions will benefit from it.

In mid-January, the Peruvian government declared the arrival of the second wave of Covid-19. The government established different risk levels for the country’s regions and implemented restrictions for each level. One measure ensured that people taking domestic flights from extreme risk regions must present a negative Covid test from within 72 hours before the flight, as well as foreigners entering the country. 

Added to the general political instability of 2020 was a national scandal called “vacunagate”, where it was discovered that influential figures including the former president and the health minister had secretly received free vaccines from Sinopharm months before negotiations were finalized and doses were available to the population. The news aggravated the feeling of disappointment with political leaders. Currently, a limited number of vaccines are available and the vaccination process has begun. The Peruvian government presented a National Vaccination Plan that has three phases that extend until the second half of the year. The country is also preparing to face presidential elections during April.

Available Lots: A broad range of all regions and qualities available on all three coasts (Continental NJ, Annex CA, DuPuy Houston). A rep from our team would be happy to walk you through our offerings from Peru and make recommendations.

Colombia 

Heavy rains have stunted both flowering for Colombia’s second semester harvest and maturation for the imminent mitaca fly crop across Southern Colombia. Ports from Cartagena to Buenaventura are dealing with congestion due to limited availability with primary shipping lines. Port Strikes in Brazil and Covid-19 are the main culprits. Container availability is not currently an issue.  

Geovanny Liscano reports that Asorcafe is business as usual with producers focused on maintenance in the current between-crops season.  First picking at altitude in Inzá should begin by the second half of June. 

Covid-19 cases are back on the rise. The government has put in place new travel restrictions for those traveling internally within Colombia. The first vaccines arrived in Colombia mid-February with the government maintaining their plan for 20,000,000 doses to be distributed in the 2021 calendar year.  

Available Lots: Red Fox’s North American stock is dwindling as we prepare for inbound Mexican coffee late spring. Expect fresh crop coffee from the mitaca to begin shipping late summer/early fall.  

Rwanda 

Cherry picking in Rwanda is underway, with peak harvest towards the end of March. Reports of weather and rainfall have been promising, and we are expecting good quality and volume this season. We should see offer samples in our lab in late May/early June.

Rwanda has imposed some of Africa’s toughest anti-coronavirus measures since the pandemic began, including one of the first full lockdowns on the continent in March 2020. More recently, Kigali went back into lockdown for 2 weeks in January 2021, after an increase in the number of Covid cases. Case numbers have since fallen and restrictions have been eased in the capital, though concern about new variants remains high.

Rwanda received its first Covid-19 vaccines in February of this year and has been rolling out a wider vaccination campaign in March, with doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines supplied through the WHO’s COVAX initiative. The government’s goal is to vaccinate 30% of its population of 12 million people this year and 60% by the end of 2022.

Available Lots: Lot selection late May/early June with a container to both East and West Coasts likely to go afloat before the end of June.

Ecuador

Ecuador’s rainfall eclipsed the summer season and there continues to be excess rainfall. It seems that summer weather is finally approaching, which could bring the harvest a bit early. The October-November flowering was abundant, but there was minimal fruit. Producers have let us know that they are optimistic about what is to come this harvest season.

Ecuador received its first Covid-19 vaccines in January 2021, but has been rolling them out slower than anticipated. The country has contracts with Covax, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca. There have been a high number of cases and deaths in the country with a majority near the large coastal city of Guayaquil. The country’s goal is to have phase 1, vaccinating 2 million people completed by the end of April 2021 and begin phase 2. For reference, there are over 17.3 million people total in the country. 

Available Lots: With only a few lingering lots left uncommitted, get in touch with your rep if you have interest in sampling any lots still on the offerlist. Sidra, Typica and Bourbon Tekisic variety separations still available.

 

To learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.