Carl Cervone

On The Road to Agaro

May 19, 2019

I’ve been traveling the road from Jimma to Agaro for over 10 years. At one point in my life, I would drive it several times a week. These days, it may only be several times a year. It’s a road I know by heart and, in a country not known for having roads that people love, it’s a road I love.

Yesterday, I left Jimma in a shoddy rented pickup. My driver had Casio-rich Amharic pop music turned up high and a friend passing him wads of chat to stow in his cheek. The quality of the road has been getting worse each year. We estimated the 45 kilometer ride would take an hour and a half.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Jimma, we pass the turn off to Limu. It’s a gravel road that leads to the majestic Limu Kosa plantation, with its evenly spaced Albizia trees shading thousands of acres of coffee. Further up that road is the town of Genet (translation: “paradise”), where Behailu taught high school and met his wife. It’s the road to Shegole, where Seble and the cooperative leaders went house-to-house to raise $2500 from farmers to pay off a 20 year old bad debt that was causing the bank to reject their loan application at the 11th hour. At the end of the road is Koma, where a travel writer accompanied Geoff to see a burgeoning trade relationship in a community that needed it more than most, but sadly could not muster the leadership to see it through.

We pass the turn off and continue towards Agaro. Ten minutes later, after reaching a peak of about 2000 meters, we begin our first descent through the valleys that are filled with semi-forest coffee. For me, this is the iconic image of coffee in Western Ethiopia: rolling hills blanketed by a canopy of forest trees and an understory of spindly coffee shrubs.

If it were morning or evening, there would be a light mist hovering just above the trees, inviting us in, ripening the cherries. Coffee has saved the big trees of Ethiopia because farmers value them for the shade they provide. These uninterrupted tracts of semi-forest and rolling hills continue to the horizon. When I’m with a visitor who’s never been here before, I’ll look to see if I can spot a black and white colobus monkey or hornbill up in the trees.

In another 10 minutes, on the righthand side, we pass our first wet mill, a large one. It’s a few weeks before harvest, so all of the poles for drying beds are arranged, vertically, in a teepee or demera like structure. The poles rise above the sheet metal fence that signifies this is a private wet mill. Further down the road, to the left, will be Haro, a cooperative wet mill, where Kidist, Zach and I debated the difference between an akrabi (trader) and a sebsabi (collector), the first coffee words I learned in Amharic. Once the harvest starts, the drying beds at both mills will be filled with coffee parchment drying in the sun, and the sites will be bustling with workers washing, turning and carrying coffee. One might assume there’s enough coffee for all, but the majority of coffee produced in Ethiopia is dried at home and never brought to a wet mill, so the privates and the cooperatives compete intensely for market share.

Harvest time, especially November and December, is when the road to Agaro is busiest. In the mornings, there are workers carrying handwoven baskets, walking down the road to farms to find their daily work. In the evenings, the streets are filled with mules loaded with bags of coffee cherries headed to the nearest mill or collection point. At any time of day, you’ll encounter Isuzu trucks (referred to as “Al Qaedas”), loaded with cargo and hellbent on reaching their destination as quickly as possible. You’ll pass peasant women carrying firewood or jerrycans of water on their backs, men with orange-hennaed beards perched on extravagantly costumed horses, and school children in bright, locally-sewn and patched-up uniforms. You’ll see boys who are too young to work herding dusty livestock and men who probably ought to be working clutching shiny plastic bags of chat.

Accidents are common on the road to Agaro. I’ve passed many overturned minibus taxis and Isuzus. If you hit an animal, you negotiate cash compensation on the spot. If you hit a person, the driver goes to prison. I’m fortunate that my many trips down this road have all been safe ones though there have been close calls.

Around the halfway mark between Jimma and Agaro, the road descends into a valley and we pass the place where, in 2007, I requested to stop the car and set foot on my first Ethiopian coffee farm. On the left side of the road, there’s a settlement of about 15 waddle-and-daub houses in a row, all sharing a common wall. On the right side of the road, there’s a large, contiguous plot of semi-forest coffee, probably more than 20 hectares. These types of communities were established during the communist Derg regime in the 1980s; people were resettled in close proximity and allocated large plots of land to manage communally. Nowadays, the plot has been parceled out to smallholders to farm, but remains an uninterrupted swath of coffee land. Elsewhere in East Africa, the coffee land is fragmented, as each smallholder has an acre or two of land and grows coffee alongside a variety of other crops.

In 2007, Marcos and I stopped here and inspected the enormous coffee trees on the right side of the road. We’d never seen anything like them - and the underbrush was so dense and full of weeds that we couldn’t go very deep into the plot. The trees look just as vigorous this year, though in past years I’ve seen them thin and frail, with hardly any cherries on them.

During harvest, the houses on the opposite side of the road all have raised, thatch beds in front of them, full of drying coffee cherries (jenfel). At peak times, a variety of other drying vessels - tarps, grain bags, goat hides, and so on - are improvised to keep the cherries off the bare earth.

In February, when the short rains come, the coffee trees flower. The forest of coffee here is a sea of small white flowers and the air is sweet with their fragrance. Farmers keep traditional beehives in the canopy above, which yield a delicate white honey.

In May, the land is dry, the smells of dust and burning crop residues hang in the air. In 2009 and 2010, when we were helping farmers across Western Ethiopia build new wet mills, this time was the golden window, the last month to clear land and deliver materials like sand and brick and eucalyptus poles before the rains started. It was far better to contend with choking dust than the unrelenting krempt rains. From June through August, the creeks swell to rivers and wash out roads. Some commutes during the rainy season, like the one Natnael and Ansha took to Busa Bechane, or Asnake took to Harewa Gatira, involved fording rivers and then slogging through slippery mud for hours to reach the site. Farmers dissembled Penagos machines and carried them on saddleback into their communities.

In September the rains lift and the roadside grazing pastures erupt in yellow meskel flowers. The coffee trees sag with green fruit if it’s an “on” cycle and we all wait for them to turn red. September is the start of the new year in the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopian coffee year never starts on time. It always seems just around the corner and then it waits, builds suspense, and finally breaks open.

Within a few days of starting harvest, the valleys and streams reek of pulp, untreated coffee waste, fermenting fruit. This unmistakeable smell is the sign that peak harvest is here and the wet mills are at full capacity.

I’m early this year though. It’s mid-October. We’ve been driving for over an hour and the only coffee smell is that of green coffee roasting in people’s houses, ubiquitous any time of year.

There’s a trading post at the junction to Limu Shaye, the turn off to Keta Maduga, one of two official Birthplaces of Coffee in Ethiopia. There are many more shops, electricity poles, satellite dishes, tin roofs, chat bazaars - but sadly, I believe, as I’m on the lookout for them today, fewer roadside foosball and ping pong tables at this junction than in years past.

I fell in love with the roads of Agaro, not this stretch just on the outskirts of Agaro’s town limits, but specifically a stretch about an hour past Agaro and Duromina and Yukro, in Gera. It was there - after a day exploring coffee forests with Teklu and Carole, drinking little ceramic cups of coffee from jebenas and then more coffee extracted through a vintage La Cimbali espresso machine in a kerosene-lit, mud-walled cafe - where I played my first game of roadside ping pong. Ethiopia is selective about the foreign influences it imports and maintains; spotting an espresso machine and a ping pong table even in the smallest of towns was a gentle reminder of globalization. I played ping pong with a 12 year old while, at the agricultural office across the street, a goat was having his testicles snipped off and bleating loudly.

We made plans and predictions at that spot, many of which came true and will probably keep me traveling these potholed roads for the rest of my life.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been north of Agaro, on the road which leads to the “two horse town” of Bedele. Jawi is off to the left, where we cupped the first coffees from their first harvest with Chris, Matt and Shirin, where Dawit showed me pictures of when he worked there in his twenties, where Paul and I camped out for the first time and were treated to pasta for breakfast, and a stone’s throw from Haro Sana where I would camp again on Halloween night after completing the Gimbi to Agaro circuit with Aleco and Tom.

I’ve been down this road with my teachers, my students, my parents, my wife, friends, donors, bankers, gatekeepers, buyers, traders, farmers.

Now we’re climbing the final hill into town. Agaro was a wealthy city, a weekend destination for Ethiopia’s elite back when Haile Sellasie was the Emperor, in the 1970s. Metal minarets, glass buildings, and Lorax-land hulling factories are the skyline of Agaro in the 21st century. We’ve arrived. I hope to come back again soon.