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.