Mapping Ethiopia – 25 Magazine: Issue 4

Mapping Ethiopia – 25 Magazine: Issue 4

EEthiopia needs little introduction in terms of coffee. Often quoted as the birthplace of Arabica, and known for its wide range of unique flavor profiles, it regularly ranks among the favorite producing countries for baristas and coffee lovers. But how well do we know this large and diverse origin country? Not that well it turns out – until now.

Together with a team of research colleagues, DR. AARON DAVIS began charting the Ethiopian coffee landscape five years ago. What followed was an extraordinary journey around one of Africa’s most important producing countries, which he shares here in Issue 4 of 25 Magazine.

In 2013 a team based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, started a three-year project to investigate the impact and opportunities for coffee farming in Ethiopia under accelerated climate change. One of our first key tasks was to gain a broad understanding of where coffee was farmed and harvested across Ethiopia. To do this, we drew on our previous studies on the wild coffee forests of Ethiopia and our knowledge of coffee farming areas gained during that fieldwork, and then scanned the available literature to add in all the rest. Job done — or so we thought.

The Kew part of the Coffee Atlas of Ethiopia team, from left to right: Jenny Williams, Tim Wilkinson, Aaron Davis, Susana Baena, and Justin Moat. Image: David Post.

A few months later we took our provisional map to a workshop in Addis Ababa, where representatives from Ethiopian academia and the coffee sector had come along to add much-needed advice and guidance. On showing them our draft map of the coffee producing areas it became clear that the coffee landscape of Ethiopia was much larger and more complex than we had anticipated.

Using NASA satellite data and computer modeling we would carefully map the coffee areas of Ethiopia remotely, that is, from the comfort of our offices. Many researchers stop at this point, but we wanted to test these data on the ground, via an activity known as ground-truthing. This would require some serious legwork, given what we had learned at the first workshop. Although Ethiopia is eight times smaller than Brazil, it is three times bigger than Vietnam, and around the same size as Colombia. In total, over three years, we made 16 field expeditions, covering an estimated 35,000 kilometers (mostly by car) visiting all the major and most of the minor coffee producing areas, with some areas visited numerous times. We viewed farms and forests to assess numerous variables, but mainly to look at the health (particularly climate-related stress) and productivity of the coffee trees, and carry out detailed climate recording for specific sites. We also spent time talking to farmers about their experiences with coffee growing and their local environment, not only gathering information for each year but also over the longer term, at a generational timescale (e.g. almost 100 years). The information retrieved from the ground-truthing was vital for the assessment and validation of our climate change modeling work, but once we had finished we thought perhaps that our mapping data might have further uses.

Landsat 8 false color composite satellite image for West Arsi and a part of the Sidamo coffee area, south-east of Hawassa. The bright red represents forest and forest-like vegetation, including coffee forest, and the lighter colors mainly represent cultivated and pastoral activities. Image: Landsat 8, United States Geological Survey (2015).

Originally, we believed that a series of simple maps might be useful for those working in the coffee sector in Ethiopia, and perhaps green coffee buyers. It did not take long for the idea to develop and become altogether more ambitious and more complex. Two of the project team based at Kew, Tim Wilkinson and Justin Moat, are experienced cartographers (mapmakers). Tim and Justin believed that a basic coffee map might be useful, but without roads, towns, rivers, lakes, and topographical features (hills, mountains, and plateaus), known to map makers as “layers,” the maps would lack context. So, after some considerable extra work we produced the first version of our coffee maps for Ethiopia, which we eventually called the Coffee Atlas of Ethiopia.

A few months later, which was by now towards the end of our three-year project, we found ourselves back in Ethiopia and with more travel planned, initial testing of the atlas was scheduled. All went well for the first few hundred kilometers, and then some serious issues arose. Many towns were in the wrong place, some by a few kilometers, others by much more, and some of the roads were also wrongly located. This was partly due to accuracy of the acquired mapping data: Ethiopia is generally not very well mapped. This is evident if you look at the (few) tourist roadmaps that are available, and at Google Earth. Mapping data for Ethiopia is often woefully inaccurate and thin on the ground, in many areas. In addition to this, villages have grown into towns, many new roads have been built or upgraded, and others had fallen into either disuse or bad repair. We now had to do much of the basic cartography ourselves. Fortunately, we had a few more trips to Ethiopia planned, giving us the opportunity to update much of the mapping data from ground observation. This also meant more time at our computers: with our newly acquired field data and with the aid of satellite imagery, we set to producing an atlas that would be more reliable, and hopefully more useful.

One of the most enjoyable activities during the time spent traveling around Ethiopia was sampling the coffee first hand from each of the origins we visited, and where possible taking samples for a more thorough sensory evaluation back in the UK. Since Arabica coffee is found naturally (that is, wild) in Ethiopia, it has much more genetic diversity than other Arabica producing countries. Moreover,

Ethiopian Arabica DNA diversity has a distinct geographical pattern, which, in combination with the diverse local climates of each origin, yields a cornucopia of flavor profiles. The ad hoc tastings across Ethiopia, and more sophisticated cupping sessions in the UK, revealed a few surprises. It became clear that there are many unique and interesting flavor experiences that are hardly known outside Ethiopia, and that there are several origins barely touched upon, if at all, by specialty coffee providers.


In many cases, however, it was difficult to gain a satisfactory understanding of any particular flavor profile due to quality issues, which were mainly related to farm-level processing. On the sensory side, there is still much more work to be done with Ethiopian coffee, but before this can happen much will need to be done in terms of quality improvements. It was also evident that the physical and sensory characteristics of each region’s coffee is heavily influenced by the climate, particularly rainfall, and soil fertility.

Initially, the intended audience for the Coffee Atlas of Ethiopia were those engaged with the coffee sector in Ethiopia, chiefly within the public (government) domain, the development sector, and scientific research. Once we started to tell the wider coffee community, however, it emerged that there was interest in what we were doing. This was not only due to the fact that coffee people are generally very curious and value information, but also because of the practical benefit of having an atlas. A good example would be those undertaking an origin trip, either out of pleasure or as part of their occupation. One might ask the following questions, for example: Exactly where are the coffee areas, coffee forests, and various origins? How would I get to these places and how far away are they? We have also provided other mapping information within the atlas pages in order to help the traveler in Ethiopia, such as the locality of airports, a classification of road types (main to minor), and the identification of regional capitals and major towns.

These larger settlements are likely to have good services, such as fuel/service stations, restaurants, and accommodation. Some of the tourist maps we used on our travels in the early days of the project left us with very dubious accommodation choices. Among the worst was staying in a small hotel that served as a temporary fuel station, with petrol and diesel stored underneath the bedrooms where we were staying. The fumes were so strong our eyes watered as we lay awake all night, scared stiff that someone might light a cigarette. On other occasions we ran out of fuel after arriving at what was indicated as a “major town” but finding no more than a small settlement without services.

For those with no immediate plans to visit Ethiopia, we hope that the atlas will still provide interest and utility. We have already been able to help with the location and classification of various origins, mainly for roasters. Common enquiries include the location for Gesha and Guji, and West Arsi, and the uncoupling of numerous distinct Sidamo origins from Yirgacheffe.

In total, the Coffee Atlas of Ethiopia includes 40 A4 pages of maps, and these are accompanied by a gazetteer, an index of place names, and other features included on the maps. The maps show where coffee is farmed (forest/tree cover) and could be farmed (non-forest), the climatic suitability of these areas for coffee farming (excellent, good, or fair), where wild coffee occurs, and the location of coffee garden areas (small-scale coffee production, mostly without tree cover). The coffee landscape is divided into five coffee zones, and 16 coffee areas. For those with a cartographical bent, the maps are at a scale of 1:500,000; a typical tourist roadmap would be 1:1,600,000. The maps are accompanied by 61 pages of text and images. There are three chapters covering basic geographical information, cartographical methods, and how to use the atlas; and seven coffee-specific chapters, including coffee use and consumption, the botany of Arabica coffee, the coffee climate, agroecology, coffee farming, harvesting and processing, and an overview of the coffee areas. Copies went on general sale in February 2018, and as this is a non-profit publication the proceeds from sales will be used to develop the atlas, hopefully to produce Ethiopian language versions. We hope that by producing this tome we can provide greater insight into this very special origin.

AARON DAVIS is Senior Research Leader of Plant Resources, and Head of Coffee Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK).

Building a Climate Resilient Coffee Economy

The Coffee Atlas of Ethiopia is a product of the project Building a Climate Resilient Coffee Economy for Ethiopia, conducted under the Strategic Climate Institutions Programme (SCIP) Fund. The SCIP Fund was designed to build Ethiopia’s capacity to cope with climate change across the public, private, and civil society sectors and to respond to the challenges of transitioning to a Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE). The SCIP Fund was financed by the governments of the UK, Norway, and Denmark.

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