Seeking The True Source of Arabica Coffee In The Ethiopian Forest

Sampling Ethiopian coffee beans
Sampling Ethiopian coffee beans
Pascaline Minet

MAGNATE - The jeep makes its way along a path of red earth, bordered on either side by forest trees. We have not passed a living soul for miles, apart from a few baboon troops scampering away as we approach, quickly climbing up trees for a better perch to watch us drive by.

We are at the heart of the Harenna forest, in southwest Ethiopia, 1,800 meters above sea level. Here, or not far from here, there first appeared arabica coffee beans, nowadays widely cultivated and consumed around the globe. In this region, coffee bushes are still mainly exploited in their natural milieu, high altitude tropical forests.

According to specialists, they make a formidable source for genetic diversity that could help improve cultivated varieties. Alas, this unique resource is now threatened by deforestation and climate changes.

The Swedish biologist Carl Von Linné, in the 18th century, mistakenly gave the name “Arabica,” thinking it came from the Arabian peninsula. In fact, botanists trace the origin of this coffee to this swath of territory that spans from southwest Ethiopia to southeast Sudan.

Only during the 15th century was it also introduced in Yemen, where it was cultivated on a larger scale and exported across the Arab world, hence Linné"s misinterpretation. In the 18th century, arabica coffee culture spread to the rest of the world, conquering, among others, Brazil and Colombia, now the two main producers. Ethiopia is only the fifth biggest producer. Overall, arabica makes 70% of the worldwide coffee production, the remaining 30% being Coffea robusta, easier to cultivate, but whose flavor is considered less refined.

Coffee trees in southern Ethiopia - Photo: UK Department for International Development

But back here in the Harenna forest, and more precisely the village of Magnate, we find ourselves in front of a few mud and wood houses by the side of the road. Several local arabica producers show me their precious bushes. A few meters high, with stiff little leaves, they make a dense underwood.

Picked by hand

“I didn't plant these coffee bushes, they grow naturally. I don't use fertilizer and I don't need to intervene much,” explains Alyi Jiro, the owner of more than 2 acres of the coffee forest. In April, blooming is over, and coffee trees are covered with delicate buds. In a few months, those will be mature and their red berries set to be picked manually. A long job, starting in October and going on for three months in this region.

This traditional means of production is good for the environment. Here coffee planters keep big trees around their crop, because they know bushes grow better in such conditions.

“Coffee is a plant that likes to share. If you cut down the other trees, coffee trees will produce more at first, but will die a few years later,” asserts Alyi Jiro.

If they are preserved, coffee forests promote a rich biodiversity. Leaves are indeed noisy with bird chirps and monkey calls. The many wild bees in the area are put to work in hives made of plaited wood, dangling from trees.

If natural coffee exploitation in forests remains the rule in Ethiopia, plantations dominate worldwide. Offering more consistent productivity, they are however much less favorable to biodiversity and require steady irrigation.

But coffee bushes growing on the other side of the world also have a more basic Achilles heel of their own. Because they descend from a small number of bushes, they have a very weak genetic diversity, and are consequently unable to adapt to changes in their environment and the eruption of diseases. Hence, an epidemic of orange rust, caused by a fungus, is currently wreaking havoc in Central America, where 20% of last years' coffee harvest was lost.

Wild Ethiopian coffee trees offer an alternative to such threats. “These populations, whose genetic make-up is very diverse, include varieties naturally resistant to many pathologies, or having other interesting traits for coffee producers,” notes Aaron Davis, specialist in coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (England), speaking recently during a seminar at the University of Addis Ababa.

A decade ago, Brazilian researchers tried to create a caffeine-free arabica variety, after studying a cluster of grains brought from Ethiopia. Though this variety did not live up to expectations, it was another illustration of the potential of the “gene reservoir” within Ethiopian coffee trees.

Ideal temperature

But this reservoir is now threatened, primarily by deforestation. As Ethiopia's population grows and urban areas spread, trees are cut to be used as combustible or construction material, or to establish new farming surfaces. According to official statistics, some 75% of the former Ethiopian forest has been cleared. “If this trend continues, the Ethiopian tropical forest could disappear in 30 years,” says Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, from the Ethiopian Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF), an organization fighting for the preservation of this environment.

Climate change is another risk, as coffee trees only grow in temperature between 19 and 25°C. “A temperature increase from 2 to 3°C, by 2080, according to the scenario envisaged by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) experts could lead to the disappearance of arabica in its region of origin,” says Aaron Davis, who specializes in the impact of global warming on coffee.

Jimma, in Ethiopia's Oromia region - Photo: Stijn Debrouwere

In spite of these somber prospects, many are active in Ethiopia, including in the Harenna forest, trying to protect wild coffee trees and their habitat. “By offering local farmers the means to live from products of the forest, like coffee and honey, we encourage them to protect it,” says Theodoros Gezaheym from the association Farm Africa, which trains local agriculture producers.

Then there is the very modern challenge of marketing, notes Zerihun Hailemariam, of the Ethiopian branch of the foundation Slow Food for Biodiversity. “We're trying to make our coffee known abroad, as we think some consumers might be ready to pay more, for the taste and because it helps to protect the tropical forest.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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