Solino Coffee: an Ethiopian-German Cooperation for Fair Coffee

Solino Coffee: an Ethiopian-German Cooperation for Fair Coffee

The Solino Coffee cooperation produces delicious highland arabica coffees 100 percent in the country of origin, Ethiopia. Growing, harvesting, roasting, packaging; all processes take place in East Africa. This makes the cooperation the first of its kind. Sales manager at Solino Dennis Ross tells what defines the Solino Coffee project and how he became part of it in the first place. He also traces the path of cooperation since it was founded in 2008. 

Solino Coffee: beginnings and core idea

The coffee landscape is constantly evolving. Many approaches towards more sustainability, ecology, transparency and participation can be observed. We keep discovering exciting ideas that really impress. One such remarkable example has been “Solino Coffee” since 2008. Dennis Ross tells us more about it.

To put it simply: a crazy coincidence! I met Felix Ahlers, the initiator of Solino, at an Ethiopian airport. At that time I was attending a kindergarten in Northern Ethiopia, where I had volunteered for a few months. We still had some time until boarding and just happened to get into conversation. He told me about Solino and I was immediately enthusiastic. As a consequence, I quit my job a few weeks and two more meetings later and started working as Solino’s sales manager. Funnily enough, Felix was just looking for someone to take care of it full-time.

Solino not only grows coffee in Ethiopia, but also processes it there! In addition to growing the raw beans, roasting, packaging and label printing also take place on site. The aim is to create qualified jobs there and these are found in the rarest of cases in agriculture, but in processing. People should participate more in their coffee. After all, it originally comes from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, hence the term “coffee”. It is also nice that the Ethiopians themselves have an ancient coffee tradition and know exactly what makes good coffee. This also allows them to understand how to judge quality.

At Solino, we are taking a path that is atypical in the coffee industry. More than 80 percent of the people in Ethiopia work in agriculture. Again and again they suffer from droughts and bad harvests. Ethiopia is only one example here, because it doesn’t look much better in other coffee-growing areas of the world. The resulting problems are generally public and would perhaps go beyond the scope. In our way, we leave the majority of the added value in Ethiopia by processing the coffee there. People should not only be farmers, but should also be able to become, for example, coffee roasters, quality managers, hygiene experts, print shop employees and technicians. These qualified employees are paid significantly higher salaries. And even with low world coffee market prices, as is currently the case, they have a constant income. Poverty and dependency are falling in Ethiopia.

Our model can actually be applied to other countries and other products. It is essentially about the processing at the origin and this also works with leather goods or chocolate, for example – there are also nice projects. Ethiopia was more of a coincidence. Our initiator Felix Ahlers was there a few years ago as part of a sustainability congress and started talking to people from the coffee industry, who once again showed him how important local processing would be for the development of the country.

In 2008, the EU rightly abolished the so-called protective tariff on roasted coffee that had been levied until then – at least 30% by then. This marked a significant relief for the project, since the import of roasted coffee beans was no longer disadvantaged compared to the import of green coffee, which has always been duty-free. This then provided the decisive basis for the value creation model, which did not exist before. That was Solino’s starting year.

After decades of traditional development aid, in addition to inflation and corruption, above all dependency has arisen. Many people in Ethiopia have never had the feeling that things like efficiency and effort can turn into success. A logic that seems normal in this country is simply not in other countries. Efficient processes and detailed know-how about the subtleties of roasting processes and the demands of a European market were of course missing. Power outages have also happened from time to time, but that’s part of it. This also applies to ethnic disputes, which unfortunately occur frequently in Ethiopia.

Today we are so much further than we were at the beginning and this in all areas. Over the years, roastery in Addis Ababa has been able to hire a number of specialists, including in quality management, quality assurance and other parts of production. Many of these jobs were filled by graduates. There are some of them in Ethiopia, but unfortunately hardly any qualified jobs. The partner print shop was also able to develop further. The quality of the print has increased, rejects have been reduced and production times shortened. And that was exactly the idea: local companies should be able to develop – quantitatively and qualitatively.

Solino comes from Italian and means ‘little sun’. It’s not that easy these days to find a nice name that is not yet registered as a trademark.

Fairness doesn’t need a seal

The Solino Coffee cooperation opens up a completely new future for many workers in Ethiopia, and creates a new understanding of hot drinks among coffee drinkers in Europe. Because with every dollar that they invest in coffee, they improve the living conditions of the producers in Ethiopia. What does the value chain look like in the East African country? 

One of the advantages of on-site processing is that our partner roaster knows many of the coffee farmers. So he knows where the raw beans come from. Care is taken that no pesticides are used here. Ethiopian coffee farmers generally use these in the rarest of cases, also because they could not afford it. In order to get an organic certificate, the farmers would incur considerable costs, since the (mostly western) advisors charge high fees for the certificate. Since with Solino we want to keep as much money as possible in Ethiopia, we consciously refrain from an organic certificate to this day. It wouldn’t make the coffee any better, just more expensive. It is similar with a Fairtrade label. 

How difficult is this to convey this even today? I can imagine that many people, especially with good intentions, will probably orient themselves to the certificate, which is easy to interpret, which (unfortunately) certainly does not make things easier for Solino products. 

Clarification and transparency are certainly crucial here. If you explain it to people and then make it transparent, then the approval rate is quite high. Of course, the project needs to be explained in this regard, but it should clarify and perhaps find acceptance as a positive example. Trading should always be done on an equal footing. Since this is unfortunately not yet the case, seals are required. In my opinion, customers understand this more and more.

On average, at least 60 percent more added value remains in Ethiopia, based on green coffee. 35 percent come from roasting, 15 percent from label printing, packaging, etc. All of these steps take place at our local partners. The specifications come from us, are then discussed with the Ethiopians and then implemented by them. The finished product then makes its way to Europe and is distributed accordingly.

Solino is an Ethiopian cooperation. The roastery belongs to an Ethiopian family, in which only Ethiopians work. We just want to be the bridge between the Ethiopians and European consumers. This is what we mean by “acting at eye level”. Otherwise everything works (deliberately) like in any other company. Successes are celebrated together, mistakes are discussed and resolved together. This creates personal responsibility and initiative and everyone has understood that only a perfect product will bring more business.

120 jobs have been created since the company was founded. The goal is 1,000! By the way, they earn an average of three to ten times as much as the Ethiopian average wage!

Current goals and future

The main goals here are fairness and transparency. We would like to switch our raw bean procurement largely or completely to these cooperatives. There is obviously a lot to do with such plans. A test of quality, the drafting of contracts, a personal inspection of the plantations, etc. In addition, we introduced blockchain technology some time ago. By scanning a QR code on the back of each individual package, our customers can receive various information about the bag in question. Where was the coffee grown and by whom, which employee carried out quality management? We want to expand this technology further in order to guarantee transparency from the raw bean to the finished bag.

We want to spread our story. We would like to win even more regular customers who appreciate the coffee itself and its history. We want to be present and set an example. Europe will certainly remain the core market. However, an expansion of sales towards Switzerland and Austria is planned. The focus currently remains on the existing range. But maybe products will be added in the long term.

A final recommendation

As I told you at the beginning, the conversation with Felix Ahlers at the airport in northeast Ethiopia made me commit to this project. I have to say that between this first conversation and my first day at work at Solino I was simply a customer myself. So back then I was also inspired by the quality myself. It’s just a great Ethiopian highland arabica. Very low in acid and therefore very harmonious. A fruity-chocolaty note in the crema and a spicy-chocolatey note in the espresso rounds it off. Those who like hand-roasted Arabica will definitely get their money’s worth.

I actually have a French press and an electric coffee grinder at home. Sounds simple, but that’s actually how I like coffee best. I usually switch between the different types. As a salesperson, it’s my job to experience our products and their special features again and again so that I can pass on my experiences to our customers.

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