Exploring the Geography and Subdivisions of Specialty Coffee in Ethiopia

Zones, districts, woredas, wards...what's the difference?

Alexander Helle-Hansen
April 6, 2023

As we're in the midst of shipping our first Ethiopian specialty coffees of this year's harvest, we thought we'd give some brief clarity as to the geography—or, more specifically, the subdivisions—of this coffee origin.

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is the most populated landlocked country in the world. It's subdivided into 11 regional states and two chartered cities—the latter consisting of the country's capital, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa, which was chartered in 2004. Contrary to what one might think, these subdivisions are based on ethnicity and language, rather than geography.

In specialty coffee, we focus on a handful of these regions, with Oromia being the largest (holding a population of 35 million people covering 284 thousand square kilometers). We also focus on Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR), which is a region that's very popular in Ethiopia for its specialty coffee growing zones and districts. You can find out more on our presence and projects in Ethiopia here.

In the past four years, there have been quite a few changes. In November of 2019, a referendum was held in the Sidama zone of the SNNPR, during which voters supported a proposal for the Sidama zone to become a region in its own right. The Sidama region subsequently was created in June of 2020. The South West Region (officially the South West Ethiopia Peoples' Region) was created in 2021, following a successful referendum earlier in the year which saw five zones and one special woreda split off from the SNNPR to form the new region.

The regions of Ethiopia are administratively divided into 68 or more zones. The exact number of zones is unclear, as the names and numbers of zones in documents given by Ethiopia's Central Statistical Agency differ between 2005 and 2007. To make it even more complex, zones are divided into woredas (or districts), which are then also divided into kebeles (or wards—basically neighbourhood administrations).

So you have the division in Ethiopia on four levels: the country divided into regions, which are divided into zones, which are divided into woredas (districts), which are divided into kebeles (wards).

If you ever notice a discrepancy on your coffee info sheet or on the web, or if you just see something different from what you thought you knew, this might be because some woredas don't identify with either a zone or a region that is being imposed on them by the government. So depending on from whom you buy your specialty coffee—depending on the supplier, the farmer, etc.—you might see different information.

If you're curious and want more information on Ethiopia, just drop us a line and we'll develop more explanatory content.

Alex's past roles have covered many responsibilities including supply chain, quality, sales, buying and management.