Experiencing the Ethiopian Sesame Harvest

Experiencing the Ethiopian sesame harvest overall was an incredible experience. But before I share more about my trip, I have a confession to make.  For the five years that we’ve been in business, and for the two years of market research leading up to our business launch, I had never seen the sesame harvest in person.  I have been to Ethiopia before. I visited in 2012 with my sisters, my (now) husband and my brother-in-law, Omri. However, we went in April, which is four months too early for the harvest.

I talk about the harvest.  A lot. I talk about the amazing sesame seeds that come from Ethiopia. I also talk about how the Humera region has the perfect terroir for sesame seeds.  I’ve learned about the quality of these seeds from Omri, our manufacturers, from USAID agricultural scientists and other experts. But I had never been to that area.  I had never seen the stalks growing in the fields nor the farmers gathering the crop.

When Amy went last year with Jenn Louis, Anita Lo, and Mary Attea, I was home with my then three-month-old son, Julius.  So this year, Jackie and I decided to go. Without kids. Or husbands. Next time, we joked, when we want a “sisters-only” vacation, we’ll go to a spa somewhere…

joan nathan, shelby zitelman, jackie zitelman, soom foods


The Trip Itself

We traveled to Ethiopia with our friend, Joan Nathan, her friend Amy Brandwein, Chef/Owner of Centrolina, and her friends from Martha’s Vineyard, Suellen and Suzanne. Jackie put together an amazing cultural, historical, and culinary itinerary. It was filled with market tours, museum visits, cooking classes, and delicious meals.  

The first part of our trip was spent in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s Capital and the head of the African Unio. This city exemplifies how first-world development constantly intersects with third-world poverty. We learned about Lucy, the first human, discovered by archaeologists in Ethiopia.  We ate Injera, and Doro Wot and Shiro, and made our own Berbere spice blend. And we met with Seble (Kitti) Nebeyloul and learned about her humanitarian relief efforts at the International Fund for Africa.ethiopian coffee shop in addis ababa

We drank coffee at the first coffee shop, Tamoca, for a quick espresso hit. Then we enjoyed some at a coffee ceremony with Tiru, where we sat for an hour while she roasted the beans over open flame and ground the beans with a mortar and pestle. We listened to Ethiopian music and visited Ethiopian churches and learned about the fascinating religious and political history.  

culture in addis ababa in ethiopia. music.

It was quite a whirlwind in Addis. I have never seen busier markets and more crowded streets. Even though I was definitely an outsider, I felt fairly at ease in this pretty manageable city.

culture of addis ababa in ethiopia


Visits to Humera

However, when we landed in Humera, the Northwest region of Ethiopia that borders Sudan, it was very clear that we were all out of our comfort zones.  We were the only Western foreigners there. There was no downtown and were very few shops, bars, or restaurants. We actually ate every meal during our stay at the Garden Cafe – the only “passable” choice for foreigners.  

The only thing for us to do while we were in Humera was to visit the sesame fields.  We were guided by Elshadaii, Omri’s business partner’s cousin. He owns sesame farms in the region, and while we didn’t see his farms in particular, he told us all we needed to know about the farming and harvest processes.  

We started our tour at a cleaning and storage facility.  The facility wasn’t active since the harvest was just beginning for this year’s season, but we saw stockpiles of 100 kilo bags of sesame from the prior year.  Elshadai explained how the sesame is cleaned and separated, and that the seeds will sell for varying prices depending on the cleanliness.

bags of sesame during the ethiopian sesame harvest

After, we hopped into a van and drove about five minutes until we arrived at a sesame field.  You could tell it was a sesame field because of the “lean-to” rows of sesame stalks that had been cut down and were drying in the sun (see picture below).  

There were a few harvesters that were working out in the 100 degree heat, their heads covered with a t-shirt or shawl or anything to protect them from the sun.  With simple sickles in their hands, they would bend over and cut down the ripe stalks, then bind the stalks together with a piece of grass, and lean them against each other so the stalks could dry (lean-to).

stalks of sesame in ethiopia - sesame harvest

A big tarp was placed next to those stalks that had dried for 15 days.  Then a harvester would pick up the bundle and shake out the seeds from the popped pods (see picture below) onto the tarps.  When enough seeds sprinkled on the tarps, the harvester would gather the corners of the tarp and pour the seeds into a sack.  

If I remember correctly, about 15 “lean-tos” = 75 kilograms of seeds. I don’t remember how long it takes for a harvester to gather that amount of seeds.  I do remember that a harvester makes between 100-150 Birr / Day, which translates to $4 – $6 / day. For many factory jobs, the average is $1 – $1.50 / day, so this is comparably a solid livelihood for harvesters that need to provide for themselves and their families.  

I was shocked by so many things:

  1. The heat! This was not even the hot season, and it was 100+ degrees Fahrenheit!
  2. The manual labor! There is NO machinery involved.  Just a simple sickle. And a tarp. And a sack.
  3. The pay! $6 / day??! What??  
  4. The amount of sesame stalks! I wish I had counted the # of sesame seeds / pod, the # of pods / stalk, the # of stalks / pound so that I could translate the number of stalks needed to make 1 jar of tahini (tahini = 85% yield from sesame seeds).

I feel very connected to our tahini products and understand and appreciate the faces & hands that touch each jar.  But seeing and learning from these Ethiopian sesame harvesters really put things in perspective for me. I am grateful for their insanely hard work to harvest a crop that has no culinary value for them.  For me (for us?), sesame tahini means delicious hummus or tahini brownies or a nut-free “butter” or a plant-based-protein. For them, they don’t even eat sesame or tahini!

So thank you to the unnamed harvesters in our supply chain.  Without you, we could never enjoy the deliciousness that is Soom Tahini!   



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