James Jeffrey

Arabica in Addis Ababa: Climbing the coffee ladder in Ethiopia

Selling the drink in its homeland offers a path to success, but now foreign companies want to get in on the game

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Eighteen-year-old Aster Endale quickly gives the coffee cups a rinse before putting them back into her basket and picking up a bag with canisters of coffee. Then she crosses the road, weaving between traffic, to find her next customers.

Time wasted is coffee not poured — and money not earned — in the Ethiopian capital, where the humble cup of coffee is contributing to economic advancement starting at the lowest level and finishing at the counters of upmarket gourmet coffee houses in Tokyo and beyond.

Coffee has long played a central role in Ethiopia’s macroeconomic fortunes as the country’s largest export earner. In 2012 coffee exports generated more than $800 million, a figure expected to exceed $1 billion by 2015.

But besides the grand figures in annual economic reports, the simple act of selling a cup of cheap coffee plays a significant socioeconomic role for many trying to carve out a better life in Ethiopia. This is especially true amid the hubbub of a rapidly changing Addis Ababa, where a hierarchy of diverse coffee services by various practitioners exists.

At the bottom are women like Endale, roaming the streets carrying flasks in baskets full of tiny porcelain cups and saucers, dispensing coffee for three Ethiopian birr ($0.15) a cup. Next in line are the traditional coffee stands, known as jeubeuna bunna, outside bars and restaurants serving coffee for five birr ($0.25) a cup. Then there are the established coffeehouses, where a cup costs upward of 10 birr ($0.50).

“Everyone wants to graduate to the next level,” said Wondwossen Meshesha, operations manager for Tomoca, one of Addis’ original coffeehouses, inaugurated in 1953 by Emperor Haile Selassie.

For Tomoca, the next level up means securing foreign partners to help it export more roasted coffee to new international markets — doubling the revenue of raw beans, traditionally the bulk of Ethiopia’s coffee exports — and even opening cafes abroad.

Tomoca first wants to expand regionally into Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan, before going beyond Africa. It already has a partner based in Japan that distributes to restaurants, department stores and cafes there, and Tomoca is working toward similar partnerships in North America and Europe.

“Ethiopian coffees have two major advantages over all other coffees in the world,” said Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee at Intelligentsia Coffee, a Chicago-based roasting company. “Incredible genetic diversity and near perfect growing conditions.” 

Customers in the Tomoca coffeehouse in the heart of Addis Ababa.
James Jeffrey

Well aware of coffee’s crucial economic role and how foreign competition might undermine it, the Ethiopian government has sought to protect its industry with regulations — though these are now gradually relaxing. Foreign companies may now conduct commercial coffee farming in the country, as well as produce roasted and ground coffee for local and export markets. They can’t open cafes yet, although many in the industry expect that to change.

Ethiopia is applying for World Trade Organization status, with negotiations focused on opening up market access to the country’s restricted sectors such as the service industry.

“Some of the big coffee chains would be interested, as Ethiopia is a market that really appreciates coffee and consumes a lot per capita,” Watts said.

That worries some locals, but anyone hoping to set up a Western coffee shop brand in the country might face an uphill task. In a country with a strong tradition of roasting coffee at home, a deep cultural preference is for coffee not dispensed by machinery.

As a result, many Ethiopians eschew brands and cafes, opting instead for the women with flasks of coffee or for one of the ubiquitous jeubeuna bunna stands across the city, thereby supporting an entire strata of low-income coffee entrepreneurs.

“Before, I sold secondhand clothes on the street, but the police kept stopping me, so I changed jobs,” said Liya, who for the past two years has carried her canisters of coffee in search of customers. She makes about 40 birr ($2) in profit on a good day and is content with how the business is going.

Endale, however, said that after a year and a half, she is tired of all the walking under the hot sun and the low income and wants to work at a jeubeuna bunna.

“Everyone strives for a better life. It is only natural, why else am I working?” she said, though so far she can’t save enough to afford the rent charged by bars and restaurants to operate on their premises.

Kaldi’s Coffee on Bole Road, Addis Ababa’s trendiest thoroughfare.
James Jeffrey

In September 19-year-old Fekerte Demele started a jeubeuna bunna in a small bar, where she roasts coffee beans over red hot coals before grinding them and pouring the powder into a small black clay pot filled with water to then be placed on the coals.

“If the business can grow, I want to rent a room on my own and to buy furniture for it,” she said.

She previously worked as a waitress in a nearby bar, where she earned about 2,500 birr ($125) a month with tips. She doesn’t expect to earn much more from her coffee business initially, but the shorter work hours are more amenable, she explained.

Another benefit is an enthusiastic customer base.

“I never go to cafes,” said 36-year-old Fitsum Berhe, one of Ethiopia’s returning diaspora, who spent years in Ireland. “It’s not about saving money. It’s about quality.” He added that he likes seeing beans roasted and knowing he’s drinking the real deal.

Despite being staunchly proud of their coffee heritage, Ethiopians are not impervious to a touch of Western-style hipness. A popular and continually expanding cafe chain in Addis is Kaldi’s Coffee, where customers order short and tall coffees, its green and white logo inspired by Starbucks.

Though such is coffee’s popularity in this coffee-mad country, the birthplace of arabica coffee, that it appears there’s plenty of room for expansion, be it locally or foreign driven.

“Ethiopians love coffee, and anytime a new cafe opens, it’s packed,” said Adam Overton, a coffee entrepreneur based in Los Angeles and Addis with a coffee farm in southwestern Ethiopia. “You could probably have three cafes on every street corner and they’d all be full.”

And extra cafes won’t necessarily undercut traditional businesses.

“We plan to start having jeubeuna bunna at our cafes,” said Tsegaye Fanta of Alem Bunna, another of Addis’ coffee companies. “People grew up with it. Many prefer its taste.”

That would appear good news for the lady at the roadside pouring coffee for construction site workers and for the owner of a sparkling new cafe on Bole Road where the city’s bright young things like to hang out. Climbing the economic ladder of the coffee industry will remain an option.

“When I’m at the Addis office, we always order jeubeuna bunna from a lady on the street nearby,” Overton said. “She brings it in on a tray with incense burning. Only in Ethiopia can you get coffee like that.”

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Africa, Ethiopia

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