Not Just for Export: Ethiopia’s Coffee Culture

My first trip to a coffee-producing country was in 2008. I was traveling to Costa Rica, and right up there with surfing in Tamarindo and seeing the Volcan Arenal was what I considered a culinary must: sampling some fabled Costa Rican roast.

Imagine my dismay when, upon settling into a cozy local restaurant, and requesting a coffee, I received… Nescafe.

As I continued to travel to countries famous for their coffee – Peru, Tanzania, Rwanda – I realized that my experience in Costa Rica was no aberration. As many frustrated travelers come to find, the countries richest in coffee often produce almost exclusively for export, resigning themselves to drinking instant.

Not so in Ethiopia.

Coffee culture in Ethiopia – considered to be the drink’s birthplace – dates back centuries, and continues to this day. In fact, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), domestic coffee consumption accounts for more than half of the country’s production; unheard of in Africa.

Indeed, when I recently visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of good, strong coffee. And not just at “western” shops and restaurants, but on the street, at work, and in small local cafes. I tried the “macchiato”; not the kind we associate with Starbucks, but a shot of milk topped with ultra-strong espresso, served in a small glass and occasionally drizzled with cocoa.

And speaking of Starbucks, I didn’t see a single one on my trip. The ubiquitous coffee store instead was TO.MO.CA, where I shamelessly purchased kilo upon kilo of coffee beans to bring back to family and friends in the U.S.

“Ethiopians are huge consumers of coffee, and around 70% of the coffee production in Ethiopia is consumed locally,” says Wondwossen Meshesha, Chief Operating Officer of TO.MO.CA. “To this day traditional households consume coffee three times a day: just after church ceremonies end in the morning, afternoon, and night.”

The world’s appetite for Ethiopian coffee has grown steadily in recent years. Germany imports the largest amount of Ethiopian coffee – about 25% of total exports – followed by Saudi Arabia, Japan, Belgium and the U.S. According to a 2014 USDA report, coffee is Ethiopia’s number one source of export revenue, generating between 25 and 30 percent of the country’s total export earnings.

So why hasn’t this developing country fallen into the same pattern as the rest of the continent, exporting more of its coffee to meet increasing demand and corresponding willingness to pay high premiums?

For one, unlike the rest of Africa, where coffee production has been stagnant or falling, coffee production in Ethiopia has grown on average 2.6% per year during the last 50 years, and 3.6% per year since 1990. A bigger production pie means Ethiopians can increase export production while sustaining, or even growing, domestic consumption (other exporting countries with strong domestic consumption include Brazil and Indonesia).

More broadly, countries that export coffee are starting to drink more of it; according to ICO, between 2000 and 2012 domestic consumption by exporting countries increased by 64.7%, and as of 2012 accounted for over 30% of world consumption. This trend correlates with economic development and a growing middle class in many coffee-producing countries (per capita GDP in Ethiopia has more than doubled in the last seven years).

But a lot of it just comes down to tradition, said Helen Indale, owner of Adams Morgan Cafe and Restaurant, where I was thrilled to find Ethiopian Harrar beans on a recent visit (the cafe is one of several establishments in the D.C. area – which boasts a large Ethiopian population – to carry Ethiopian beans). Indale, who emigrated from Ethiopia 18 years ago, said coffee permeated family life for as long as she could remember. Her parents drank a cup before work, a cup during lunch, and then another coffee after work. Coffee took the role of nourishment and also social interaction.

“You would go next door, call your friend and let them know that some coffee’s ready,” she said. “They would come and bring something, some bread for example, and you would share.”

A love of coffee, instilled early, meant that for Indale it became both a prized commodity and a treat: “When we were in school, macchiato was very expensive. So we took our bus money and used it to buy machiatto, and then we would walk home.”

Meshesha said the uniqueness of Ethiopian coffee culture is tied to religion; it is believed that daily consumption of coffee started in monasteries across the country. Ethiopian families traditionally roast their own coffee, on a daily or weekly basis, either in a traditional charcoal stove or in a conventional oven. During a coffee ceremony, beans are washed and roasted in front of guests, then ground with a mortar and pestle, cooked in a clay pot called a jebena, and served in traditional tiny tasting cups.

But according to Meshesha, the culture is starting to change. Urban Ethiopians, especially those in the expanding middle class, are foregoing traditional coffee ceremonies and opting for quicker fixes at coffee shops. For TO.MO.CA the trend means better business and opportunities to expand; the company has grown from a single shop five years ago, to a chain of six, and has plans to expand to 25 shops in Ethiopia and twenty more in Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan.

“Over the past decade the change is very transparent especially in urban areas,” Meshesha said. “The expansion of coffee shops will definitely grow at a faster pace, as cities are becoming more populated with middle income people who are career oriented and cannot afford a traditional coffee ceremony.”

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