Coffee plays a central role in Ethiopia’s historical, traditional, and social structures; but saying coffee is loved does not do it justice.
One cannot wander the streets of Addis Abeba in the early hours of the morning without seeing coffee being ground on house steps, hearing the pounding of mortars and pestles, or experiencing the heady aroma of fresh beans being roasted and brewed combined with that of frankincense being burned for the traditional coffee ceremony. The coffee ceremony is a staple in Ethiopian family, community and increasingly, commercial life.
Coffee vendors have recently become a dime a dozen and take all kinds of shapes. Their rich, dark brew, haunts pedestrians who buy it from thermoses in their picnic baskets or from the traditional clay kettle used specifically for brewing coffee.
Fantanesh Kebede, in her mid 70’s, thinks the increased number of vendors is only logical. She makes coffee for a living in her own Mesi Coffee, a small coffee shop on Gabon Street around Mesqel Flower. All she needed to launch her business was start up capital of 5,000 Br, as required by the wereda administration.
Ethiopia produces 280,000 metric tonness of coffee a year, according to a 2015 report by the US Department of Agriculture. Half of that is used for domestic consumption.
“It’s good work,” Fantanesh told Fortune. “I’ve been living here since I was a little girl and I had tried many ways of earning a living. This is the most preferable one I’ve found so far,” she said, adding that it gives her the chance to drink coffee daily and gain an income.
She dispenses words of wisdom along with her five Birr cups of coffee to the local taxi drivers, assistants and various daily labourers who frequent her home-cum-coffee shop. She pauses now and then to throw a sliver of frankincense, an essential element the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, into the glowing embers beneath the jebena. That, is the smell of Ethiopia.
Miles away in Bole, a coffee claims it is not unusual to see people in search of a good cup of coffee. Henok Addis, one of three friends sitting on traditional three-legged stools in Sheger Bunna, a Ethiopian themed establishment in Sheger House on Namibia Street, said he and his friends have been going to that place for a year and a half.
“They have a great tasting coffee and the ceremony is impeccable,” he said. “I feel like I’m drinking at my own house.”
His friend Yared Habtewold quickly concurred. “The thickness of the coffee is what brings us to this place.”
As if there were debate, the third young man, Natnael Befikadu, sitting alongside Henok, chipped in. “You just don’t get this kind of coffee in cafes because it’s mostly barley nowadays.”
They also acclaimed the high quality of service.
Ferdos Hussein, a co-proprietor of the coffee establishment says despite being in the business for a year and a half, the returns are good. She recounts the days when paying the 4,800 Br rent for the plot was an uphill battle, let alone turning a profit.
“I was having second thoughts regarding its feasibility when starting up with my partner Hana,” she admitted. “But those days are far behind me. I make a comfortable living on what I earn here,” she proudly attested.
Sitting on a low stool etched with various Ethiopian designs, a customer at Sheger Bunna can get a cup of strong traditional coffee with a side of popcorn and small cubes of traditional snacks for the price of six Birr.
“This is a slow part of the day,” Ferdos observed, looking around the lobby where a few customers are sitting. During lunch time, usually from one to three in the afternoon, she said she could hardly cope with the number of customers flocking the shop. She has hired two more people for a wage of 900 Br a month each, to help her serve coffee.
“People like my place because I present the full traditional experience, ranging from live coffee roasting to the ceremonial smoke known as etan.”
She said there was enough demand to finish three kilos of coffee a day and even serve customers at Le Parisienne – the café located on the front of the building.
Other coffee vendors share similar success stories.
Dejene Gebre, is a manager at Haro Bunna, a four year old coffee shop chain that has a branch located on Gambia Street close to Ras Hotel. Walking through and imparting greetings to his esteemed customers, he expressed his views on the business.
“There are a lots of people looking for a decent cup of coffee in this city. You either get a good coffee and the price is too high or you get a cheap cup of God knows what!” he exclaimed.
Haro placed a roasting station at the front of the shop, roasting and grinding their beans under the watchful eyes of customers. There cannot be any confusion as to the pureness of our coffee,they claim.
“Despite the chain-like nature of the organisation,” he said, “we aim to cater to those who have fondness for coffee.”
That branch alone goes through eight kilos of coffee a day – one kilo makes from 80 to 90 cups. In fact, at peak hours, customers start to drink their coffee standing up as they are unable to find vacant seats among the 135 the shop has to offer. A cup of coffee at Haro Bunna costs nine Birr. A small army of 21 workers, with a salaries ranging from 500-3000 Br a month, help run a smooth operation.
However, despite the success story of these establishments, some bystanders express their concerns regarding the mechanisms of checks and balances. They are labelled traditional, yet we are not mandated to regulate the services they provide claim Malefia and Tigist, officers who work the Culture & Tourism Office at Kirkos District’s Wereda 3.
They underscored that unless the establishment offered food related services (excluding the popcorn and bread served with the coffee), it was not within their jurisdiction to supervise them – at least not yet.
The same holds true for the trade and industry offices at wereda levels.
“We have our range of checklists for establishments dealing with food and beverages,” said Fanta Desta, licensing & registration officer in the wereda.
“When it comes to cafes and restaurants we explicitly require certification of competency to make sure the individuals who are involved in the process can ascertain the customers’ safety levels.
But in the case of establishments that do not have food based services, the wereda checks only to make sure that the proprietors legally own or rent the premises they are using to provide the services and have paid the minimum imposed sam.
Registered coffee shops are also required to pay a flat tax of 1,000 Br per annum.
True to the culture of hospitality, it is traditional, when making coffee, to set out an extravagant number of coffee cups, as many as the tray can hold. Ethiopia’s trays will have to increase quite bit however, as no fewer than 7,000 delegates will be descending upon the city from March 6-8, for the International Coffee Organization’s 4th World Coffee Conference. Right on the heels of that is the 116th International Coffee Council meeting from March 9-11.
“Ethiopia, as host country, is planning a world-class industry-wide event,” said Teferra Derebew, Minister of Agriculture & Natural Resources, with confidence.
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