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Discontent brewing in Ethiopia

From the December 2016 issue.

Ethiopians fear a crackdown on coffee as the government pushes for export earnings.

Ethiopian coffee ceremony

Addis Ababa ought to be among the best places in the world to get a cup of coffee. As the capital city of Ethiopia, which is the birthplace of coffee, it has the tradition and the heritage. Ducking down Bole Road, away from the construction sites that have sprung up all over Addis, you can find old-world establishments like Habesha where coffee means ceremony.

The beans are roasted and ground in front of you, while you are wrapped in the fragrance of a small cloud of burning frankincense. The coffee is slow-brewed in a clay ‘jebena’ and served in tiny cups on ornate metal trays. The process is as patient as it is elaborate. But there is one nagging problem with it, as there is with most Ethiopian coffee in Ethiopia: the taste is not as good as it should be. It is the fault of the beans, which are typically second rate.

Coffee is Ethiopia’s leading export, its foreign currency mainstay, and a product the government treats as a strategic asset. What this means in practice is that all export-grade coffee is indeed exported. The only beans left for Ethiopians themselves are those that are damaged by insects and moisture or cracked.

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