Think Africa's coffee culture is something new? Ethiopia's been showing us how it's done for centuries

And it all started with some goats....

KALDI was an Ethiopian goat herder from Kaffa who is said to have “discovered” coffee after he noticed his goats dancing, unable to sleep at night and acting strange after they had eaten red berries from a certain tree. 

Many believe the legend, thought to have taken place around 850AD, has elements of truth to it. After all, there is now a consensus amongst historians and botanists that coffee is indigenous to Ethiopia where it still continues to grow wild in the highlands where Kaldi lived. Having tried the beans himself, and feeling a novel elation, Kaldi shared his findings with a nearby monastery, believing it to have been a gift from the heavens. Slowly the discovery of the magic beans spread - but not inland, it spread across seas and oceans. 

Trendy chain

Coffee culture is considered to be a novel phenomenon in Africa, recently brought back by Africans that have studied and worked abroad. The demand in coffee-producing countries and emerging markets is now expanding significantly and coffee consumption within households is on the rise, as are the number of cafes in major cities. 

Cafe Neo, a trendy Nigerian chain, recently hit headlines as it hopes to conquer Africa’s major cities with 100% African coffee before the giants of the international coffee industry do. 

In Kenya over the last 5 - 10 years local chains of Java House Coffee and Art Caffe have cropped up all over the city. In Uganda, Good African Coffee became the first company to market locally roasted coffee five years ago, and since then dozens of other swanky coffee shops and restaurants have sprung up across the country. In South Africa, coffee drinking became incredibly fashionable and coffee culture exploded, particularly in Cape Town, with nationals have moving away from the instant stuff and gaining more interest in specialty coffee roasteries. 

Considering Africa is the home of coffee, and produces about 13% of the world’s supply, it is surprising that coffee culture didn’t infiltrate the continent much earlier. Well, it did. But it stuck to the North and Ethiopia. 

In 2013 Algeria was the only African nation to feature in the leading 20 coffee consuming countries. It was a representation of the North African communities where drinking coffee has been a part of the social fabric for centuries. 

Ethiopian harvest

However the coffee here came from the East, not the South as it could have done. There is scant documentary evidence of coffee use before the early 1500s, but historians have found that there was a small-scale trade in coffee between Ethiopia and Yemen which started in the middle of the fifteenth century. 

Coffee, harvested in Ethiopia, was transported across the Red Sea and within a few decades was enjoyed across the entire Islamic world - the spread largely attributed to Sufi mystics who used it as a ceremonial drink - which is how it infiltrated North Africa. 

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, following Kaldi’s discovery, coffee was given a revered position in culture and society. In fact, Ethiopia is the only country in the world that consumes half the coffee it produces with traditional households consuming it at least three times a day. 

Ethiopians even developed an almost mystical ceremony around the preparation of coffee; grass is spread over the floor where the coffee is made and incense burns throughout. The coffee is roasted in a flat iron pan before it is ground in a wooden mortar and then lowly stirred into a clay pot. It is a ritual that can take hours and is a cornerstone of national hospitality, often reserved for special occasions and guests.

For those whose time no longer allows for the lengthy coffee ceremonies, the country is not short of cafes. For example, the popular family-run Tomoca coffee shop, which has been open since 1953. This coffee shop has adapted to new urban culture, providing quick “fixes” which has proved very popular. In the last five years, this shop has gone from one to a chain of six.  

In Ethiopia, coffee truly is King. Not only does Ethiopia’s vibrant coffee scene continue to grow, but it should also be mentioned that it’s coffee production has too. While production in Africa has exhibited negative growth over the last 50 years, in Ethiopia there has been an average annual growth rate of 2.6% during the last 50 years, increasing to 3.6% since 1990. 

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