Ethiopia Created Coffee and Then Lost it to Others. But, Was it Stolen?

Why can't Africa reap the benefits of her creations?

Ethiopians coffee
Ethiopians created coffee others got rich from their invention

Key points:

  • Coffee was discovered and first cultivated in Ethiopia, deeply embedded in the nation’s culture through traditional ceremonies and practices.
  • While Ethiopian coffee spread across the world, the financial and commercial control of the commodity shifted to European and American entities.
  • Despite its status as a top producer of premium coffee, Ethiopia sees a limited share of the economic benefits from the global coffee industry, with most profits being made by foreign companies.

The Ethiopian Origins of Coffee: A Tale of Cultural Legacy and Lost Opportunities

ethiopian coffee
Ethiopian coffee: the other stolen black gold

Ethiopia, a nation teeming with historical and cultural richness, is often acclaimed as the birthplace of coffee, one of the world’s most beloved beverages. Despite its significant contribution to global culture and economy, Ethiopia has not fully capitalized on the financial benefits of its coffee legacy.

This piece explores how Ethiopia’s coffee, with its distinctive flavors and centuries-old history, emerged from the Ethiopian highlands and became a global staple, yet the financial rewards have largely been reaped by others.

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The Discovery and Domestication of Coffee in Ethiopia

Legend has it that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by a goat herder named Kaldi in the 9th century. He noticed his goats becoming unusually energetic after eating the red berries from a certain bush.

Kaldi tried these berries himself and experienced a similar invigorating effect. Monks at a nearby monastery then began experimenting with the berries, boiling them to create a beverage that kept them alert through long hours of prayer.

This accidental discovery in the Ethiopian highlands marks the beginning of coffee’s journey. Over centuries, Ethiopians developed techniques to plant, cultivate, and harvest coffee, which gradually became an integral part of their social and cultural fabric.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, which involve roasting beans and preparing coffee in a clay pot called a ‘jebena’, are still a fundamental aspect of Ethiopian social life.

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Spread and Commercialization: The Global Journey

Coffee spread from Ethiopia to Yemen and the wider Arab world through trade and travel, particularly by Sufi monks traveling to Ethiopia.

In Yemen, the coffee trade was established, and from there, coffee spread to the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and subsequently to the Americas.

As coffee became a prized commodity in global trade, European powers and later American corporations took over the large-scale cultivation, commercialization, and marketing of coffee, often planting it in their colonies.

The Modern Coffee Market and Ethiopia’s Role

Today, Ethiopia remains one of the top coffee producers in the world, known for its Arabica beans which are considered among the finest. Regions like Sidamo, Harrar, and Yirgacheffe are famous for their unique coffee profiles, ranging from floral to fruity flavors, highly sought after by specialty coffee markets around the world.

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Despite this, the economic benefits that Ethiopia derives from coffee are disproportionate to its cultural and historical contributions.

Major global coffee companies and traders often control the international coffee market, setting prices and terms under which coffee is bought and sold. Moreover, the value-added processes like roasting, packaging, and branding, which significantly increase the market value of coffee, mostly occur outside Ethiopia.

Conclusion: when will Africans change the narrative?

Ethiopia’s ancient connection with coffee illustrates a broader narrative of cultural richness and economic disparity.

While Ethiopian coffee continues to be celebrated worldwide for its quality and unique characteristics, the financial gains from this global commodity have largely benefited companies and nations outside of its origin.

This story is emblematic of broader issues of resource control, economic equity, and cultural recognition.