Ethiopia, a country in East Africa, is known for its diverse cultures and is the second most populous and one of the largest countries in the continent. Agriculture is the country’s major economic income.
Legend has it that the discovery of coffee dates back to the sixth century in Ethiopia. The story of Kaldi, a goat herder from Ethiopia’s Southern Kaffa region, is a popular and often recounted tale. Kaldi and his goats are traditionally credited with the discovery of coffee beans. As the story goes, Kaldi took his goats out to pasture, and they began feeding on the red cherries of the yet unknown plant. A little while later, he witnessed his animals were in a state of euphoria. Their excitement spurred him to try the cherries for himself – the rest is history.
Regardless of the legend of Kaldi and his goats, it is certain that coffee was first discovered in the forests of southern Ethiopia. The beans would ultimately find their way to the Arabian Peninsula, where coffee gained immense popularity and became a staple.
Following the popularity of the beans, coffee made its way to Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world through merchants, immigrants, and pilgrims.
In the centuries since, coffee has become a daily ritual for billions of people all around the world. Many cannot start their day without a cup, making coffee the second most widely consumed beverage globally after water. It is also one of the most traded agricultural commodities, with producers in tropical and sub-tropical regions shipping huge volumes to consumers across the world.
Ethiopia remains one of the major sources of coffee globally, ranked as the 5th largest coffee producer/exporter in the world in 2021 and the largest coffee producer/exporter in Africa. For example, according to the International Coffee Organization, the world consumed about ten billion kilograms of coffee in 2021, of which 250 million kgs were exported from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian highlands provide ideal conditions for growing coffee.
Now, many varieties of coffee are produced and consumed worldwide, with Arabica and Robusta dominating the market.
Arabica is the oldest variety, which was first discovered in Ethiopia and introduced to the world. This popular coffee variety received its name because it made its way and was known to the world through the Arabian Peninsula. It grows best in rainy climates at higher elevations and is widely preferred for its superior taste. Arabica is the most popular variety of coffee, accounting for close to 60% of the world’s coffee production.
Robusta is named after the size and roundness of its beans. It is more flexible in terms of the climates where it can grow. Robusta is characterized by a peculiar, bitter taste.
Ethiopian Arabica coffee beans are grown at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,200 meters in the highlands. Due to the diverse topographies and ecosystems, there are many variants of Ethiopian Coffee such as Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Lekempti/Wellega, Harrar, Guji, Kaffa, and Limmu/Djimmah, among others. Each of these has its own unique flavor and taste. Ethiopian coffee growers mainly adhere to either Dry or Wet processing methods.
Coffee is a very important element of the Ethiopian economy, a country with a population of over 120 million. It is intertwined with the lives of millions directly dependent on the coffee value chain. About 15 million farmers, processors, and traders depend on the beans for a living. It is also by far the largest source of foreign currency for the country, which largely relies on agricultural production for export.
Coffee is also an integral part of Ethiopian culture. It can be said that every household in the country consumes coffee on a daily basis, often with colorful traditional ceremonies. The ceremony consists of three rounds, with each pot of coffee brewed lighter than the previous. A typical ceremony gathers families, friends, and neighbors for conversation and laughter with traditional snacks and incense. Coffee is also served in workplaces and small coffee shops, which are often packed with customers. Yet, the most premium quality beans are reserved for the export market.