Most Ethiopians still roast coffee at home, often in an elaborate and time-consuming ceremony. In Addis Ababa, they buy raw beans at the giant Merkato market, street-side markets and small kiosks.
But the city’s increased number of roasters – more than 100 now compared to a handful when Tomoca started – and cafes reflect new drinking habits emerging, especially among young professionals.
“They do not have time to sit at home for an hour roasting coffee,” Woldetsadick says. “Coffee is such a part of our culture,” says 27-year-old accountant Tesfaye Abdissa inside Mokarar, another of Addis’ original coffee-roasting companies. “I come here every day as I work nearby – I prefer this style.”
Mokarar’s senior roaster Mulu Demessie still roasts coffee using an Italian Officine Vittoria wood-fired roaster as she has done for 38 years. “Customers like the shine and flavour this gives the beans,” says Mokarar owner Tigist Tegene.
Yet, despite being staunchly proud of their coffee heritage, Ethiopians are not impervious to a touch of Western-style hipness.
The tables of Kaldi’s Coffee, its green and white logo inspired by Starbucks (owner Tseday Asrat accompanied her Ethiopian Airlines pilot husband on trips to the US), teem with customers ordering ‘short’ and ‘tall’ coffees.
Unlike older businesses, Kaldi’s does not focus on also selling packaged roasted coffee. But that does not appear to bother customers at its 22 branches and counting since 2004.
The Ethiopian government, well aware of coffee’s crucial economic role and how foreign competition might undermine it, has taken protective measures to support local companies.
However, these are gradually relaxing and foreign companies can now conduct commercial coffee farming and produce roasted and ground coffee for local and export markets.
Change is inevitable in the service sector if Ethiopia wants to realise its ambitions of gaining World Trade Organisation (WTO) status.
“Some of the big coffee chains would be interested as Ethiopia is a market that really appreciates coffee and consumes a lot per capita,” Watts says.
But those within Addis Ababa’s coffee scene do not appear unduly worried by increased foreign competition. “Our customers are really into the brand,” Wondwossen Meshesha says. The sentiment is echoed by Alem Bunna’s Woldetsadick, who says: “What we sell is what makes us successful – the quality of our roasting and our blend.”
Ethiopia’s strong cultural base should allow local companies to still compete well if foreign companies do arrive, according to Watts.
Yet at the same time, that cultural base means many customers entirely eschew brand power, opting instead for Addis Ababa’s omnipresent traditional coffee stands, known colloquially as jeubeuna bunna, where vendors roast, pound and brew coffee in clay jebena pots.
“Customers come for my friendliness and because they prefer traditional coffee to machine coffee,” says 19-year-old Eyerusalem Mesele, employed at a jeubeuna bunna outside a lively bar.
If foreign competition does come, it might well struggle to compete with fine Ethiopian coffee served at 5 Ethiopian birr ($0.25) a cup.
“I never go to cafes,” said one of Mesele’s customers, 36-year-old Fitsum Berhe, one of Ethiopia’s ‘returnees’ after years living in Ireland. “It’s not about saving money, it’s about quality,” he adds, “ I like watching beans roasting and knowing I’m drinking the real deal.”
Such customer appreciation clearly has its advantages for those running more traditional coffee businesses. “I am saving money to start my own jeubeuna bunna because I have seen how it can be profitable,” Mesele says.
And Mesele is not alone in hoping to climb the coffee business ladder. Tegene says she wants to open a cafe replete with modern coffee machinery on trendy Bole Road, popular with foreigners and the city’s bright young things, and start exporting to the US. Hence she too is looking for a foreign partner. “You have to try everything if you want to earn more,” she says.
Such is coffee’s popularity in this coffee-mad country, it appears there’s plenty of room for expansion, be it domestically or abroad, or be it locally or foreign driven.
“Ethiopians love coffee and any time a new cafe opens, it’s packed,” Overton says. “You could probably have three cafes on every street corner and they’d all be full.”