Coffee has come a long way from its birthplace in the hills of Ethiopia. Today, you’ll find it growing and being sipped all over the world.
It has moved many miles, been contested, stolen, and obsessed over. Its roots in Africa help tell the story and serve as a reminder of the changing relationship that Africa has had with the rest of the world.
We’re going to take a look at how Africa plays into the journey of coffee, its popularity, and where it is today.
Woman serving coffee brewed the traditional way at a farm in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha
As we trace the roots of the coffee trade, it takes us back to the Horn of Africa, a peninsula with coasts on the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Over many centuries, important trade would take place on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, known as the Gates of Tears, between Ethiopia and the western Arabian Peninsula, particularly Yemen.
An important player in these trading empires was the ancient Kingdom of Aksum. It was believed to have been founded in 150 BCE, centring in what we now know as Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia.
Aksum had the benefit of direct access to both the Upper Nile and the Red Sea during the third to the sixth century and was considered the greatest marketplace in North Africa. Its trade extended to what we know today as Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Merchants traded agricultural products such as salt, ivory, tortoise shells, gold, emeralds, silk, and spices across the region, bringing power and wealth to the kingdom.
However, they could not hold up against the expanding Islamic Empire, or Caliphate, who gained the upper hand when they seized control of the invaluable Red Sea and most of the Nile. The Islamic Empire then witnessed a century of rapid expansion across much of northern Africa and Spain under the rule of Umayyad Caliphate.
The caliphate would go on to control coffee trading. By the 14th century, however, the Empire grew tired of trading with Ethiopia for their coffee. Instead, they began cultivating their own coffee with plants smuggled out of Ethiopia to Yemen.
These ancient kingdoms in Africa were involved in the same acts as other kingdoms and empires all over the world: conquering, trading, and attempting to maintain their power and monopolies. This is something that would change over time.
A camel caravan, Ethiopia. Credit: ILRI, Apollo Habtamu
Over the next 200 years, qahwa (coffee in Arabic) became widely cultivated across regions in Yemen, which shared a coastline with the Horn of Africa. This was helped by relatively fertile land, rainfall, and high elevations in the surrounding highlands of Mocha.
With coffee becoming an important part of everyday life within the empire, there was a great economic benefit for its growth and trade. By the 16th century, the powerful Ottoman Empire had built a coffee monopoly which they fiercely protected. They even developed the practice of boiling the coffee berries to make the seeds sterile and prevent their theft and cultivation elsewhere.
Yemen also held a strategic location in the region, right on the west of the Arabian Peninsula. Its bustling ports of Mocha and Al-Makha linked the camel caravan trade routes to the Red Sea and were the gateway for coffee exports to Egypt, Syria, and beyond.
The Horn of Africa is integral to the discussion of the beginnings of coffee trading. It was not only the birthplace of Arabica coffee but also where it was first shipped overseas before the expansion of the coffee trade.
Coffee laborer at a coffee nursery in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha
Having a monopoly over the coffee trade was a powerful tool: coffee was in demand and lucrative. It was fiercely guarded but also slyly stolen.
The downfall of the Ottoman Empire’s coffee monopoly came when the Dutch stole coffee seeds from Yemen in the late 1600s. From there, they were taken to the island of Java in Indonesia, a Dutch colony, where they established commercial coffee plantations. Using Javaian land and a Javaian workforce, they went on to dominate the world coffee trade.
The colonists played the leading role in the globalisation of coffee. Coffee went from being concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East to being grown worldwide. It was sought after, which made it the perfect crop for colonists to grow in their conquered colonies.
Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade played a significant role in shaping the coffee trade. An estimated 11 million Africans were forcibly taken to the Americas over the course of 400 years.
These slaves formed a workforce that directly contributed to the colonies’ economic success through growing items for trade, including coffee. This included British colonies in the West Indies, French colonies in Haiti, and Spanish colonies across modern-day Latin America.
Brazil, which was colonised by Portugal, was the leading producer of coffee by the 1830s. It relied on black and indigenous slave labour to grow 30% of the world’s coffee.
Colonists not only took plants but lives and livelihoods to ensure the significant growth of coffee.
Coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. Credit: ILRI, Apollo Habtamu
In Ethiopia, there is a longstanding love affair with coffee. As far back as the 10th century, Oromo warriors were believed to have rolled balls of ripe berries in animal fat and carried them on journeys as rations.
Drinking coffee remains part of the daily routine in Ethiopia. Coffee ceremonies, where coffee is roasted and brewed, are an important cultural activity. They’re the largest domestic consumer of coffee on the continent as well as the largest producer of coffee in Africa, too.
European explorers to Africa also documented the importance and appreciation of coffee. John Hanning Speke, an English explorer, described the local practice of picking and chewing the red cherries straight from the bush while he explored Uganda in the mid-1800s. (100 years later, my family did the same on our farm on the slopes of the Zimbabwean Highlands, delighting in the tastes of raspberry, red mulberry, currant, cranberry, cherry, and raisin.)
David Livingstone and John Kirk, two Scottish explorers, famously followed the course of the Zambezi River in the mid-1800s. Their accounts tell stories of great African kings and chiefs aiding European expeditions by gifting coffee. It was intended to nourish and energise the souls, fuel tired and often sick bodies, and provide the stimulus to cross treacherous waterways and tackle challenging routes.
Coffee sample sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Original letters, diaries, journals, maps, photographs, sketches, and even coffee samples from this time detail European exploration across the African continent. They are now carefully preserved in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, the National Library of Scotland, National Museums of Scotland, Kew Gardens, and many more institutions in Africa.
From the daily coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the gifting of coffee to explorers, coffee has been enjoyed and valued on the continent for centuries.
Early coffee beans parcels carried by tribesmen, Royal Botanic Gardens. Credit: Nicole Motteux
Coffee still plays a major role in Africa. You’ll find it growing across East Africa, in Zimbabwe, and over in West Africa in the Ivory Coast and Ghana.
In many of these countries, there are embedded problems which make the production and trade of coffee more difficult. Issues relating to farm size, infrastructure, changing political climates as well as climate change can prevent farmers from excelling in their production. This directly affects farmer’s incomes and makes livelihoods more difficult to sustain.
Yet for many countries across the continent, it remains a key contributor to the economy. It makes up approximately 20% of exports from Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.
African coffee is recognisable in its own right. It’s applauded for its unique qualities and delicate flavour profiles, from the floral notes of coffee grown at high altitudes to the distinctive bergamot notes in coffee from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.
Coffee being roasted at a roastery in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha
Coffee has travelled from Ethiopia to the otherside of the world (and also to my family’s farm in Zimbabwe). Along the way, it’s captured the imagination of farmers, traders, colonists, and consumers throughout history. It’s transformed economies and remains part of the daily routine of millions’ of people around the world.