A Portrait of Coffee’s HomelandAuthor Majka Burhardt encounters sorrow but plenty of possibility amid Ethiopian producers
By Dan Leif
Majka Burhardt’s first trip to Ethiopia took a twist most well-traveled coffee buyers can relate to. In 2006, she headed to the famed origin to work on a magazine feature in which she and several other adventurous coffee lovers hoped to prove that the genetic roots of the much-heralded gesha varietal, then flourishing in Central America, were based in Africa. The Ethiopian government, however, misunderstood the travelers’ intentions and, thinking they were trying to steal heirloom plants, abruptly forced an end to the quest. But Burhardt’s curiosity in the nation was piqued. The Colorado-based writer and rock climber remained for another three months, exploring towering sandstone formations in the northern part of the country and writing a book about the subject.
Her fascination with the coffee side of the Ethiopia remained, however. And over the past three years she has returned several times, heading to small communities around the country to find out what coffee means to the people of coffea’s original home. With the help of Denver micro-importer Ninety Plus, Burhardt has brought those experiences together in her second book on the country, the just-released “Coffee Story: Ethiopia”.
Q: What is it about Ethiopia that you thought needed to be relayed to coffee drinkers around the world?
A: The climbing book used climbing to talk about Ethiopia as more than drought, famine and poverty. It used climbing as a way to talk about Ethiopia as a place for adventure and possibility. That segued me into thinking how with coffee, it’s the same thing. I am very optimistic about coffee and Ethiopia, despite all the rigmaroles that the country has been through with coffee. I really believe that if you take this crop that is the most valuable thing Ethiopia has and you attach it to richness, whether that’s cultural richness or commodity richness, then Ethiopia is going to be better off in the long run.
Q: So are you saying the Western coffee industry doesn’t really understand the country?
A: It would be great to have more nuanced conversations about the way coffee is life in Ethiopia. It’s been tricky. There was a movement for a long time to say, “Let’s talk about the poorest farmer.” … Then it became, well if a customer is always going to hear about the poor farmer, that’s going to be a depressing experience. So then you say, “How can you talk about the reality of life in a place like this without it being overly depressing but also really honest?” The hope with the book is that it’s a portal to Ethiopia. So many of us want that. It gives people a sense of, what is Ethiopian coffee? How does coffee interweave with the decision as to how you marry, how you look at religion? How does coffee impact everyday life in Ethiopia both beyond and with the physical bean?
Q: Of all the stories you heard from people there, which stand out the most?
A: There was a man in northern Ethiopia named Gebru Kidame, and he said when he was growing up drinking coffee was a sin. The Christian church had problems with coffee for a long time and then eventually embraced it. He told me that his parents told him a story: When Jesus died all the plants were in mourning, and the only one that didn’t mourn was the coffee tree. The coffee tree kept flowering and producing coffee, which was why if you were a true believer you didn’t drink coffee. I love that story, especially because we were drinking coffee as he told it to me.
Q: I imagine plenty of people also talked about hardships they’ve faced.
A: I spent several days with a woman who’s been in the coffee news quite a bit, Asnakech Thomas. She’s a female miller in Ethiopia. Ultimately, she’s trying to make the valley where she grew up a better place. Asnakech has lost two sisters to obstetric fistula, and she told me that all she wants is to make sure that the women in her valley don’t come home “two in a box.” What that means is that the mother and baby are together in one casket because they both died during birth. For her, it really does come back to coffee. It is this crop that can make those changes. That was a phrase that would resonate with me all the time—two in a box. If someone just said that to me I’d have no idea what that meant, but if you say that to someone in Ethiopia, there is an automatic understanding of the meaning, sadness and loss.
Q: You have a lot of experience with adventure travel, both in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Do you think that appealing to tourists is a viable option for coffee-producing regions trying to improve themselves economically?
A: I think there’s a ton of potential for it. I personally get a little worried when tourism is seen as a solution for places. Not that I don’t think it works for some places, but it’s kind of all the eggs in one basket. But when people want a really rugged and hardy and strictly experiential time, adding coffee to it seems like a great way to go. Ethiopia is staring to figure it out. The coffee industry been doing it successfully—they’ll run coffee sourcing trips, and roasters and other people get really fired up about it. As that idea spreads out to the public, there’s good potential, as long as it happens in concert with sustainable development.