African Origins of Coffee: Following Roots in Ethiopia

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in: World

A pilgrim at the Baba Budan Giri Shrine. Credit: Sarah Khan

A bag of roasted coffee beans. Inhale, then inhale again. The smell delivers comfort, the anticipation of wakefulness and clarity. I first encountered freshly roasted coffee in 1995, when I lived among the Bedouins inside southern Israel. Nicknamed “taht al-nujuum,” I insisted on sleeping outside, under the stars, in the crisp night air securely cloaked under a heavy quilt. The gift? We awoke to the smell of the patriarch, Abu Yusuf, roasting and grinding coffee beans so we could imbibe a bracing, sweet thimble full of dark nectar before confronting the day, off the grid.

But where did coffee originate, how did it migrate and will future generations continue to enjoy the coveted cuppa? This three-part series looks at the African origins of coffee, its early migration around the world, coffee varieties today, simple coffee definitions and how to roast green coffee beans at home. Last, as coffee farmers experience greater vulnerability to climate and disease, the series explores how we might conserve coffee’s biocultural diversity in its place of origin to ensure its global survival for generations.

Costs of coffee

Coffee, the other black gold, is the world’s most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity, and second only to petroleum, the most traded commodity. Coffee accounts for global exports worth more than $15 billion. In 2009 and 2010 alone, 93.4 million bags of coffee shipped internationally. The biggest exporters are Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, Ethiopia and India, according to data collected by the International Coffee Organization in March 2013. The biggest importers are the United States, Germany, Italy, France and Japan, according to data collected in November 2012 by the International Coffee Organization. Seven countries rely heavily on coffee export sales (greater than 12% and up to 59%) for country earnings — Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Honduras, Uganda, Nicaragua and Guatemala, based on International Coffee Organization statistics. That’s the macrocosm. But what about the microcosm, what is happening in coffee’s (Coffea arabica) place of origin, Ethiopia?

Diversity a hallmark of African origins of coffee

The African continent is the center of origin and genetic diversity for all coffee species, reports Taye Kufa of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research in “Environmental Sustainability and Coffee Diversity in Africa.” Coffee, of the genus Coffea, resides in the larger Rubiaceae family. There are more than 100 species in the genus Coffea. Two species have the most commercial value in the global coffee industry: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, commonly referred to as Arabica and Robusta coffee, respectively. Arabica is geographically isolated from other Coffea species. It only grows in isolated mountain forests of the Great Rift Valley in southern Ethiopia. Robusta coffees, with origins in the equatorial lowland forests of west and central Africa, make up the rest of global coffee production. Today, Robusta varieties thrive in tropical highland and lowland areas worldwide and make up about 30% of global coffee production. Arabica varieties dominate 70% of total coffee production and more than 90% of the market.

How did Ethiopians enjoy the coffee plant?

Ethiopians ate the raw coffee berries, chewed the leaves, brewed both into a light tea, ground the beans and mixed it with fat to create a dense energy bar, fermented the fresh fruit pulp, concocted a drink from roasted husks called qishr, and, at some point, roasted the green beans. They delivered to the world a highly addictive type of plant nectar: roasted and brewed coffee. Read about the contemporary Ethiopian coffee ceremony by fellow Zester Daily contributor, Elisabeth Luard.

What is a center of origin mean and why is it important?

All plants have a place of origin, a center or centers of biodiversity. If the wild species has not gone extinct, there may be few to many wild species.

A wild species grows without the aid of human intervention to plant, cultivate or harvest — as opposed to a domesticated one that requires the human hand to cultivate it like tomatoes or corn. In Ethiopia many wild Coffea species still exist, though the numbers are in decline.

Why is it advantageous to have many Coffea species? What if there is a drought, a pest or a disaster that wipes out a coffee harvest? Access to the same or another Coffea species that might have a drought- or pest-resistance exists. Multiple species ensures that if one dies off others, of different genetic variety and strength, endure. Global and local, large and small seed banks and repositories serve this conservation purpose (referred to as ex situ conservation). But why not maintain the dynamic environments where the species grow (in situ conservation)? Then you not only maintain the diversity of numerous species, but also give them the chance to co-mingle and reproduce newer, more vibrant species. Isn’t it better to keep the gene pool healthy and diverse and mix it up, just like in humans?

Coffea migration

Mark Pendergrast researched a sound resource on early coffee migration in “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.” Perhaps when Ethiopians ruled Yemen, they planted coffee and it flourished in the sixth century. Later merchants distributed coffee from Yemen’s port city of Mocha to the Islamic world. Boiling or roasting renders coffee beans infertile. Muslim powers guarded the spread of the fertile beans to maintain their tight monopoly on the lucrative trade. Legends note that the Sufi saint Baba Budan smuggled fertile beans to southern India, where the first coffee plantations found ground in southern India in the early 1600s. Today, Hindu and Muslim pilgrims still flock to the Western Ghat Mountains to Baba Budan Giri Shrine to pay homage to the saintly Sufi smuggler of seven coffee beans.

Meanwhile, Ottoman Empire traders introduced coffee to Constantinople. Sufi practitioners quickly popularized coffee drinking. A desirable stimulant for late-night worship, coffee allowed believers to sing, spin and revel longer and deeper into the nights, to the consternation of some purists. Soon, though, the practice mushroomed to the general population. The crammed coffee houses (qahwah kanes) allowed men of different social classes and professions to exchange ideas more freely for the first time. Coffeehouses arose as centers of convivial and not-so-convivial business; political, literary and artistic debates, and musical and dance performances.

The spirited coffeehouses boomed and swiftly spread to southeastern Europe. Venice got hold of coffee in the early 1600s, long before the English East India Company and Dutch East India Company, two adept maritime powers, began to ship to Western Europe. By the late 1600s, however, the Dutch surreptitiously snagged a coffee plant or two. They founded coffee plantations in Ceylon, Java and later, alongside with the French, introduced coffee to Réunion and to the Caribbean. And then the coffee craze overtook much of Europe and the Americas. Coffee colonized. Its consumption not only quenched simmering social desires but also smoothly seduced the senses.

Top photo: A pilgrim at the Baba Budan Giri Shrine. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.


Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.

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