Origins of Coffee

“Ethiopia scarcely receives more than a sentence or two in the histories of coffee and the Kafa region – the place that arguably gave everywhere outside of Ethiopia the name for the drink.  Kafa is the home to the worlds’ original coffee culture, yet it remains virtually unknown”.

Where The Wild Coffee Grows, The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup, Jeff Koehler, 2017, p xiv

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities and is the livelihood of some 125 million people across the globe.  In 2020 more around 166.63 million 60 kilogram bags of coffee were consumed worldwide.  Latin America is currently the major coffee producer.  However, scientists are now almost certain that Kafa, in Ethiopia, is where coffee originated.

Kafa was one of the richest kingdoms in in the Horn of Africa with five centuries of an unbroken line of legendary kings.  In the 19th century it was absorbed into the expanding Ethiopian empire but Kafa remained a powerful state.  Unfortunately, during the period of Menelik’s aggressive expansion, every major town in Kafa was destroyed and burned down.  The Kafinoonoo language is oral in nature.  V.S. Naipau wrote of this African culture, “The absence of a script and written record blurs the past”.

Coffee from Kafa was sold to merchants who travelling in caravans throughout Ethiopia.  They took seeds and seedlings, planting them on the way.  People, mules, monkeys and other animals and birds are also believed to be a factor in the dissemination of coffee seeds.

Ethiopian coffee reached the port of Mocha in Yemen, where coffee farming started once the Ottomans brought Yemen under their control around 1550.  Within half a century, Yemen usurped Ethiopia as the main source of coffee and the drink’s popularity grew in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and later Europe.  In 1753 Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who developed a system for classifying plants, unintentionally misnamed coffee as “Coffea Arabica” and in the public mind Arabia would then continue to be regarded as the original source of coffee.  Ten years later Linneaus acknowledged that the coffee tree was originally brought across the Red Sea by Muslim merchants from Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula.  In his book ”Where the Wild Coffee Grows” Jeff Koheler stated that “Today’s DNA technology proves that there was no coffee in Yemen before Ethiopia”

“Buna dabo naw –coffee is our bread”

Ethiopia remains one of the world’s largest producers of coffee but it only exports less than half of what it grows – Ethiopians consume more than half of its own production.

In Ethiopia preparing and drinking coffee is an exquisite ceremony, a slow ritual with special tools and many steps.  I hope to be able to participate in one soon.

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