Creating a Global Dialogue via the Culture of Coffee


Story by Majka Burhardt

Photos by Travis Horn/Coffee Story Ethiopia


Coffee can erase a famine. Agree? Disagree? Wonder just how literally I mean for that statement to be? How about this one: Coffee can create greater global understanding.

If you’re reading this, you’re involved with coffee. If more than one billion cups of coffee are consumed every day in our world, then it is virtually impossible to avoid an association with the beverage. I’d wager we’d all like to see that association go even deeper. I’d like it to change the world. Let’s do it together, and let’s start with Ethiopia.

If you ask 10 people who walk into a café for three words to describe Ethiopia, drought famine and poverty will inevitably come up immediately. Inside the coffee world we know a different side of Ethiopia. So how do we better share it?

Six years ago, I went to Ethiopia on a lark due to a free latte. I never meant for coffee to be anything profound in my life. But Ethiopia had other plans. What I have discovered in researching, writing, and speaking about my recent book, Coffee Story Ethiopia (Ninety Plus Press/Shama Books), is Ethiopia’s incredible hold on global imagination—and the power of coffee to enrich that perception.

It was an eight-year-old girl who started me on the path to understanding this power. I met her at the base of a cluster of 500-foot tall sanguine sandstone towers in Northern Ethiopia. I was at the towers during my second visit to Ethiopia, there then to climb and write another book, Vertical Ethiopia, about adventure in Ethiopia. When the girl learned I was a writer, and writing about her country, she asked me a question: Are you going to tell a good story? Or a bad story?

The girl and I had been hiking through terraced fields dotted with dried out barley stalks when she asked me the question. I stopped and stood still in 95-degree heat in the heart of the northern desert landscape of Ethiopia and thought about my answer. I was in Tigray—the very place hardest hit by the cataclysmic famine of 1984. The mother of this little girl had not even been alive during that famine, and yet her daughter knew the impact of that disaster on Ethiopia’s image in the world. Good story or bad? I told the girl the truth: I didn’t know the answer yet, but I would try to tell the good.

Coffee is the way to tell the good story. This became clear for me as I went on to tell a story about adventure. Two years and fifty presentations about Ethiopia later I had learned one thing again and again: though people were intrigued to know about exploration and rock climbing in Ethiopia, what they really wanted to know about was the coffee.

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