Ethiopian coffee culture explained, by Daniel

One of our co-founders had a beautiful chat with Daniel, the Founder of Impact Roasters, and our provider of delicious Ethiopian coffee.

The meeting aimed to be an interview but turned out to be a friendly, welcoming chat.

Here is a summary of Daniel’s story, his wisdom of Ethiopian culture and coffee, and ongoing / upcoming projects.

(This link will take you to the video form of the chat, in case you prefer listening over reading.)

So, let us start with your background, could you tell us a bit about where you grew up in Ethiopia?

– First of all, thank you for this interview. To introduce myself, I am Daniel, originally from the southern part of Ethiopia. Especially where there are a lot of different coffee varieties. This is where my family also comes from. 

As a kid, I grew up farming and even roasting coffee, therefore it is not a new thing to me. Almost everyone roasts their coffee at home because it is not common to buy roasted coffee. So five years old me was eating the roasted beans as daily snacks while helping my mom. I enjoyed eating the roasted beans more than drinking the actual beverage. 

Well, that is the other thing, in Ethiopia you drink coffee even if you are too young for it-as they would say here in Europe, because as far as I see, here you only drink coffee when you are a teenager/adult. 

Were there any challenges growing up as a coffee farmer in Ethiopia?

– In Ethiopia, farming communities have small farms, not big farms nor state farms. Everyone grows coffee in their house’s backyard, which has 2 hectares, some have one hectare, some have even half a hectare. Also, they grow coffee but other plants too, and their gardens are a mixture of everything. They do everything by hand, so subsistence there is not enough production.  Most of whatever they produce is going to their households to keep themselves enough-full for the whole year. 

What made you move to Denmark?

– I met my now wife while I was finishing my Bachelors in Ethiopia. She is Danish so I followed her back to Denmark, where I was planning to maybe continue for a new degree. During my studies, I realized that the taste of the coffee was different from our Ethiopian sortiments. So, I started to think about ideas like; importing the coffee from Ethiopia and having a little business here, etc. Quite often, we kept talking about this whole thing with my wife about how it would be, how we would manage, and so on.

I was studying business, so I was aware of new business models, trade agreements, and all. But I didn’t want to be one of all exporters, I wanted to have something unique, something with focus. Therefore I came up with the trade model which is connecting the coffee producers with the coffee consumers. While creating that connection, we wanted to positively impact the communities in Ethiopia as well.

We spent the whole time learning about coffee, roasting with modern machines-different from traditional Ethiopian ways -, industry and other business details, etc., and at the end of 2015, we brought our first container of coffee from Ethiopia.

Our idea was to sell it to micro-roasters but, still, we had a plan B to have it for ourselves. But it took us more time than we thought because of the 2 tons of coffee that we are talking about.

Finally, in 2017, we took a step to open the first shop/roaster after we felt like we had learned massively about almost everything needed.

Can you tell us a bit more about your trade model? What is it supposed to do, and how is it working out?

-Originally, the idea of fair-trade is to support small-scale producers by paying them enough / a fair price. At the beginning of the ’90s, it was great. Then it became international and got wider, also changed a lot and fell in for bureaucracy.

What we wanted to have is something simple, something where people don’t have to go through that bureaucracy. Because even though I like what Fairtrade provides to many farmers, it is not that easy for many of them to contribute all those regulations, fees, certifications, etc.

How our model works: we buy the coffee from the farmers, don’t do any certifications, pay them above fairtrade prices and support them with community projects in return. We want to motivate them, keep them as our family members. Of course, we are still small and able to manage it this way, but who knows how it will be when it grows more. Now we have this flexibility, and we want to use it for people’s sake. 

Could you give an example of projects and their results?

-So far, we have built two water projects for almost 2000 students, we have football teams for children to have some fun and quality time, and we have skill development projects working on job creations. We also have sewing machine projects which also create job opportunities for, mostly, women.

Of course, those projects are not that big yet but, still, we had good results. We already have some people who bought their machines and started working with them and earning money. 

Why don’t you have an organic label? Could you tell us more about those labels, certificates, and so on?

-As I said earlier, Ethiopians have small farms, and everything is done by hand. Most of their coffee trees are 50-60 years old; they are big and strong. People live with those trees, and they do not use any pesticides on them. Their coffee is organic, but, who will give them any certificate? Because to get one, you need to be a part of a cooperative that also makes it easier for them to know if there are any pesticides or not. But again, small farmers are small, and no one can afford those cooperatives and the bureaucracy.

Would you consider working with any other coffee than Ethiopian? 

-I have people down there in Ethiopia, and so I know things about them. I have never been to other countries, so I don’t know much about them. If I want to do this Impact Trade Model, let’s say in Kenya, I have to be there. It is a difficult thing to do if you are not on the ground.

The other thing is we wanted to create this brand connected to Ethiopia as a motherland of coffee. Of course, other countries produce amazing coffee too, but in Ethiopia, it is on another level. It is part of the culture, and people are so proud of it. So I don’t think that we want to go to other countries. Maybe slowly we grow, then it will happen but not now.

Can you please explain what “specialty coffee” means? 

– Ethiopia is believed to be the quality root of Africa and has the longest mountain ranges which are higher than any other country in Africa. Coffee arabica grows in the higher division. Because it is very microclimate sensitive, it grows at a certain elevation with certain temperatures and sunlight. So, in the highest elevation points possible, coffee has more sweetness and less caffeine. Specialty coffee means unique and fruity-flowery taste. Therefore, if they are well-treated and properly harvested, all Ethiopian coffee falls into specialty coffee. As you might know, without Ethiopian coffee, you can’t call a roastery a specialty roastery. Also, in theory, the Q grading system, if it scores 80 and above it’s called specialty, and most coffee from Ethiopia score that grade, sometimes really special ones score like 89 or over 90.

How does the coffee chain look, from grown in Ethiopia to roasted in Copenhagen? 

– The farmers collect the beans, and we buy them directly because normally they don’t have a process station, so we process them ourselves. Once we process them there is a coffee board that checks the quality. So they give the grade to our coffee, we go through the procedure with all those documentation and details. Then you have the logistics company who takes everything in a container and brings it to our destination here in Copenhagen. 

What are your main goals with this business? Where do you want to go with it?

– We want to create a local brand where the locals buy their coffee regularly. A place where they can learn about how coffee is produced, how/when it gets roasted, and things like that. Like here, the whole neighborhood smells our coffee and knows about it. We want to have similar stations like this in Copenhagen and make people share this experience.

What advice would you give to the ones who are reading and watching this, not living in Denmark, but want to contribute to the impact?

-I support fair trade, so I hope everyone looks up to that and buys from it. But also,find roasters who work directly with the farmers. So I wish people could ask about those details and get to know their coffee and its source better. 

If you had the ability to change one thing in the coffee industry with a finger click, what would it be?

– I wish all farmers had the chance of roasting coffee, packing it, and sending it directly to customers. But realistically speaking, I wish all the big leading companies in the industry work with the farmers directly and positively impact their communities.

Hope you enjoyed following the dialog, and got everything you ever wondered about.

If not, please let us know