Of all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.
Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.
It is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.
The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”
The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.
The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.
Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.
Looking back on my own two-wheeled journey to the birthplace of coffee, I have been hugely privileged to have lived and worked with growers on co-operative farms in Ethiopia. The coffee trail has also brought me into contact with a myriad of people and communities connected to the supply chain; pickers, cuppers, blenders, roasters, engineers, traders, baristas, agronomists; who all share a passion for the genus coffea arabica. It has been a rich, humbling, more fulfilling, and paradigm-shifting experience than I could have ever imagined. For now, this chapter in my own odyssey into coffee must come to an end, but the Ubuntu story of coffee history, trade and culture – and how the epic march of the bean has gone on to conquer the world – still remains yet to be written.