Coffee is one of the three most popular beverages in the world (alongside with water and tea) and is part of many people’s everyday lives. Who hasn’t heard someone saying: “I couldn’t live without a cup of coffee in the morning!” or “Hey, let’s meet for a coffee some time?” The last sentence often initiates a meeting of two strangers becoming friends — or even more. It was not always like that since some religious leaders called coffee „devil’s work” in the beginning and wanted to ban it. But how did coffee become so popular then, especially in places like Canada and Germany where it doesn’t grow and therefore has to be imported? And how is coffee produced and are there any impacts of increasing coffee consumption on coffee-producing countries and their populations? This article gives an overview about coffee and provides some information on interconnections of different topics. The several chapters of the article are:

Coffee in Canada and Germany

In 2015, every German statistically drank 129.2 liters of coffee a day and Canadians even 152.1 liters. That’s why Canada ranks third among the countries with the highest coffee consumption (after the Netherlands with 260.4l and Finland with 184.9l). There are different reasons why Canadians drink so much coffee, but one major reason might be that coffee is simply available everywhere around the corner. Tim Hortons, a Canadian fast food restaurant, is known for its coffee and baked goods. There is one Tim Hortons shop for every 9,000 Canadians, not to mention all the many other coffee shops like Starbucks, Blenz, Williams, Second Cup or Waves Coffee. None of the top 10 coffee-producing countries is among the top 10 consuming countries.

Before reading about coffee’s history and production, test your knowledge! How much do you already know about this drink? The following chapters deal with these questions in detail.

How many cups of coffee are consumed every day?

Around 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily around the world.

How many liters of water are needed to produce one cup of coffee?

Around 114 liters of water.

Which country is the home of coffee?

The origin of the coffee plant is Ethiopia, East Africa.

Which two US states grow coffee?

Coffee is produced in Hawaii and California.

Historical context: Coffee’s travel around the world

The region Kaffa in Ethiopia is the home of the coffee plant coffea arabica. It is estimated that people started cultivating and making a beverage out of its beans in the 9th century already. Before that, coffee trees grew wild in the forests and people already knew the fruits of the tree and made beverages out of them. There is a famous story in Ethiopia of how coffee was discovered.

A goatherd discovered coffee!?

Kalid, a goatherd that lived around 850 AD, discovered the coffee plant when watching his goats. He observed that the goats started prancing excitedly and bleated loudly after chewing some red berries from green bushes. Kalid tried a few berries himself and soon felt a sense of elation. He quickly filled his pockets with the berries and ran home to show his discovery. His wife suggested to bring the berries to the monks in the monastery nearby and learn what they had to say about the strange berries. Kalid went to see the superior of the monastery and presented his discovery. The monk took the berries, exclaimed “Devil’s work!” and threw them into the fire to destroy them. Within minutes, the monastery was filled with a strong smell of roasting beans which attracted the other monks to come and see what was happening. They cautiously removed the beans from the fire and crushed them to extinguish the embers. Then, the superior ordered to put the crushed beans in an ewer and cover them with hot water to preserve their delicious smell. That night, the monks stayed up all night, drinking the black brew and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions[1].

This story provides a religious approval of the dark beverage but historically, it is more likely that monks already chewed the berries as a stimulant for several centuries before it was brewed. There are indications in Ethiopian records that Ethiopian and Sudanese traders who travelled to Yemen more than 600 years ago already chewed the berries on their trade routes to survive the strength-sapping journey. People from Kaffa as well as other groups like the Oromo were also familiar with coffee. They mixed ground coffee with butter (ghee) and consumed this mix for sustenance. This practice is still common in Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the main coffee-producing regions in Ethiopia. Over the centuries, the Ethiopian people developed an elaborate coffee ceremony they continue to practice.

Ethiopian coffeepot

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Video about the Ethiopian coffee ceremony

There were different terms for brewed coffee in Ethiopia, depending on the language. In Amharic, it was known as Bunna, in Tigrinya as Bun, in Oromo as Buna and in the Gurage languages as Kaffa. Arabic documents from around 900 AD, mention ‘buna’, a beverage drunk in Ethiopia — one of the earliest references to Ethiopian coffee in its brewed form.

In 1454, the Mufti of Aden in Yemen visited Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) and saw his countrymen drinking coffee there. He was impressed with the drink and its effects, and when he became sick on his return to Yemen, he sent for coffee and the drink cured some of his afflictions. His approval made the drink popular among religious leaders in Yemen who started to use it in religious ceremonies and then eventually brought it to Mecca (Saudi Arabia).

Coffee — devil’s work or divine gift?

In Mecca, coffee developed from a religious drink to a trendy social drink through the establishment of the first coffee houses, known as Kaveh Kanes. They were originally religious meeting places but soon became social meeting places for intellectuals for gossiping, singing and story-telling. When coffee became a popular beverage, it sparked heated debates among devout Muslims. The reason for this discussion was that the pulp of the bean could also be used to make potent liquor — and the Qu’ran forbids the consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants (interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, Kahwah, is also one of the several words for wine). Even coffee itself was seen by some Muslims as an intoxicant, the ones in favor of coffee on the other hand argued it was merely a stimulant, not an intoxicant. In the end, coffee survived in Mecca and eventually was accepted.

From the Arabian Peninsula, coffee made its way to the East and West. Muslim traders introduced the beverage to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1505 and in the 17th century, it was taken by Muslim pilgrims from Mecca to southwestern India. In 1517, coffee had reached Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) where coffee houses became a meeting place for those engaged in radical political thought and dissent. By 1530, coffee had already been introduced to Damascus (Syria).

Venetian traders introduced coffee to Europe in 1615, only a few years after tea which had been brought to Europe in 1610. Again, coffee sparked heated discussions, this time in Italy. Some clerics, in the manner of their Muslim counterparts in Mecca, suggested to ban coffee as it was seen as a Devil’s drink. But Pope Clement VIII enjoyed the drink so much that he declared coffee should be baptized to become a true Christian drink.

The first coffee house in Venice opened 1683 and then, throughout the 17th and 18th century, coffee houses popped up all over Europe. Since enjoying a relatively inexpensive and stimulating beverage with companions was a novelty, they attracted many people. This social habit of meeting up in coffee houses has lasted more than 400 years.

Because coffee became such a popular beverage, the demand increased and the European powers started to compete with each other for coffee plantations in their respective colonies. The Dutch began large scale cultivation of coffee in Sri Lanka in 1658 and in 1699, they brought coffee plants to Java (Indonesia). In 1718, the Dutch brought coffee plants to Suriname and soon after it was widely established in South America: today, the coffee center of the world.

In 1878, coffee’s global journey came full circle when the British started cultivating coffee in Kenya, Ethiopia’s neighbor and a British colony at the time. Today, arabica coffee beans from Ethiopia are still considered some of the best worldwide.

This three part PBS documentary covers the history of coffee and many more aspects:

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Part one: The irresistible bean

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Part two: Gold in your cup

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Part three: The perfect cup

Arabica versus robusta

There is a high variety of coffee beans but when it comes to coffee consumption, only two really matter: arabica and robusta. These two are the primary types of coffee cultivated for drinking. Both grow in the so called coffee belt around the equator. There are some significant differences between the two species in growing conditions, taste and price.

The arabica bean needs higher elevations of 600 to 2000 meters to grow and requires a lot of moisture, sun and shade. Even if arabica is more widespread than robusta, it is also more delicate and vulnerable to pests and requires a cool subtropical climate. Leading producers of arabica are Latin America, eastern Africa, Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Its taste is mild, soft and sweet.

Robusta on the other side has a harsher and stronger taste. The beans contain twice as much caffeine and are considered the beans with inferior quality compared to arabica. Nevertheless, some beans are of high quality and because the caffeine and taste are stronger, they are valued especially for espressos. Robusta is easier and cheaper to grow and can be cultivated in lower altitudes of sea level to 800 meters. The plants are not as vulnerable to pests and weather conditions, and they produce fruits much faster than arabica. Because the cultivation of robusta is much cheaper and more productive, robusta is often used by inexpensive commercial coffee brands. Leading producers of robusta are several African countries and countries in Southeast Asia.

From the bean to the cup: making coffee!

It is a long process to make coffee. There are basically five steps you have to do in order to make a cup of coffee (farming not included here). The orange highlights indicate where these steps usually take place — in the country of production versus that of consumption. Of course, this is a simplification and generalization. The reality is — as always — more complex. More countries may be involved since beans are mixed and global trade is intertwined, and coffee is consumed in the producing countries as well.

1. Harvesting: pick or strip

Takes place in the producing country

first, you have to pick the coffee cherries from the coffee trees. There are two different ways of doing that: picking and stripping. Picking means that the picker only takes the red, ripe cherries and leaves the green cherries for later. This is a laborious task because you have to do it by hand. Since this method takes long, needs a high amount of workforce and cannot be done by machines, stripping is more common now. Instead of only picking the ripe coffee cherries, the picker — or a machine — strips of all coffee cherries — including the unripe cherries. Of course, this impacts the taste of the coffee later because it makes the coffee taste a little bit sourer. But because the demand for coffee is so high and increasing, stripping saves time and ensures constant supply.

2. Pulp removal and drying

Takes place in the producing country

Again, there are two different ways to do the second step which is the removal of the pulp. The processing can either be done wet or dry.

In case of the wet method, the pulp is removed directly after the harvest. There are special mills to do that gently so that the beans don’t get destroyed. The pulp is used as a fertilizer for the fields or simply thrown out but some innovators process the pulp and create new foods or drinks with it. One example is the drink Caté from a young startup in Hamburg. The founders wanted to do something against the waste of the pulp and because the pulp contains a lot of caffeine (even more than the beans!), they decided to create the new, stimulating drink. Another example is the use of pulp in skin care because it contains lots of important vitamins and antioxidants.

However, after the pulp was removed from the beans, they stay in a fermentation basin for 12-36 hours to remove the slimy rest of the pulp. If they stay in the basin for too long, an overfermentation can happen and all beans are ruined. The beans get washed again to remove the very rest and then are dried in the sun. Beans that were wet processed are called “washed” or “milds”.

The other method, the dry processing, works slightly different. Directly after harvesting, the coffee cherries dry on special mats in the sun for six to eight weeks. They have to be turned once in a while and in case of rain they have to be covered. When the beans rattle while shaking the coffee cherry, they are dry enough and it is easy to remove the pulp. Beans that were dry processed are called “naturals” or “unwashed”.

Green coffee beans

Coffee beans drying in the sun

3. Parchment removal and shipping

Takes place in the producing country

After the beans dried in the sun, the parchment, a thin layer that covers the beans, has to be removed. The beans are now sorted according to size, density and color, and packed into bags holding 60-70 kg of beans. Now, the beans are ready for shipment.

4. Roasting

Takes place in the consuming country

Most of the bags are shipped in containers to Europe or North America, the regions with the highest coffee consumption and where the roasting takes place. The beans can be sold and bought at the stock exchange and eventually reach the coffee roasting houses. One of these coffee roasters is Lloyd Caffee in Bremen who roasts coffee since 1930 and then sells the coffee throughout Germany — by sending packages! They offer tours through their buildings and explain the coffee making process. While the small coffee roasting house Lloyd Caffee roasts the beans for 20 minutes, bigger industrial roasteries can roast the coffee within 70 seconds. But, of course, the quality is different then, as well as the price. After roasting, the coffee can be sold to supermarkets, bars and restaurants, or other clients.

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This video gives you insights of the coffee roasting process at Lloyd Caffee (language is German)

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In this lovely video, you can see how much work it is to make one cup of coffee

5. Your coffee — your choice

Takes place in the consuming country

It is up to you how you want to enjoy your coffee. There are hundreds of different ways of how to prepare coffee and preferences differ. There are interpersonal but also intercultural differences. A survey conducted by the roastery Tchibo, Brand Eins Wissen and Statista from 2016 asked 3000 coffee drinkers in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria how they like to drink their coffee. Multiple responses were possible. Apparently, the questioned Germans love to drink filter coffee (65,7% of those questioned), while the others (Austria 29,9%, Poland 27,6%, Czech Republic 19,4%) and especially those from Switzerland (14,4%) don’t drink filter coffee on a regular basis. The cappuccino seems to be more liked: Austria 46,8%, Germany 41,8%, Switzerland 31,7% and Poland and the Czech Republic 31,4%. People from the Czech Republic (61,30%) and Poland (47,50%) enjoy drinking instant coffee regularly.

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There are many different ways to make lattes as well, hundreds of different receipts from around the world. If you like a bit of variety, check out the YouTube video ‘coffee around the world’ above for inspiration.

Profits along the value chain

As indicated in the previous chapter of this text, the process of making coffee takes place in different countries, roughly categorized into either coffee-producing or coffee-consuming (see orange additions). Since the production of coffee beans that includes farming, collecting, and first processing steps, is labor intensive, it usually takes place in countries with a high supply of cheap work force (previously referred to as developing countries). The roasting and branding of coffee beans on the other hand is more capital intensive and hence usually takes place in countries with a high supply of capital (previously referred to as industrialized countries).

In order to understand who makes profits along the value chain, it is important to look at where and by whom coffee beans are produced and processed. The value chain is a concept that was first introduced by economist Michael E. Porter and describes the full range of activities that have to be conducted in order to bring a product or service from conception to delivery. This includes design, production, marketing and distribution. The value chain starts with the raw materials used to make a product and consists of everything added before the product eventually is sold to the consumers. The more processing steps there are in the value chain, the more value is added to the product. That’s why the prices for processed products are higher than prices for raw materials and the profit margin is higher for processed products.

The value chain of coffee consists of four main phases: cultivation, processing, roasting and consumption.


The process of coffee cultivation starts with the coffee cherry that grows on a coffee plant. After planting, a coffee plant usually begins producing flowers after 3 to 4 years and coffee cherries after 5 years. That’s why farmers don’t make profits during the first years after planting. Even if producing coffee is more profitable than producing other crops in the long run, small-scale farmers often cannot start growing coffee because they don’t have enough resources to bridge the profitless ripening time of the coffee. However, one coffee plant produces 4 to 8 kg of cherries from which you can get 1 to 2 kg of roasted coffee. A good coffee picker can harvest up to 65 kg of coffee cherries a day. In general, coffee pickers, migrant workers and farm workers are the most vulnerable groups involved in coffee production. They often suffer from poor working and housing conditions, and child labor is common on plantations around the world during harvesting.

On several farms in Central America for example, migrants and their families live on the farms during the harvest. The housing conditions are precarious since 40 to 60 farm workers and their families have to live in one-room warehouse-type constructions with no privacy. Access to latrines is limited, or there are no latrines at all, forcing workers to use the coffee fields as toilets. The working conditions in the coffee fields are often unsafe since workers are not provided with the right personal protection equipment. Not having the right work equipment can be dangerous and life-threatening in coffee fields with poisonous snakes and spiders. Without proper training and protection, the use of chemical pesticides is a major danger for the workers. In some places, workers even have to bring their own work equipment like rain boots and machetes.

In many countries, workers do not have a signed contract to ensure they receive the right payment. This helps employers to take advantage of their workers. Furthermore, low wages are a big problem. During the harvest, pickers get paid for the amount of coffee cherries they pick. In places like Nicaragua, coffee pickers can make as little as $2-3 US dollars a day, which is not nearly enough to feed their families. If the price of coffee drops, the workers and farmers are directly affected and earn less money. During the past decades, coffee prices fluctuated a lot and in 2001-02, prices dropped so much that they did not even cover production costs. This period is often referred to as the coffee crisis because around 125 million people worldwide depended on coffee production for their livelihoods and hundreds of thousands lots their income.

This situation was caused by an imbalance between supply and demand for coffee. In 2001-02, the total production of coffee was around 113 million 60 kg coffee bags, while the world consumption was just over 106 million bags, and world stocks amounted to around 40 million bags. One of the reasons for this was that Brazil and Vietnam, today the biggest exporters of coffee, had expanded their production rapidly on advice of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These institutions had offered loans to help low income countries to produce more coffee for export and advised poor coffee-producing countries to liberalize trade and follow growth led by export. In consequence, this helped to transform the coffee market from a managed market in which governments played an active role to a total free-market system. In this new system, the market itself sets the price for the coffee, without regard to the costs for farmers. Several countries highly depend on the export of coffee today, especially Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and El Salvador.

In order to cultivate coffee, water, fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, oil, land and a workforce are needed. The accruing waste and wastewater can have heavy environmental impacts, especially in arid regions.


Once the cherries are collected, they are transported to the processing mills. The costs for transportation vary depending on the distance between coffee farm and processing mills. This is a challenge for small-scale farmers having a remote coffee plantations in the mountains. If the prices for coffee are very low, these costs can lead to high loss of profit. As described above, there are two processing methods: the dry and the wet process. The wet process is more capital intensive since it needs more time, effort and water. That’s why the dry method of sorting and cleaning the cherries by hand and placing them in the sun to dry is especially conducted on small and medium plantations in warmer climates with little water supply.

Items needed for the processing phase are coffee cherries, water (for the wet processing method), and fuel for the machines and transportation. Of course, workers have to be paid as well. The outputs are green, dried coffee beans and fruit pulp waste that is usually disposed of. The green coffee beans are then graded, packed and exported to coffee-consuming countries for roasting and packaging.


Roasting usually takes place in processing companies or coffee houses in coffee-consuming countries. These companies purchase raw coffee beans from farmers for a very low price. Sometimes, the price is even below the producing costs which leaves the small-scale farmers with tremendous losses. Because the worldwide coffee supply has exceeded the demand, farmers often don’t get high profits. This is different for big coffee plantations that produce in high scale, and especially when the coffee roasting company owns coffee plantations as well. As soon as the coffee is roasted, packed and branded, it can be sold for large profits.


Nespresso is an expert in selling high-priced coffee to costumers. While one kilogram of coffee costs around 2.70 (November 2018) on the world market, consumers pay 60 for one kilo of Nespresso coffee. The profit margin for Nespresso, which is part of the Nestlé group, is huge. The following graphic shows how the price for one Nespresso capsule (sold for 0.35) is conducted. Please note that Nespresso did not publish these numbers but they were estimated by market experts on behalf of the German magazine Stern. An estimation is possible because expenses like the world market price for raw coffee and tax are made public. The numbers are from December 2014 so they can vary today. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find such numbers.

However, the graphic indicates that the profit for Nespresso consists of 31% of the price. This is a very high percentage, especially when comparing this number with the expenses for raw coffee (9% of the final price). Furthermore, the color scheme of the graphic shows where these expenses are spent: expenses in blue have to be paid in coffee-producing countries, expenses in red in coffee-consuming countries, and expenses in blue and red in coffee-producing and/or consuming countries. This means that most of the money spent in the coffee value chain is spent in and circulates in economies of the coffee-consuming countries. Of course, this has direct impacts on wages, work opportunities, and access to money.

But why are people willing to spend so much money on Nespresso capsules? There are several reasons but maybe the most important one is that brands like Nespresso have succeeded in creating a special feeling of community and belonging among their clients. As a Nespresso coffee drinker, you belong to an exclusive, small circle of coffee lovers following George Clooney and other Hollywood stars. Their high-society lifestyle seems to meet your life in an expensive cup of coffee. But the reality is much uglier because Nespresso capsules are made from aluminum whose production is highly energy- and resource-consuming and whose ensuing waste is enormous.

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Nespresso advertisement

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Video on environmental impacts of aluminum capsules

Nespresso was the first to sell coffee in capsules, but today many other companies offer the same, most of them made from aluminum or plastic. More and more people prefer single serving systems to the conventional drip brewers. In times of increasing pollution and destruction of the environment it is questionable if such ‘convenient’ systems are ethically justifiable, especially if recycling is not done properly. But that’s a question every consumer has to answer individually.

Fair Trade

One of the problems for coffee farmers is that most of the profits in the coffee value chain are made in coffee-consuming countries. The concept of “fair trade” is a used to shift some of the profits to the producing countries in order to make trade more, well, fair. It aims to empower the marginalized producers with the proper resources, capacity, and key relationships to improve their living conditions within their own communities. “Fair trade” goods have to be produced and traded fairly, in accordance with the following principles:

  1. Producers are paid a fair price that covers costs of production and adequate living standards for hired labor.
  2. Producer groups ensure high standards for labor, environmental sustainability, and respect for cultural identity.
  3. Producers are paid an additional price premium that supports business development and community initiatives such as improving access to health and education.
  4. Producers, consumers, and businesses build stronger connections, reducing inefficiencies and encouraging more direct relationships.
  5. Producers have access to credit, markets, resources, and industry knowledge.


A more detailed list of the international fair trade standards can be found here:

Several certification marks on products indicate if the product was produced and traded under fair conditions. The best known one surely is the core Fair Trade mark, a dark human outline overlaid on a blue and green background. Products with this certification can be purchased in Fair Trade shops and increasingly in supermarkets. It is worth it to look for this symbol on products. If you want to learn more about the different certifications, the Fair Trade Company GEPA published a list of Fair Trade symbols in Germany (in German): Additionally, the German website published a list with fair trade and organic coffee brands that provides a good overview: Bestenliste Bio-Kaffee und Fair-Trade-Kaffee.

Coffee, water and climate change

Human activities consume and pollute a lot of water, used for cooking, washing and cleaning but also for producing goods and services. Though agricultural production is responsible for most of the water consumption globally, the industrial and domestic sectors both also use significant amounts. In order to see how much water is needed to produce a certain product, the geographer John Anthony Allan developed the concept of “virtual water” in 1993, defined as the volume of water required to produce a commodity or service. Water use for many products is highest in the country where the product is produced and not necessarily where it is consumed. That’s why there are virtual water-importing and -exporting countries. The water that was used for production of export goods cannot be used for domestic production which can lead to scarcity of water. In order to understand how much water a population or a country consumes, the measurement of virtual water is used to generate a “water footprint”. When assessing this footprint of a nation, the flows of virtual water leaving and entering the country have to be quantified.

A single cup of coffee uses 140 liters of water to grow, produce, package and ship the beans. This water is not available in the countries of cultivation. Especially due to climate change, water becomes a scarce resource — even in areas with heavy rainfall. More information about virtual water and the water footprint can be found in The water footprint assessment manual — setting the global standard, and Water footprints of nations — Volume 1: Main Report (PDF).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an internationally recognized climate science group, states in their report that areas suitable for growing coffee will shrink by 2050 in all countries studied — when the temperature increases by 2.0-2.5 °C. In Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee beans, the area suitable for coffee production in the principal growing states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo will decrease by two-thirds and production in other areas will not be possible at all if the temperature rises by 3 °C.

Higher temperatures not only lead to a lack of water, droughts or an overall warmer climate, but they also facilitate the spread of both pests and disease. Before 2000, the berry borer beetle (a pest preferring warmer temperatures closer to ground-level) was unknown in Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi or Rwanda. Since temperatures have increased, these beetles moved up hillsides into the coffee plantations, causing $500m USD damage annually. With even warmer weather, they might cause more damage due to a higher reproduction rate.

So, the overall supply and quality of coffee beans drops while the demand for coffee increases every year. This leads to conflicts about land ownership because plantations have to be shifted to other places or new areas have to operate. In some regions of the world, interests of small-scale farmers collide with those of international corporations. In 2001, around 4000 people were violently forced off from their land in Mubende (Uganda) by the military and were left homeless. The soldiers razed houses in four villages and destroyed fields and food supply, and even caused the deaths of a number of local residents. This happened because the Hamburg-based Neumann group, one of the world’s leading coffee traders, needed more land for a new coffee plantation. The Deutsche Welle made a documentary on the case.

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The Mubende coffee plantations and the bitter taste of eviction, by Michael Enger (2016)

The connection between land conflicts and refugees

Land ownership are not restricted to Uganda. For several years now, conflicts in Ethiopia have forced people to flee, with many setting off seeking a new life in Europe. As mentioned earlier, Ethiopia is the origin of the coffee plant and has a high genetic diversity of coffee plants and lots of fertile land and perfect conditions for coffee plantations. Some of the best coffee beans derive from Ethiopia and that’s why commercial investors take interest in the land. For example, the world’s largest coffee plantation, covering 22,000 hectares, is in Ethiopia and is owned by a major Saudi Arabian investor. Not every piece of a land a commercial investor purchases is used for cultivation though; some land is left unexploited and used for speculation only.

A crucial problem of small-scale farmers in Ethiopia is that most lived on the land for decades but don’t have formal titles of ownership. This was never a problem because Ethiopia had recognized customary rights to forest access and land tenure, but farmers are now forced off their land on the grounds that they don’t own it. The Ethiopian government claims it owns all the land and can therefore decide what to do with it, practically ignoring the practice of customary rights. This is not only a problem in Ethiopia but in many parts of the world where written contracts and land titles weren’t common in the past. Most of the times, small-scale farmers and poor people who cannot defend themselves (legally) are the victims.

Many regions in the south and southwest of Ethiopia depend on coffee production and so the land available for small-scale farmers shrinks. More than a quarter of Ethiopia’s 100 million inhabitants depends on coffee production. Anger about land grabbing and unfair compensation initiated protests in 2014 in these and other regions in the country, leading to the imposition of a state of emergency and eventually a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Still farmers continue to be repeatedly imprisoned and mistreated for their protests.

Some personal remarks:

When I lived in Nuremberg, I became friends with an Oromo family that had to flee from Ethiopia. They were from a region close to the city Jimma in southwestern Ethiopia, the cradle of coffee. Their land and coffee plantations were taken from them and the husband and his friends were jailed when they protested. When he was able to free himself, he fled with his wife to Sudan and then, together, they made their way somehow to Germany. When I was with them, they often told me about the situation and offered me a cup of coffee, brewed in the Ethiopian way. I often thought how unfair it was that this family had to leave their home where they had grown coffee for centuries because commercial investors wanted to make profit. But of course, the coffee we consume everyday and without which ‘we can’t survive’ has to be produced somewhere… and if consumers want cheap and always available coffee, it has to be produced cheap. I am not sure if most coffee drinkers are aware of the fights for land that are going on right now. For me, this struggle suddenly arrived in my everyday life through being friends with this family. I wish the cruel fate of people like my friends — in particular their forced flight due to lost livelihood — was considered by coffee drinkers in importing countries like Germany when discussing touchy topics like the current refugee crisis.

Of course, the situation in Ethiopia is very complicated since ethnic conflicts play a significant role as well, mostly because the ethnic group of Oromo demands self-government or even independence from Ethiopia. However, the land issue remains one of the most urgent questions in the country, mostly because access to farming land is the basis of life for so many people. And that’s why coffee drinkers should be aware of what’s going on in the coffee-producing countries. For more information on the situation in Ethiopia and especially on land struggles around Addis Ababa, see the article Ethiopians talk of violent intimidation as their land is earmarked for foreign investors.

I love to drink coffee from time to time and share some memorable moments with my friends in coffee houses. But I try to buy Fair Trade coffee whenever possible and while researching for this article, I became even more aware of how much is connected to my cup of coffee. All the work of people around the world that is necessary to make that one cup of coffee … I enjoy every sip even more now and perceive coffee as a luxury good that really has to be appreciated.


CBC Why Canadians drink more coffee than most people in the world, by Sophia Harris (, September 5, 2016)

Ethiopia: the origin of coffee, by Professor Nkiru Nzegwu (

Coffee, by Nathan Myhrvold (

Coffee basics: the difference between arabica and robusta, by Faith Durand (, updated 2018)

Die Deutschen lieben ihren Filterkaffee, by Anne-Christin Sievers (, aktualisiert 16.06.2017)

Diese Fakten verändern Ihren Blick auf Kaffee, by Jonas Fehling (, 10.06.2014)

Coffee prices — 45 years historical chart (

How climate change will brew a bad-tasting, expensive cup of coffee, by Damian Carrington (The guardian, 2014)

The water footprint assessment manual — setting the global standard (PDF), by Hoekstra, Chapagain, Aldaya and Mekonnen (Water Footprint Network, 2011)

Water footprints of nations — Volume 1: Main Report (PDF), by Chapagain and Hoekstra, (UNESCO-IHE, 2004)

A Film About Coffee, by Dalia Burde and Brandon Loper (Avocados and Coconuts, 2014)

What is a value chain analysis?, by Kayla Harrison (, September 18, 2018)

Alles über Kaffee (PDF), by Eine Welt Laden Weißwasser (

The global coffee crisis: a threat to sustainable development (PDF), by Néstor Osorio (, 2002)

Farmworkers left behind: the human cost of coffee production, by Miguel Zamora (, July 17, 2013)

With coffee, the price of individualism can be high, by Oliver Strand (, February 7, 2012)

Die teuerste Art, Kaffee zu trinken — Wissen Sie, wie viel Sie bei Kaffeekapseln für den Kaffee zahlen? (, December 11, 2014)

Fair Trade and principles of Fair Trade (

The heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouses. The heart wants a friend. Coffee is only the excuse. (Turkish saying)

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