Heleanna Georgalis, the director of Moplaco, was the first curator for TYPICA. When I visited Ethiopia the year before last for the first time, Heleanna was the only person that I could get an appointment with. She accepted us even though we had no experience in the coffee importing business. She took care of everything, introduced us to the drivers and lodgings in Ethiopia, which I think was because it was my first visit to the production area. When I look back, I think that the depth of her life experience made her accept us.
Moplaco is one of the oldest exporters in Ethiopia. The company has had a close relationship with Japan from the time of Heleanna’s father Yanni Georgalis and they have visited Japan many times.
I visited the office in Addis Ababa again this year and talked with her at the cafe next door before the cupping session. It was Sunday and her daughter was sitting next to her eating a sandwich. Heleanna took the time and told me the history of how she arrived at such a peaceful scene.
From Grandfather to Father
Heleanna states, “Moplaco was founded in 1971 in the town of Dire Dawa in Harar by my grandfather. My grandfather was Greek and he worked as a coffee supplier. His name was Michel Papaphilippou and he named the company MPC after his initials. When my father took over the company, he kept the name and logo because he liked it, but changed the name to Mocca Plantation Company. The logo looks like the logo of Mercedes-Benz, but it is the symbol of the Emperor of Ethiopia.”
“My father wanted to be an exporter and not a supplier like my grandfather. His first client was a Japanese trading company. When he traveled to Japan carrying samples for a business meeting, he told me that he could only stay at a hotel where the room was very small and he could only eat rice due to the high cost of living in Japan. My father was not intimidated though and managed to close a business deal for 3,000 tons of commercial coffee. My father trusted Japanese people who did the work in good faith. He said that Americans and Europeans sometimes behaved arrogantly, but Japanese people never lied and kept their promises. It is not an exaggeration to say that the relationship with Japan made Moplaco grow bigger in the early-days.”
“It is not that the company had been steady after my father took over. Harar was taken over by the communists and my father lost 1,000 hectares of a coffee farm in 1976. We were back to square one.”
It was immeasurable for Yanni’s despair, which was at the hands of the irresistible force of politics. It was also the time in life that he had with a young daughter Heleanna. His life would change dramatically.
The Crossroads of Destiny
Heleanna states, “I was born in 1972 in Dire Dawa. Dire Dawa, where our company originated, is a beautiful city and there were communities of Italians, French, and Greeks. At the beginning of the communist rule, my father stayed in Dire Dawa for the company and they moved me to Greece as a child so that I could get a good education. I only saw my parents about twice a year from then on. I could become more independent with the experience of living separately from the parents and I came to this kind of resignation that “If there are no bad things, there won’t be no good things. If there are no good things, there won’t be any bad things.” I grew up in Greece from the age of 6 to 17 and lived in London, France, and Spain. I got my MBA in Spain and worked for a Spanish pharmaceutical company.”
It was 2008 that Heleanna received sudden news of her father’s death while she was building a successful career in Europe.
“I received the news that my father had passed away. He had a heart attack when he was climbing the Bale Mountains with his client. The last time I saw him was around Christmas time one month ago and he passed away in the end of January. My father was under constant stress by the international price of coffee and I believe that it was the true cause of his death. Because it was a sudden death, I had to take over his company. Since there were so many people involved in my father’s business, the company couldn’t just end there halfway through. I had seen my father’s hardships all my life, so I had no desire to work in the coffee business in Ethiopia until then though.”
The thing that has changed and the thing that hasn’t changed.
Heleanna, since she was a young girl, saw that her father Yanni was being passionate about coffee but was also at the mercy of politics and economics in a complex country like Ethiopia. Despite this, she decided to take over his business. The resignation she felt in childhood showed on her face. “If nothing bad happens, nothing good won’t happen.”
Heleanna states, “The hardest part of taking over the company was people. All the employees then loved my father and some people didn’t agree with me. It is extremely difficult to recruit highly-skilled people in Ethiopia when we recruit new employees. I still have a very hard time finding the right people.”
“Most people have some kind of educational background in developed countries like Japan, but in Ethiopia, it is not so easy to find people who can do a Google search.”
“One of the things I’ve changed in my time is that we are now in charge of the whole process; production, milling, and retail. We have one plantation in Sheka and two plantations in Yirgachefe, and a mill in Sidamo. We also run a cafe called Galani Coffee next to my office. It has been a series of experiments and failures, but we are blessed with local customers. Ice cream is very popular among children. Organizing the whole process is a real challenge, as it requires a lot of money as well, but I think it is necessary to maintain the quality of the coffee. Also, I have thoroughly organized and cleaned all my work areas. That’s another thing I’ve changed since my father’s time.”
Indeed, I was impressed by how well-cleaned every corner of Moplaco’s mill and the office was. I could feel Heleanna’s feminine meticulousness.
Skilled baristas brew filter coffee with clean taste and espresso using Moplaco’s coffee beans at Galani Coffee. The interior is stylishly decorated with families and businessmen enjoying coffee and desserts, and it is easy to forget that you are in Ethiopia.
Heleanna states, “The one thing that hasn’t changed since my father’s time is our determination to produce great coffee. My father was the first person in Ethiopia to export a product called G1 Sundried. Sundried (natural) coffee was not highly regarded, but the Japanese people recommended it, so we started producing it. After various attempts, we finally succeeded in exporting one container of G1 Sundried. It turned out that this became the worth of 10 containers of G4. In this way, I have inherited a passion for creating new values.”
“I did it.”
Heleanna states, “It is not easy to work in the coffee business in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is an excellent production area and the market is full of good coffee because the coffee comes with naturally great quality. For this reason, it is very difficult to differentiate her from her competitors.”
“Since I have been doing this job for 14 years and my experience has given me confidence, I can usually predict any difficulties that would lay ahead. Throughout history, human beings have survived and overcome many difficult situations and I am all right with most of the things.”
“If I could tell my father something right now, I would say, “I did it.” My father used to say, “It’s easy to start a business, but it’s hard to keep it going.” I want to tell him that I did it.”
Not only do I feel the purity and strength that she dedicates everything to coffee but also I feel the resignation from Heleanna. Heleanna has a big soul that isn’t just controlled by destiny but accepts fate while understanding everything. How will TYPICA and Moplaco resonate with each other? Who will take over Heleanna’s destiny? I would like to continue to have quality time with Heleanna and I want to see how it will turn out.