We are on our way to the washing station in Guji with Mekuria and Elias in a four-wheel-drive car. The natural environment here is different from that of Yirgachefe. We alternated through gently rising green hills and dusty red dirt off-roads. Houses with colorfully painted walls, people washing clothes in the river, and cows grazing on grass. I listened to the conversations going on inside the car as I looked out at the scenery.
It was the weekend and the Cup of Excellence competition open for entries on Monday so they were passionately talking about it all the time. They kept talking continuously as the car continued to rattle along. They were speaking in the Ethiopian language so I was trying to imagine what they were saying in my mind.
“I can’t wait to see which ranking we will be placed in.”
“How much do you think we can sell it for?”
“I heard that the farmer in Gedeb produces anaerobic.”
“I wonder how many hours he fermented it?”
I felt so close to them while thinking, “This is what a start-up is like.” There are endless things to think about, to discuss, and ideas flowing in.
Wete Ambela Coffee is a startup founded in 2018 that benefited from the ease of the ECX regulation. The changes in ECX rules in 2017 made it relatively easier to obtain an export license that allowed direct trade under the system. The first Cup of Excellence competition was held in 2020 that excited buyers from all over the world, which led many producers and suppliers to start their own export businesses.
Mekuria, production director of the company, used to run a hotel in Yirgachefe with his family, but twenty-four years ago he turned to the coffee business and became a supplier; buying coffee cherries from smallholders and supplying them to exporters. His clients include companies such as Moplaco and BNT which speaks volumes about his ability and talent. The deregulation was a timely offer as he already owned a washing station around 2017 and had the skills to process coffee. He immediately obtained an export license and started his own business.
The number of independent producers has increased in Ethiopia. While the majority of Ethiopian coffee is produced in large lots in several hundred bags, many more will likely be labeled clearly with the name of the farm or producer attached, as is the case in Central America, and there will be more diversity in the processing methods and the variety of coffees.
Money, Food, and Education
Mekuria has solid connections among smallholders and access to quality coffee over the years. There is one thing that he has always valued to build a trusting relationship with producers. One of the most important things he has done to build trust with producers; he created a good living environment for the smallholders.
We took a tour of an elementary school near Mekuria’s farm. When we visited the classrooms, the children surrounded us and eventually filled the entire schoolyard that I guessed they don’t usually see foreigners. Mekuria regularly invests in the elementary school, adding classrooms, and providing learning supplies such as pens and notebooks. “I believe that the education of children is the most important thing for farmers, so I will continue to invest in the elementary school. There are also plans to build a hospital and a power plant,” Mekuria said.
I asked him on the way to the destination, “What motivates the farmers to work?” He replied, “The bonus we pay for quality coffee and the lunch we serve.” That was not quite the answer I was expecting. I was subconsciously expecting an answer like joy and pride in work. When I asked, “Is there anything else besides money and food?” Mekuria looked at me puzzled.
The Ethiopian people are elegant in the way they carry themselves and their dresses are elegant, their way of life is simple and it doesn’t make me think about poverty. The most important things for them are money, food, and education. We take these things for granted every day, so we don’t see them as a motivation for us to work. The gap between our ideas on motivation left a strong impression on me.
Powers of Two
There are three main members of Wete Ambela Coffee, Mekuria Mergia, his wife Enatenesh Desalegn, and Elias Yifer. They have an office on the fourth floor of a building in the center of the capital city Addis Ababa. They have two washing stations, one at Wote Konga in Yirgachefe and another at Hambela in Guji, so the name Wete Ambela is a combination of the two places.
His wife Enatenesh had been working as a quality control manager at Moplaco for ten years when she met a business partner, Mekuria. As Elias worked as an exporter with Mekuria, they hit it off and decided to start a business together.
“We haven’t had many difficulties since the beginning because we have been able to work in a well-balanced way, utilizing each other’s strengths. Mekuria has had many years of experience in coffee production and refining, and I used to work for an exporting company, so I was a professional in that area. We were able to work together and had a good start. I think the secret to our success is that we focus on each other’s work. Mekuria focuses on production and I focus on export, and we are working to the best of our abilities in each area,” Elias said.
Mekuria and Elias have contrasting personality traits. Mekuria is a cheerful and bold type. Mekuria is the one who is always talking and laughing loudly in the car. He eats a lot. He gobbles up the tons of Ethiopian food such as raw meat like tartar steak and cheese from the morning. He is truly such a powerful man.
Elias is the complete opposite. He is calm, collected, speaks English fluently, and talks as if he confirms each word he says. He sips coffee in silence and is meticulously attentive to his visitors, us. I can’t stop thinking about the chemistry between the two of them is leading to the success of Wete Ambela Coffee.
Enatenesh is the president and supports these two. Rather than she gives us the impression of a businesswoman, she gives us the impression of a cheerful and caring mother, but I speculate that Enatenesh is the one who controls everything behind the scenes.
On the last day of my visit to Ethiopia, I visited Mekuria at his home in the suburb of Addis Ababa. It is a quiet residential area about thirty-minutes drive from the city center. When we arrived, his two lovely daughters welcomed us with a coffee ceremony in the garden.
Enatenesh cooked us a delicious Ethiopian dinner. I was very happy that they invited us to their home instead of inviting us to a restaurant. We talked about many different things over a table full of a home-cooked dinner. We talked about the progress of our businesses and our goals for this year. They told us that they are going to build two new washing stations this year.
We will work on our business goals and continue to grow so that this year is better than last year and hopefully next year will be much better. We will continue to build our relationship with each other and roasters over time, one year at a time, and for many years to come. We have an exciting future ahead of us that is more exciting than the relationship we already have. I was thinking about this as I waved goodbye to Mekuria, who dropped us off at the airport.