Where’s African Coffee Going: New Luxury, New Culture

Posted by Patrick Gaincko | July 30, 2016
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This is Starbucks Reserve Eastern DR Congo Lake Kivu. A premium coffee on sale in USA and Canada only, for a limited time. It is produced by a partnership between Starbucks and the Eastern Congo Initiative, a project linking 4500 small-holder farmers to the global marketplace. The Hollywood actor and director Ben Affleck who is a backer of the Initiative said: “This is not charity (…) this is good business”. Precisely.

Arabica coffees from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and a handful of other African countries have seen their market value growing exponentially in recent years. They are now luxury products for which connoisseurs in Europe and America are ready to spend big, not only in terms of consumption but also in terms of premium merchandise and exclusive events. Additionally, mass consumers’ affinity for African coffees keeps on growing and has become a key driver of the robust health of the coffee industry. As a result, roasting and selling coffee entered this year’s Top 10 Ideas For Making Money according to various business press outlets.

But a number of analysts, among them participants to the 2016 World Coffee Conference, have lamented that premiumisation – the fact that African coffee becomes highly prized – creates yet another dependence of producers on exports and the subsequent volatility of international prices and demand. They have called for the development of coffee consumption at local level. The belief is that if African consumers drink more coffee and cultivate a strong coffee culture, producers will be enticed to produce more and better coffee.  A finding of my on-the-ground research is that a serious relationship between African consumers and coffee is exactly what’s happening.

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Java House, a coffee store chain created in 1999, prides itself for having “introduced coffee drinking and gourmet café culture to Kenya“. The company has now 34 stores in Kenya and 4 in Uganda and has generated a total revenue of $35 million in 2015. The annual sales grow rate is 30%.


From Casablanca and Nairobi to Johannesburg and Cairo, coffee drinking is on the rise and a coffee culture is gaining exposure and prominence (in Ethiopia, coffee drinking is already a well-established tradition). A most recent instance is the much publicized entry of the world’s largest coffee store chain Starbucks in South Africa in April. “The coffee market has been growing over the last five years and there’s been quite a big consumer education around premium specialised coffees” Carlo Gonzaga, the CEO of Taste, Starbucks’s partner in South Africa, told the Financial Times.

On the ground in Johannesburg, such establishments as Motherland Coffee and Doubleshot are thriving. At the Motherland store based in the upscale shopping district of Rosebank, there is sometimes not a single seat left. I find a special attention is being given to professionals on-the-go but I also find a strong community. Among many regulars, I met a fashion designer, an executive in the construction sector, various creatives; all use the store on a daily basis as a co-working space, a meeting room, even as a showroom (the fashion designer sometimes comes with samples of future collections). They all give the sense of space, the high quality of the espresso, the company’s longstanding dedication to African coffee as the reasons for their loyalty to the brand.

The coffee shop Doubleshot, located in the hot spot of Braamfontein, acts as another epicentre of the coffee culture. You can literally enjoy the aroma of the roasting coffee from outside the store as it pervades the air in the adjacent streets. Inside, coffee lovers find an array of incentives to embrace coffee as a ritual, an experience or a voyage, from the real roasting, blending, brewing of coffee beans to sitting at the bar counter offering a panoramic view on the action of Joburg’s inner city.

According to the coffee industry organization ICO, coffee drinking has also increased in countries such as Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Kenya and Uganda. In Kenya, for example, consumption has jumped 46 per cent in the four years to 2014.

While the volumes remain relatively low in comparison to other continents, all industry stakeholders express no doubt that, as the middle class keeps on growing, there is a real, tangible coming of African coffee aficionados. The question is now whether they will find enough coffee to satisfy their expectations, both in quantity and quality.

The Eastern Congo Initiative. Photo: Courtesy of Starbucks

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