In conversation with Aster Mengesha, founder of Aster Bunna

I caught up with the founder of Aster Bunna, a coffee shop and roastery in Addis Ababa

Aster Mengesha (Credit: Ana Sampaio Barros, via UNIDO)

Aster Mengesha and her business, Aster Bunna, are based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. Through my daytime job working for an NGO, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Addis on a few occasions. Each trip has included a stop at Aster Bunna, a coffee shop located in the central Kirkos district.

Aster founded her business in 1998, naming it after herself and the Amharic word for coffee. This week, I had a video call with Aster in which she told me more about her business.

You started your coffee roasting business in 1998. How did it all begin?

I wanted to start a family business. The idea came from my husband who was already working in the coffee industry, exporting green coffee. I had just left my government job and immediately he had the idea: “why don’t you start a coffee roasting business?” I liked it and so I started roasting with a small 5kg machine and selling coffee to drink. Slowly, it has grown to be a medium sized business. I have my two sons who support me in the running of the business and my husband supports me too.

Your business involves selling coffee for consumption in Addis Ababa. It’s interesting that Ethiopia has such a strong internal demand for coffee where other coffee exporting nations do not. What do you think is different about Ethiopia?

In Ethiopia, coffee is like food. We have it throughout the entire day. It’s because coffee is a social event. It has a social value for all. We have the coffee ceremony where it is prepared for guests or for neighbours. This is especially true of women who gather together to discuss their problems; maybe about children or farming. In other African countries, you’re right, they grow coffee but they don’t drink it so much.

I remember when I was last in Ethiopia, I was with some colleagues and we would leave to go to work in the morning and I would assume we were on our way, but really we were going to the coffee bar first for a pit stop before starting the day. I was a big fan of that!

You have a coffee shop in the city, in Addis, how does the coffee get from the farmers to you?

So in Ethiopia, we have the ECX, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, where we buy our coffee. ECX is the link between buyers and sellers. It comes from all over Ethiopia, from different places. There are some rules the Government have put in place to regulate, but if you have the market, you can also buy directly from the farmers. This can be good for the farmers, especially for women farmers who have many other things to do and it can make it easier for them.

Do you see a role then, for Aster Bunna, in supporting women in the coffee industry in Ethiopia?

Yes, if I can, I want to work with women farmers. This is good for me and for them. When I started Aster Bunna, I took part in the Women Exporters Forum and got some ideas. My employees are 70% women. I have 23 employees, 16 are women. They are mothers and some are younger girls learning skills.

So talking about Ethiopian coffee specifically, would you say it is the best in the world?

Yes, of course, wonderful. I have travelled around and tried other coffees but my tongue and my senses are trained to Ethiopian coffee. But the coffee is wonderful because of the environment here. It’s highland coffee and hand-picked. It’s natural and in the shade, grown under the trees without fertilisers. It is a unique environment. Of course, there are other countries producing coffee, but the plant it comes from Ethiopia.

One of the hallmarks of coffee culture in Europe is around the different brew methods - whether you use a French press, Moka pot, AeroPress etc - what do you think of these and do you use any of them?

No, we don’t use these methods. The main thing we have to think about are our customers roast tastes - some like medium roast, some like dark roast, some like light roast, so we have to think about this. But we’re open to these new methods of drinking, this is globalisation, we will learn about different tastes from others - especially when the pandemic is over and tourists return again. But coffee is definitely like a science these days with the brewing methods and the style of baristas. It’s changed a lot since I began.

You mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic, can I ask how this has affected you and your business?

It has really affected us, mainly because these days, there are no tourists. In our shop, any customers are tourists visiting, but now we only have our local trade. I wish and pray that the COVID situation will improve. I hope there can be a vaccination soon and the tourists can return.

Beyond COVID-19, how do you feel about the longer term future of coffee in Ethiopia?

The main issue are the political issues in our country. The most important thing is peace. If there is peace, we can do anything. The farmers can be safe, the coffee is safe and we can keep our exports safe. But for now, the political situation is not stable, but after this, we will see. But Ethiopian coffee is a gift from God, if you want to destory Ethiopian coffee, you can not do this easily. We also have new organisations in place. We have a coffee authority and we have a farming ministry and they are modernising the way coffee is working in Ethiopia. When I began, there were 2 or 3 roasters here, now there are maybe over 100 roasters. There is also the issue of the environment changing, but we have taken measures, like the tree planting that has taken place. This will help our coffee farming.

Finally, I wanted to ask a little more about the Women Exporters Forum you mentioned earlier. Is that a place where you now share your knowledge and tips with other women working in coffee?

Yes, we discuss each other’s work. Roasting is not easy in Ethiopia. It helps that this is a coffee drinkers country. You can sell to hotels, restaurants and cafes, we don’t have to rely only on the outside market but these days, we have a niche market overseas and it helps to discuss this with others and share ideas about how we can go about expanding and exporting coffee overseas. This goes especially for women with their other priorities, caring for family and the home. We also discuss the packaging - I import packaging from India.

Thanks to Aster Mengesha and her sons Michael and Dawit for taking part in this interview. You can learn more about Aster Bunna on their website.

This interview was published as a part of Three Quarters Coffee, a weekly newsletter about coffee and coffee culture. Sign up below to receive it directly to your inbox.