Eritrea sits just above the horn of Africa and to the west of the Red Sea. Bordering Ethiopia, the continent’s largest coffee producer to the south, Eritrea has a long and complex history with its neighbour. Despite Eritrea having been a coffee producer during the colonial era, it appears that coffee is no longer cultivated, at least on any sizable scale. Despite this, coffee plays a hugely important role in Eritrean culture, similar to that of its neighbour Ethiopia
History and coffee in Eritrea
Prior to Italian occupation, coffee in Eritrea was cultivated solely in a few irrigated gardens attached to the Coptic convents. The first attempts to extend the crop took place in the late 1800s in the highland areas of Gura and Godofelassi when the first non-military Italian settlers arrived. The climate, terrain, and altitude was suitable in these areas for the cultivation of various crops. The settlers were provided with land and financial support by the colonial government with the expectation that they set up experimental farms and cultivate crops, including Arabica coffee which had been introduced from Yemen.
Cultivation on these early experimental farms was not successful. and failed within a few years. Additionally, the government’s hopes of encouraging mass Italian migration to the colony never materialised, and an armed uprising of Eritreans in 1984 forced the Italian government to rethink its plans for mass Italian resettlement.
The early 1900s saw a renewed push for the expansion of coffee cultivation. In 1903, the government began leasing land back to Eritrean peasants, partly due to fears of further rebellion and the government’s failure to attract Italian settlers. Even so, much of the fertile land remained under Italian control, forcing many Eritreans to either migrate to cities or cultivate on marginal farming land.
A total of 12,500 acres were reported to have been set aside for coffee plantations in the early 1900s, though 10% of that land was taken up by just twelve Italians, a number which reduced to six Italians farming 750 acres of coffee land by 1947. Of course, the Italians rarely farmed the land themselves, and instead relied on the labour of dispossessed Eritreans who acted as sharecroppers.
In 1941, the British assumed control of Eritrea for eleven years, until 1952 when a UN resolution federated Eritrea with Ethiopia. This resolution ignored the wishes of Eritreans for independence, and though the populace was promised a measure of autonomy and rights, these promises were very quickly violated.
In 1962, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie laid claim over Eritrea, triggering a thirty-year armed struggle for Eritrean independence. Information about the state of coffee cultivation in Eritrea following Italian defeat and throughout the decades of war is limited. However, in the 1990s, Eritrea reportedly became an exporter of coffee, despite the country not being said to produce coffee at the time.
Eritrea’s Coffee Ceremony
The coffee ceremony, or Boon, as it is known in Tigrinya, is an important fixture of daily life in Eritrea.
First, a grass covering is spread over the floor, before the traditional cups known as finjal or cini, are placed upon a small table. The coffee beans are washed and then roasted over medium heat in a pan. In order to ensure an even roast, the pan is constantly shaken back and forth until the beans turn a dark chocolate brown. Once the beans are roasted they are ground with a mortar and pestle and then poured into a round clay pot with a tall spout, which is known as a jebena in Eritrea. Next, water is added and the pot is set to boil.
Once the coffee is boiled, the jebena is positioned in a stand that lets it lean at an angle, allowing the coffee grounds to settle. Finally, the coffee is ready to be poured into the finjal/cini, and the jebena can be refilled with water for the next round. Snacks such as biscuits and popcorn are passed around while the guests enjoy their coffee.
Potential Coffee Farming in Eritrea
At present, agriculture is the mainstay of the Eritrean economy, with more than two thirds of the country’s population working in the sector. Much of the country’s land is hot and arid which impacts the range of crops that can be cultivated. The most commonly cultivated crops are cereals like sorghum, millet and barley.
The country’s green-belt zone, located in the Central Highlands north of the capital Asmara , is the only one of the country’s six agro-ecological zones that is able to support permanent crops, such as coffee, without irrigation. Here, rainfall is higher and temperatures are lower.
Exported coffee in Eritrea
Despite not being a coffee producer, Eritrea was previously reported to be a leading exporter of coffee. In the 1990s, media sources reported that, alongside other export commodities, Eritrea would frequently purchase large quantities of coffee from neighbouring Ethiopia before transporting it into Eritrea and then exporting it internationally.