Coffee is Ethiopia’s national beverage. Sara Yirga also loves the brew made from roasted beans. Her company produces fair trade coffee and supports smallholder farmers. Since completing the Manager Training Programme, she has also been exporting her special beans abroad. The passionate entrepreneur is also involved in advanced training for coffee experts.
At YA Coffee's coffee roastery in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, an expert roaster pours beans into the hopper of a roasting drum. She presses the start button, and the drum begins to rotate loudly. In just a few minutes, an unexpected aroma starts to build. It smells like popcorn. And sounds like it, too. Coffee beans and popcorn kernels go through a similar roasting process. Processing coffee beans, however, is very complex and a truly skilled craft. Gradually, the wonderful aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans unfolds in the air. Sara Yirga, head of YA Coffee, uses a small shovel in the drum to check the results. "The beans look great, very nice colour," she says, smiling with satisfaction.
Setting a course
It has been a long road to get here. It began in 2012, when Sara and her husband Dagmawi were sitting in a café, as they did every morning, enjoying a cup of coffee before work. That was the day they set the course for their future. "We wanted a change. And to do something that had meaning," Yirga recalls, looking back on this pivotal moment. "We knew next to nothing about coffee. Except that we love it," the energetic businesswoman says with a laugh.
A rocky path
Yirga has had to overcome a lot of hurdles. One was sourcing the export-quality, green coffee beans she needed for her business. While large quantities of beans are exported, most are sent out raw. Then there was the fact that “the authorities here did not provide for professional roasting in this country for quite a while,” she says. She has invested a lot of time and effort into creating an environment for in-country roasting. Over the years, Yirga has built up a network of producers and completed a number of training courses to expand her expertise. Seven years and many setbacks later, she successfully sold her first roasted coffee abroad. The Manager Training Programme helped her get there.
Value creation on site
Yirga is contributing to the development of the African country with her work. Roasted beans fetch double the price on the world market and create local jobs. The entrepreneur has created eight jobs and filled six of them with women. A few years ago, she founded the “Ethiopian Women in Coffee” association, still a passion project today. She completed the Manager Training Programme in 2019. Yirga has recently begun exporting her coffee to Germany through an online retailer and is adding other countries too. She says the time she spent in Germany, the largest exporter of roasted coffee in Europe, boosted her international business development. "I learned how the international coffee business works." Her product is fair trade, certified organic and suitable for niche markets, so it can be sold in speciality and gourmet stores. That is something she learned in Germany.
Around five million smallholder farmers in Ethiopia make their living growing coffee beans. Helping them out with better production and cultivation techniques is close to Yirga's heart. YA Coffee's corporate philosophy focuses on sustainability. Yirga allows small businesses to use her company’s roasting facility. YA Coffee also offers online training, including through GIZ's “The Coffee Innovation Fund” programme. Through the fund, GIZ supports coffee projects in East Africa in the field of innovation and sustainable development.
Yirga expects a turnaround in 2022. She has set her sights high and is actively developing YA Coffee into a global brand. She also plans to set up training, research and education centres for smallholder farmers and wants to promote coffee tourism in Ethiopia.
Right now though, she is busy making her favourite drink, an espresso. She prefers to drink it in her own café, “Cherish Addis”, which she opened in June 2021. It is the mother of three’s youngest "baby", and she enjoys slipping into the role of barista here in the afternoons. She brings the same passion as she does to all her other roles: entrepreneur, coffee roaster, trainer, mother and supporter of women's equality. Sara Yirga lives a very full and busy life.
Photos: © YA Coffee