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Bonga, Town of Legend

Bonga is a small town in southwestern Ethiopia, said to have grown the first coffee trees. The town and surrounding farmland are situated in a region that is now called Oromia but used to be the kingdom of Kaffa. This kingdom was annexed by Ethiopia in 1897 but up until then it was supported by gold, ivory and coffee trade. According to legend it was here that Kaldi, the goat shepherd, or rather his herd, discovered coffee and its effects. This tale is most likely just a story. An oral tradition passed down through the ages, although there is no way to prove or disprove its veracity.

Bonga homesteads

Either way we know that the first coffee beans were traded from Somalia to Mocha in Yemen. And it is in Yemen where we have the first verifiable usage of roasted coffee beans to make the drink. Called qahwa in these old accounts, Sufi prayer circles would use the coffee drink to carry their prayers into the night and even induce states of deep concentration and meditation. We also know that the Somalian traders acquired the beans from the Ethiopian interior. Bonga fits this mold and may well have been one of the first sources of coffee for the world together with Harrar.

The Cradle of Coffee

coffee harvesting in bonga, image courtesy of James Jeffrey

Bonga is one of those regions that the rapid industrialization of the world and coffee industry has left untouched. Coffee farmers here still pick the beans by hand. The region’s topography is perfect for the coffee bush. Ranging from 500 to 3,300 meters of elevation it contains plenty of suitable land. Coffee berries grow best on land between 900 and 1,800 meters above sea level. The coffee grown here is very important for coffee in general. It serves as a genetic reserve. The beans from Bonga are at the bottom of the family tree of coffee. If the coffee rust fungus or other pests destroy the plantations that have proliferated across the world we would need to source the next seeds from these trees in Bonga.

Wildest of Arabicas

Bonga Arabica coffee, image courtesy of James Jeffrey for CNN

When it comes to Arabicas, the Bonga variety is truly wild and untamed. Its tree can grow up to 3.5 meters unlike its more cultivated progeny in plantations all over the world. In the shade of the tropical forests of Ethiopia the coffee plant grows slowly and has a chance to develop complex flavour characteristics. Nothing exemplifies the untamed nature of these shrubs, like their wildly diverse terroirs. Here in Bonga you would only need to pick beans from regions a few kilometers apart to get coffees with individual tastes. It is this natural biodiversity that will allow the coffee plant to survive mortal dangers such as the coffee rust fungus. The reason biodiversity protects against disease is that any type of disease affects some specimens more than others. It is possible for a resistant variety of organism to spring out of areas such as these.

Protecting the Last Bastion

Ethiopian landscape, image courtesy of James Jeffrey for CNN

This is why it’s so important that these areas continue to cultivate the coffee tree. And we can help incentivise the farmers of Bonga to continue coffee farming by buying their coffee directly. One of our partner roasters, Kaffeepur, knows this fact very well. One of their coffees, Bonga Bonga, is from the Bonga region, make sure to check it out. And if guaranteeing the existence of coffee in the future is not enough for you they would even go so far as to say that anyone who has not tried Bonga coffee is “a virgin coffee connoisseur”. Their words, not ours!

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