Among many other roles, Majka Burhardt is a climber, writer, filmmaker, guide, anthropologist and perhaps the most ambitious ambassador of Ethiopian coffee. She’s traveled the world by bike, canoe and foot, and seems to always be doing something incredible and inspiring! Majka’s latest book, Coffee Story: Ethiopia is a journey into Ethiopian culture and history through one of the countries most important commodities and traditions, coffee.
You have a clear passion for the outdoors and storytelling. When did you first begin to merge these two loves and how have they shaped your life?
I built a strawbale house when I was 22 and during the time I was learning about septic systems and wells and threading electric wire in straw my brain kept relating that life and thought process to the outdoors, and linking the two via writing. As the house grew from the foundation I began to write, trading tiling for typing and typing for tiling. It’s ironic that the tipping point for me to write about the outdoors happened via home building, but I had the meditative time for the stories to knock around inside me then– they were bound to find a way out. There is nothing like stuccoing a three story strawbale house, two coats, to give you time to write many, many stories in your head.
I can look back to my childhood now and see the threads of storytelling throughout it. I used to write plays and went to a Montessori school where I was encouraged to produce them. The same thing went for my brief stint as a 7-year-old song writer. Those initial opportunities to share enabled me to keep sharing stories through whatever motivated me in life. It was right about the same time that I realized that I had some of my happiest, most challenging, and most rewarding moments outside. The worlds were bound to collide.
You’ve said that you like connecting to new places through climbing; telling deeper stories about culture, environment, and social impact. Is this what you call “Additive Adventure”?
Additive Adventure is exactly that– it’s bringing the lens of adventure to a greater zone of impact wherein it goes beyond adventure and into culture, science, global conversation and more.
I wrote my first book, Vertical Ethiopia, about adventure in Ethiopia and during the 50-city speaking tour I did with Vertical Ethiopia I let it slip that coffee had initially brought me to Ethiopia. People always wanted to know more about the coffee and I quickly saw its potential to create a salient and extensive tie to Ethiopia in a way that could teach me a great deal about the larger human conversation.
How does coffee effect the people of Ethiopia, and how will coffee effect Ethiopia’s future?
Coffee is integral to Ethiopian life beyond the commodity, and the more we can understand and honor that the more coffee can directly effect Ethiopia’s financial future as well as the world’s future understanding of Ethiopia. The economics are there, and beyond the economics there is a cultural valuation that has potential to be central to how Ethiopia is understood and positioned, and then how other countries are similarly understood and positioned. From a strictly financial perspective, coffee accounts for 60% of Ethiopia’s foreign earnings. When the quality increase is paired with an increase in valuation, and increase in value, the overall impact has massive potential.
In your book you mention that coffee, like grapes used to make wine, has a flavor profile that can differ dramatically between bean varieties, and that Ethiopia has more than ten thousand different types of coffee. Do you believe that variety is the key to success in Ethiopia’s coffee production?
I think that quality is the key to Ethiopia’s success in coffee profuction. That quality can then be replicated and morphed across the 10,000 varieties. That equals, again, enormous potential.
There’s a shift, even if it’s just a small one, taking place in the production and consumption of products, where consumers are beginning to value quality over quantity. How does coffee fit into this growing awareness of production?
Over 1 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day in the world. Increased quality awareness in coffee effects a similar increase in quality for all products and all consumables. Coffee already has a unique hold in our consciousness for its story- ie we expect one, we’ve already been taught to expect quality differences. Now we have an opportunity to that association with quality and explode it.
Coffee Story: Ethiopia is your second book on Ethiopia, your first being Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Toward Possibility. What first attracted you to Ethiopia and what keeps you going back?
Coffee started my journey– via a free latte, and the climbing kept me there. Ironically, the climbing in Ethiopia was so soft and scary that coffee ended up coming back into my focus. I still climb in Ethiopia through trips I have established there with imagine1day. But Ethiopia to me now is about the combination of some things I know I love and many things I have yet to explore. Ultimately what keeps me going back to Ethiopia today is what I see as Ethiopia’s role in a global dialog we are all just now learning how to have. That’s the meta level for me that fascinates and compels my ongoing work in the country every day.
How import is it to get the story of coffee to the consumer, to put a face and history to one of the most popular drinks on the planet?
The discrepancy between the economics of coffee consumption and the economics of coffee growing is massive. Coffee is a main export for some of the poorest countries in the world. I think that we have already tried to have a bigger conversation based on the poverty, and now it is time to have a conversation based on the culture– the story. This is human connection. It’s impossible to overstate the importance.
What would you like readers to take away from Coffee Story: Ethiopia?
Coffee is complex just as life and our world is complex. Let’s let coffee remind us to dig into that complexity and move toward it.
Learn more about Majka and Coffee Story: Ethiopia at majkaburhardt.com and check out the book trailer below.