How an Ethiopian Immigrant Started a Multimillion-Dollar Coffee Business in America

November 6, 2020Brandon Lingle
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Sam Demisse at Keffa headquarter in Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

In September 1974 an Ethiopian army faction overthrew the country’s monarchy in a coup that plunged the region into 30 years of violence, famine, displacement, and atrocity that killed at least 750,000 people.  

Some argue the number of dead is much higher — in the millions — but Human Rights Watch says the actual figure is unknowable. Even the conservative number is hard to fathom, roughly the population of Denver or Seattle. Then consider the millions left homeless, orphaned, injured, and haunted, and it’s clear that generations will face the repercussions of the conflict.       

In Agaro, a small town in Kaffa province in Ethiopia’s southwest, 3-year-old Sam Demisse had no idea of the trouble unfolding 250 miles away in the capital city of Addis Ababa, let alone how it would shape his life. 

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Sam Demisse in Austin, Texas, in early 2020. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

His childhood unfolded as the Derg — a Soviet-backed military junta — converted Ethiopia into a socialist state that fragmented the country and spawned decades of civil war.

Demisse grew up in a failed state. Government thugs snatched his father’s coffee farm. They tortured and killed members of his family. As a boy he saw people die in the streets from starvation. 

“We were just scared the whole time,” he said. “The entire country was a mess.”

As a young man, he saw fighting unfold in the city, and the conflict cut his college education short when he returned home to help his family. He learned the coffee business with his father, and that changed his life. 

“Remember back far enough or imagine ahead and you’ll find war — or it’ll find you,” said writer Donald Anderson. “All our lives are framed by war.” For children like Demisse growing up in war-torn countries, these words strongly resonate.  

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Sam Demisse, center, in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

The hardships of his youth armed Demisse with a unique perspective and steadfastness that led him to American citizenship, entrepreneurship, success as a business owner, and a deep sense of patriotism.

Arabica’s home

Arabica coffee originated in Kaffa province. Some believe “Kaffa” derives from the Arabic “qahwa,” which roughly translates to “coffee.” 

The Demisse family is steeped in the coffee industry. In 1949, at age 18, Demisse’s father, Bekele, began a commercial coffee farm and export business and steadily grew it into the 1970s. Just before the socialist government took over, he’d invested all his earnings back into the business to expand. He lost his life’s work when the regime nationalized privately owned businesses and property across the country. 

“He never gave up,” Demisse said. “He just kept working in the coffee business.”

The government even forced his father to pay for coffee from farms he’d once owned. Seeing his father’s tenacity after losing everything inspired young Demisse.

“I’ve seen my dad working really hard to keep growing the business,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that’s in my mind as I go — socialism is not going to work for any country.”

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Sam’s father, Bekele Demisse. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

The Derg infused socialist ideology into the Ethiopian education system.  

“In high school and elementary school they forced us to learn about Russian politics,” Demisse said. “We had to learn about the story of Marx and Lenin and communist-socialist ideologies — nobody can own anything.”

Imprisonment, torture, and mass executions were common during the Derg’s rule. The late ’70s saw a period in Ethiopia called the Qey Shibir, or “Red Terror,” which claimed thousands as the junta asserted its power and tried to crush an insurgency. 

Militants killed business owners and their families in order to claim property, leaving nobody to protest or go to court. 

“My cousin and his son and another member from the family — three people — killed in one day by the government,” he said. The family had a coffee export business, and government officials wanted it. 

They electrocuted Demisse’s cousin, then called his son to pick up the body. 

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Leading members of the Derg in Ethiopia during the civil war. From left, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Tafari Benti, and Atnafu Abate. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“My brother was about to go with them,” Demisse said. “He didn’t go, but my cousin’s son and another family member went,” and they never came back. The killers even kept the cars the victims drove to the government offices.    

“It was a very, very sad day, but it’s not only for my cousin, it’s so many people in the country,” he said. “When those things happen — when they kill your dad, your mom, anyone, your brother — you can’t have formal funeral ceremonies. You can’t even cry.”

The regime forbade people to mourn or express their emotions, according to Demisse. “Or they’d come and kill you.” 

The “indiscriminate killing of civilians” by the Ethiopian army and air force was the most characteristic feature of the war, according to Human Rights Watch, in Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia: “The army deliberately killed and wounded tens of thousands of civilians and the air force bombed civilians and civilian targets.”

In addition to mass violence and killing, the government systematically relocated people and cut off food supplies. The regime also supported insurgent groups in neighboring countries such as Somalia and Sudan, which further destabilized the region. 

Those memories aren’t going away for Demisse, but he said watching his father help people while he was growing up taught him much.

The government blamed drought when famine struck the country from 1983 to 1985. According to Human Rights Watch, the harsh climate played a role, but the responsibility fell with the country’s leaders and their counterinsurgency tactics of restrictions on peaceful parts of the country, destroying excess crops and bombing markets. 

The Ethiopian government covered up the famine, said Demisse, who was 12 to 14 years old during the period. More than 400,000 died during the food crises.   

“I’ve seen people dying on the street and hyenas taking and eating people’s bodies,” he said. “I’ve seen people eating grass.”

People would beg for food, but when they got food they didn’t have anything in their stomach and they died, he said. Their bodies were unable to cope.

“We’d see dead bodies in the street,” he said. “It was a sad time, a tough time.”

Those memories aren’t going away for Demisse, but he said watching his father help people while he was growing up taught him much. His father’s hard work spared the Demisses from being hungry, and the family did what they could to support the less fortunate in their community — both in good and bad times. 

“Our home was the emergency-call 911 place,” he said. “We were the only ones who had a car, so they’d come to our house, knock on the door — it could be 3 o’clock in the morning, anytime.”

Demisse’s dad never said no to those in need. 

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Sam Demisse representing Keffa Coffee in Nashville during a coffee taster’s championship. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

“He’d take them to the hospital,” Demisse said. “If someone died, they’d use our car as the funeral car.”

Sometimes, the car carried wedding parties.

“He was always giving back to the farmers,” he said. 

Demisse was in college in Addis Ababa in 1989 when the socialist government fell and fighting came to the city. 

He escaped and went home to help his father with the family coffee business. He ended up doing that for 10 years. 

“I had the opportunity to travel a lot of places and see a lot of coffee roasters and coffee import companies,” he said. 

Coming to America

During a visit to the United States, he realized “there was no Ethiopian person importing Ethiopian coffee.”  

So, in 2004, at age 32, he moved to America and settled in Baltimore after a year in Virginia. He came with two main goals: become a US citizen and open a coffee import business.

He achieved those goals and much more.  

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Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

“I will never forget when I stand at the ceremony to become a US citizen,” he said. “The small flag that they gave me — I take it with me whenever I travel. I always keep it in my backpack.”

He learned about his new country and culture while studying logistics and developing a business plan and prospectus. 

“All my experience in my life is always coffee,” he said. “I never worked outside of coffee.”

He also needed income to live and build credit, so he worked various jobs such as parking-lot manager along the way.

By 2006, he’d saved about $50,000 and opened his company, Keffa Coffee

Named after his home in Ethiopia, though he prefers to spell Kaffa with an e, the brand grew quickly, but like his father’s coffee business back home there’s been hardship. The 2008 Great Recession challenged the entrepreneur.

“It was a really tough time with the economy, and the coffee price was crazy, very high,” Demisse said. “I put all the money back in the business, and I worked really hard to be able to show some resilience and be able to grow the business.”  

Keffa Coffee survived and has thrived since then. Now it’s a $10 million-a-year business that’s expanding roughly 10% annually. He’s hoping to hit $20 million in five years. 

“I love this country. This country gave me everything, all the opportunity — from zero.” 

With six employees and more than 500 customers — including Black Rifle Coffee Company — Keffa imports 4 million pounds of green coffee beans annually to its five warehouses.

It sells 30 different coffees from 10 countries — including Indonesia, El Salvador, Burundi, Kenya, and Peru — but most of its product, about 75%, comes from Ethiopia.

“We have a really good relationship with the producers, farmers, and exporters,” Demisse said. “We also have quality control and an office in (Addis Ababa) that help us source the best coffee from Ethiopia.”

The brand works with 30 small producers and four large exporters in Ethiopia, and Demisse visits twice a year to see the farmers and the product. Pandemic-induced travel restrictions have hampered his recent visits, but he’s hoping to make a trip before the end of the year. 

Living by his father’s example, the 49-year-old married father of two daughters strives to support his small producers in Ethiopia. He still sends money to people in his home village. 

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Sam Demisse of Keffa Coffee visiting coffee farmers in January 2020. Photo courtesy of Sam Demisse.

According to Demisse, coffee prices are at an all-time low due to high worldwide production, so Keffa always pays a premium above fair-trade prices based on quality. Over the years, they’ve also provided thousands of dollars’ worth of materials to help farmers enhance the quality of their beans. 

This year Keffa donated 10,000 masks and 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to help farmers during the pandemic.

Despite a long and bumpy road, Demisse’s is a classic American success story.  

“I love this country,” he said. “This country gave me everything, all the opportunity — from zero.” 

He attributes his success to hard work, good character, and the opportunities he’s received in America. 

“If I were in another country, I would have to work 50 years to achieve what I achieved in 16,” he said. “Maybe even after 50 years of work — hard work like my dad — it could be taken away overnight.”

Demisse said in America he’s never been turned down for a loan or been treated differently because he’s an immigrant. He believes he’s in the right place where everyone is equal.

“If you have a principle, if you have a dream, if you work hard,” he said, “you can achieve anything you want. You’ll get there — it’s going to pay off.”  

Brandon Lingle
Brandon Lingle

Brandon Lingle is an associate contributing editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. As a journalist and writer, his work has appeared in The American Scholar, The New York Times (At War), Guernica, Narrative, and more. He served as a U.S. Air Force public affairs officer and Air Force Academy English professor. Brandon is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; he currently lives in Texas and edits War, Literature & the Arts.

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