Rob Katz

Proverbs at Work: From Burnt-Out Shells to Coffee Machines

While it may seem clich?, I’ve always enjoyed the proverb advising that “when life deals you lemons, make lemonade.” The phrase was my first thought when I saw a recent story out of Ethiopia about Azmarew Zeleke’s burgeoning coffee business; in this case, replace “lemons” with “spent mortar shells” and “lemonade” with “coffee machines”. It may not have the same ring as lemons-lemonade, but you get the idea.

At a time when most of the coffee-related news out of Ethiopia has to do with a nasty trademark dispute between local farmers and Starbucks, Zeleke’s story stands out for its inspirational tone. He and his six staff take spent shells left over from the 1998-2000 Eritrea/Ethiopia conflict, transforming the shells’ aluminum cylinders to channel water, milk, and coffee instead of explosive powder.The coffee machines retail for $1,300, which may seem expensive for a country like Ethiopia (per capita GDP – $900). Local coffee shops, however, find them to be a fairly-priced alternative to imported machines. The BBC article quotes caf? owner Haile Abraha:

Cafe owner Haile Abraha bought one of Mr Azmeraw’s machines a few months ago.

“I had one other imported machine but this one is much better. It is relatively cheap. The price is fair. The machine is good and it makes good coffee.”

This story has a bit of everything: domestic production that undercuts expensive imported technology, local job creation, and most of all, innovative use of the materials at hand. And, of course, a bit of proverbial advice thrown in for good measure.

(Thanks to NextBillion reader David Larson for the suggestion)