UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

2012 Sustainability Immersion Insights: The TO.MO.CA Coffee Experience in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

May 9, 2012 By Jessica Thomas
By Brian Westlander, MBA 2012

The first in a series of  reflections on UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Sustainability Immersion, our capstone experiential learning course where graduating MBAs work to solve real-world business challenges in Eastern North Carolina and East Africa.

The smell of roasting coffee beans virtually assaults you when you enter the front door of TO.MO.CA (Tomoca) Coffee. The first sniff is almost overpowering, but each subsequent one pulls you in a bit more gently. I love coffee: the smell, the taste, the warm cup early in the morning, and of course, the caffeine. I seemed to get my morning “fix” just from the aroma inside the café.

A coffee entrepreneur in Addis Ababa

A coffee entrepreneur in Addis Ababa

Besides the ubiquitous Kaldi’s Coffee cafés, a Starbucks knock-off, Tomoca may be the most famous coffee store and café in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Tomoca baristas work two large espresso machines to keep the constant stream of visitors and locals satisfied. They also sell bags of whole bean or ground coffee.

That day, our team of five, plus our wonderful translator Noah, were researching price fluctuations in food products. Our hosts, Cherokee Gives Back, connected us with Youth Impact, an amazing mentoring program for orphans and street youth in Addis Ababa. We worked with Youth Impact to determine the feasibility of and best practices for opening a restaurant in Addis.

We were lucky enough to meet Akalu, the owner of Tomoca, when we first arrived at the café. He kindly walked us through his prices and the fluctuations that occur during the year. When he heard that we were working with a group that was thinking of opening a restaurant, he said he had to take us next door to visit a budding entrepreneur who serves great coffee.

Akalu is a strong supporter of Ethiopian entrepreneurship, and he explained that opportunities for small businesses abound. So instead of drinking coffee at his own establishment, he generously took us next door to the bottom floor of a small building filled with shops. In the lobby, a woman served traditional Ethiopian coffee, heated over coals. Akalu joined us for coffee and explained that this is the right way to start a business: a small start with low capital requirements and then building up with incremental growth. This was a theme we heard reiterated throughout our trip from a number of restaurateurs.

Our team really enjoyed our visit to Tomoca and our experiences with the local coffee entrepreneurs.  Our visit displayed the generous nature of all the Ethiopians we met on our trip and the sense of opportunity that exists in Addis Ababa. And I believe the smell of Tomoca café will be with me for years to come.

For extra credit, here is a great article about Akalu and Tomoca Coffee about Akalu’s frequent trips to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) where he buys the raw coffee beans.


  1. Rick Murray

    Wonderful report. Please keep them coming. Any chance your group includes Scott Steele? Best wishes to your whole team.

  2. Brian Westlander (author)

    @Rick Murray
    Hi Rick, thanks for your comment! Our group met Scott after we returned to the US. However, in Ethiopia we were well taken care of by the Cherokee team there, including Ahadu Gebreamlak and Matt Hendren.

  3. Will Cobb

    Very cool to see the connection with Ethiopia endures. Immediately after finishing my MBA and before starting at Deloitte Consulting, I did a 2-month internship with PACT in Addis Ababa – it was an absolutely incredible experience that did much to turn me towards my eventual career path as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. State Department. I can only hope this team’s experience was as wonderful and eye-opening as mine back in 2000. Best from Managua, Will