Reviving a Region: The Story of Gesha Village

— Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel, Gesha Village

In the far western reaches of Ethiopia, mere kilometers from the South Sudanese border, lie the dense, wildly sprouting jungles of Bench Maji Zone. It’s a place of stunning natural beauty, where from a high-extending plateau one can take in the expanse of the ancient, sprawling forest. This special land houses many unique entities native to the region. There are wild native plants in every direction, from the frizzy red horizontal rows of forest flame-keepers to the long-stemmed jasmine plants sprouting star-shaped white flowers. There are the Meanit people, a local indigenous tribe that calls these forests home. There are monkeys, leopards, and myriad other wild animal species roaming the grounds. And there is row upon row of Gesha trees stretching toward the sky, producing some of the most celebrated coffee in the world.

This breathtaking landscape is home to Gesha Village Coffee Estate, our 475-hectare coffee farm. When we first arrived at this spot in 2011, the intense beauty of the natural habitat was undeniable. What was missing was the coffee, though we soon found out it wasn’t far: Gesha Village is just 20 kilometers from the Gori Gesha wild coffee forest, the birthplace of the Gesha variety.

In the ensuing six years we worked virtually around the clock to transform this oasis into an international destination for specialty coffee. It hasn’t been simple or straightforward; it has taken ingenuity and old-fashioned manual labor. But more than five years into this venture, we are realizing our dream: Gesha Village is now producing coffees as awe-inspiring as our surroundings.

Though coffee is in our blood, it wasn’t always our professional pursuit. Artists by trade, we were commissioned by the Ethiopian government in 2007 to create a documentary on the nation’s coffee—a product coveted by specialty-coffee drinkers worldwide and heralded by many as the world’s best. Ethiopia was already close to our hearts, as Rachel hails from the country. But it was upon getting to know the people in Ethiopia’s coffee industry, learning the country’s rich history of coffee cultivation, and immersing ourselves in the culture that we decided to follow our hearts and embark on a path to becoming coffee farmers in Ethiopia.

That path quickly led us to Willem Boot, the San Francisco Bay Area-based coffee educator well-known for his passion for the Gesha variety. In addition to owning the Gesha-growing farm Finca La Mula on the slopes of Panama’s Baru Volcano, Willem has traveled the world—specifically throughout Ethiopia—searching for wild varieties of Gesha. We traveled to Finca La Mula, and as Willem taught us the fundamentals of growing and evaluating coffee with a quality focus, the shadow of Gesha loomed large over our conversations. Though we felt our path veering back toward Ethiopia, we had little idea Gesha would be playing such an important role in our future.

Armed with an enhanced coffee knowledge, we returned to Ethiopia with the express mission of finding suitable land to start our new coffee venture where we could implement quality on every level. For months, we traversed the coffee-growing regions of Ethiopia to find the perfect spot—one with high elevation, ample rainfall, temperate climates, and other crucial natural factors needed to produce coffee of excellent quality. Though we’d originally hoped to find a spot close to our home in Addis Ababa, our pursuit led us to more and more remote areas, and eventually to the prized terroir of the Gesha woreda in Bench Maji.

While the untouched landscape provided us with the unique opportunity to build the coffee farm of our dreams from the ground up, it offered us something else one-of-a-kind: Close proximity to the Gori Gesha forest, the variety’s birthplace and site of the Panamanian Gesha discovery in the 1930s. Upon learning this, we realized—to our amazement—that Gesha would be an important part of our future.

To us, Bench Maji radiated with an exciting energy from the moment we set foot on it, with the towering trees housing a one-of-a-kind, densely forested aura. But the magical land we’d found could only reach its full potential if paired with the equally magical Gesha variety. Enlisting our old friend Willem Boot, we headed into the thick, dense jungle of the Gori Gesha forest to search for local seeds. Our intrepid expeditions brought us to ever-prized wild Gesha plants growing free and plentiful, from which we harvested a seed selection. All at once, we knew that Gesha Village had its most essential ingredient for creating something incredible. However, the harsh fact remained that the mountainous remoteness that made the Bench Maji property so special was also going to present large hurdles. Turning this untapped beauty into a productive coffee farm was going to require a considerable amount of backbreaking work.

That’s exactly what came next, as we spent month after tireless month developing the infrastructure necessary to produce coffee. We planted coffee trees, relying not just on Gori Gesha but several other local varieties. We forged relationships with the indigenous Meanit people, ensuring both a mutual understanding of respecting the land as well as a local workforce. We brought in water and other inputs essential for both processing the coffee and servicing the community. And we put in shade trees and nurtured the habitat to ensure the Gesha trees could thrive in this environment.

Though western Ethiopia gave birth to the much-heralded Gesha, the region has historically been largely disconnected from the global specialty-coffee market. We have strived to change that: One of our goals is to play a small role in developing a specialty market for coffee in the Gesha region, so that amazing Gesha is finally available in its birthplace.

Now in 2017, we’re building off of all the hard work from our staff and community to introduce Gesha Village to the greater specialty-coffee world, from leading roasting companies to world-class barista competitors. They’re discovering not just the amazing quality of the coffee, but a humble story of revival, community, and innovation. Five-plus years after launching Gesha Village, this is truly just the beginning. The wonders ahead should give specialty-coffee lovers much to get excited about.