This year marked the 41st anniversary of Ethiopian Coffee Football Club. The anniversary came at a time the club is financially stable. For many years, the club has faced financial constraints. As a result, it was never able to attract big names and foreign players until recently. That’s become a thing of the past and in fact the club is now stronger than before and considered a rival to the nation’s oldest, richest and very popular club, St. George. Its fans are also considered the most committed and cheerful supporters. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw spoke with founders and administrators of the club to learn about their effort to build a strong football club and the reasons for having the most supporting fans in the country.
If Ethiopian households coffee gathering is beautifully ceremonial, the stadium atmosphere where Ethiopian Coffee FC (Buna) plays seems to be its facsimile. Coffee’s home fixtures never go by unnoticed. Hours before the game kickoff, passionate fans take over the streets of Addis, wearing the team’s jersey and singing of their club’s popular song.
While some appear in every corner of the town in a convoy of taxi mini buses and pickups flying the yellow-brown flags, others stay in pubs closer to the sporting arena. In the stadium they demonstrate passion for the game and love for their club – they are just stunning to watch. They sing and jump enthusiastically. The atmosphere is incredible. This has made fans of other clubs to consider Ethiopia Coffee as their second team.
Ethiopian Coffee is, arguably, the most popular club in the country. It was founded for agro processing factory workers in 1976. Initially, it registered the Coffee Board workers only. The team was composed of enthusiasts who play football for fun. Later, when they were looking for a name for their team, Chanyalew Tekola, a founding member forwarded his suggestion – “The Dawn Star”.
For three years, the team competed in kebele competitions, the lowest level amateur league at that time. Later, as supporters were dreaming to see ‘The Dawn Star’ strengthened and attract talented stars, a man just came. He did not come to play football. Rather, he was there to lead the team off the pitch for decades. Fekade Mamo (Lieutenant), who was previously serving at National Bank of Ethiopia, took the office to lead the organisation that was just renamed as National Coffee Trading Corporation.
The union of Coffee and Fekade (Chento, as his fans affectionately call him), which took nearly 40 years, was strong. Had it not been for his unconquerable spirit and indefatigable effort, the team would not survive frequent storms, let alone stand out visibly as one of the top clubs in the country.
Following the establishment of the Addis Ababa Sport Council in 1979, which encouraged teams to compete in the first football league in the county’s history, Ethiopian Coffee reinvented itself. To the man who always wanted to see his team flying high, this was a big opportunity. “The labour union leaders were also requesting to have a strong team,” says Fekade. “But I wanted to see real commitment from the workers. I believed that they should contribute something from their pocket.”
At that time, the Corporation had around 2,000 employees in Addis alone. There were also thousands more engaged in the coffee sub-sector around Kefa, Sidamo, Illubabor, Wollega, Harara and other coffee growing areas. According to Fekade, financing the team was not an issue to worry about. “Our Corporation was rich. But we knew we had to create a sense of belongingness between the team and our employees. We needed a strong foundation for that,” he recalls.
By the time the labour union agreed to contribute around 1-1.5Pct of employee’s salary, the Addis Ababa Football Federation had finished registration of teams to participate in the city tournament. “We told them about the large number of employees we had behind the team and the financial muscle in it. Later, they listed us as the 51st team.”
He did not look back after that. He assigned Seyoum Abate as team coach and told him to bring onboard the best talents in the country. That was how best players, like Million Begashaw from the Maritime Team and Mengistu Bogale of the Berta Sport Team joined the club. Securing qualification to the first division and winning the title later, Seyoum’s team managed to lure the hearts of thousands of fans to be diehard supporters of Ethiopian Coffee.
Although the team is known as under achiever, considering its ever-growing fan base, the club’s president honours its achievements in building a team that is loved by hundreds of thousands of fans. Reminding their overlooked achievements in volleyball, boxing, athletics and tennis, he praises the trophies they won in style.
However, for the young generation, their triumph in 2011 was so different. The celebration Addis witnessed when Ethiopia Coffee clinched the first and only premier league title can only be comparable with that of the national team’s qualification to the African Cup of Nations in 2012. The party reportedly spread to the coffee growing rural areas in countrywide, they contributed a lot for the teams’ survival through thick and thin.
Biruk Sentayehu, 45, is one of the many loyal fans of Ethiopian Coffee. He claims to have never missed a single match his team had in Addis in the past two decade. “I started to support the team ever since I was a teenager,” He says. “I started to support [the team] because of my elder brother who used to take me to stadium whenever the team played.”
“I think the reason for having a strong and committed fan base is because of the management and the supporter’s effort to build a team that has massive public support,” he says. “A mare observation of the fans at stadiums prove that such efforts are successful.”
For years, Ethiopian coffee growers and exporters used to collect ETB5 per tonne from the coffee production to support the team financially. However, the establishment of Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) in 2008 threatened to halt the major finance source of the team until the former CEO of ECX, Eleni Gebre-Medhin (PhD) came to recognise how big the club is. “She questioned the legal basis for financing the club. Although we were doing it on voluntary basis,” says Fekade.
Then, ECX carried out a very simple survey to assess if the stakeholders in the coffee sector really know and support the team. The result was good enough to change the CEO’s mind. “Later, she said to me ‘Coffee is the people’s team.’ Otherwise, that would have been the end of the journey, I guess.”
Many, including Fekade, think the way the team plays football might be one of the reasons for its huge fan base. In the late 80s Coffee had a team with their legendary players, like Million, Kassaye Arage, and Mulugeta Woldeyes. Their beautiful short passing-football is still recognized by even the younger fans who never watched them play, as Coffee’s way of football.
Now the club’s income from coffee growers, suppliers, exporters, roasters and wholesalers had grown to ETB30 per tonne. According to Belay Erku, office head of the club, they have five years sponsorship deal with Habesha Beer and Habesha Cement, which could potentially worth up to ETB80 million, in cash and in kind.
The marketing department had been working to take advantage of massive fans across the country for fund raising events. “We do not just wait for a fan to come where we are. We take the advantages of technologies. We are now working with mobile and agent banking services to register funs and mobilise resources,” says Belay.
Moreover, Coffee is also taking the maximum benefit of their larger spectators. Instead of sharing the match-day revenue with others, they are allowed to take their home games to Abebe Bikila Stadium if Addis Ababa Stadium hosts another game.
Unlike the other clubs, Coffee is now living within its financial means. Last year, their income even surpassed expenses by more than ETB4 million. This year, the club plans to collect ETB43 million, which is around ETB10 million more than last year’s revenue. Having a well diversified finance source, Coffee seems to be at much lower risk of financial instability. This isn’t the case with several clubs in the country.
Now Chanyalew (Gashie Chane, as the younger fans affectionately call him) is a happy man. He usually attends matches that the Coffee FC plays in Addis. Seeing the team he helped its establishment 40 years ago growing bigger and bigger, pleases him so much. That’s why he still sings and dances at Keman Anishe, far right corner of the stadium.
In a meeting held recently, the fans association surprised Chane with an award fully waiving fees to attend the club’s games for life. “He deserves even more,” said Solomon Tamrat, vice president of the association. The ETB10,000 gift from Workeshet Bekele, the owner of Worbek Plc, was also another surprise to the oldest fun of the club to keep coming to watch his beloved team.
Though he looks a bit concerned about some divisive motives among the fans, Fekade hopes Coffee will grow bigger. “I see Coffee as my first born child,” says the father of three. Even sitting in his office where he runs his business, Mochaland Import & Export, the general manager never quit thinking of his team. Rolling his eyes around, one can only see certificates, personal trophies, and photographs related to Ethiopia Coffee. On top of the signing board that the fans brought to him recently, one can see various handwritten words. The boldest however reads, “Long Live Chento!” EBR
5th Year • February 16 2017 – March 15 2017 • No. 48