Ethiopian woman opens café in Beirut, calls on Lebanese to fight for a better future

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An Ethiopian domestic helper, Coco, has been the Lebanese capital’s talk of the town thanks to her newly launched mini-café that has been gaining publicity over the last few weeks.

With its small and cozy wooden-style exterior seating area, Cafe Coco opens its doors for clients from 7 a.m. until midnight daily.

With her friendly smile, 33-year-old Coco Setargachew Hiowt prepares multiple types of coffee using Ethiopian beans as she welcomes her clients in the mini cafe in one of Beirut’s neighborhoods.

Having spent over 13 years in Lebanon, Coco refused to leave Lebanon amid its worst economic catastrophe and current dollar shortage, the currency in which her salary was once paid.

Many domestic workers from Ethiopia have sought ways to leave Lebanon due to the economic crunch and the devaluation of the local currency that have set in even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Support from her sponsor

Coco’s sponsor and employer Eddy Ebrahim supported her startup.

“I told my sponsor [Eddy] I don’t want to leave Lebanon despite not getting my salary in dollars anymore. I stayed here and specifically as things took a deeper nosedive,” she said. “I love this country … it is my second home. I decided to stay here, fight and work harder. I am sure that the citizens should not leave as well. This is their country and I trust that it will rise again. Lebanese should stay and work for the best of their homeland.”

Meanwhile Eddy, who is a shop owner, said that Coco is a loyal and hardworking person as much as she is a patient, successful and self-determined woman.

“She didn’t mind not getting her salary in dollars anymore when I told her so. Coco surprised me when she decided to stay here and [open] her own business. Despite my limited capabilities and resources, I supported her to the maximum and provided her with a small corner to sell coffee in one of my shops,” Eddy told Al Arabiya English.

At the age of 16, Coco came to Lebanon for the first time in 2006 to work as a domestic helper for a lawyer in Beirut’s Fern Al Chebbak neighborhood where she met Eddy and his family.

Her former sponsor passed away in 2016 and she returned to Ethiopia.

“I contacted Eddy and told him I love Lebanon and want to return… he issued me residency in 2018, and I came to stay with his mother.”

When the economy deteriorated, “Eddy encouraged my idea to buy a small coffee machine to sell coffee, in the corner of his shop,” she said who bought the coffeemaker for 400,000 Lebanese pounds from her own pocket.

Nearly nine weeks have passed since she started selling coffee, and for Coco, business is starting to pick up. Her coffee has a reputation for its affordability at a time when few things are and the good taste of the hand-roasted coffee beans, which she roasts herself.

Coco Setargachew Hiowt, an Ethiopian woman who worked in Lebanon as a domestic worker has opened Café Coco. (Bassam Zaazaa)
Coco Setargachew Hiowt, an Ethiopian woman who worked in Lebanon as a domestic worker has opened Café Coco. (Bassam Zaazaa)

Eddy believes that through her obvious willpower Coco’s story delivers a positive message to Lebanese citizens not to ditch their country and migrate but rather stay and fight.

“Lebanon is a great country to fight for change … I love this place as much as I love my homeland,” said Coco, who said that she is a strong supporter of the October 17 revolution.

During Al Arabiya English’s visit to Coco’s café, a young man and his mother happened to be seated on a couch chatting and sipping coffee.

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Preferring to remain unnamed, the mother and her son invited clients to come enjoy a “tasty coffee at a comfy café.”

Blend of cultures

“My compatriots and Lebanese friends and clients have been encouraging and supporting me on social media. It started with a word of mouth and now the media is all over the place. This is becoming a trendy buzz across social media platforms. It all started with a small coffeemaker.

Thanks to Eddy’s unlimited support, the place has turned into a mini-café. The blend that I have managed to create herein between the Lebanese and Ethiopian cultures and tastes seem to attract further customers,” she explained.

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Clients from distant areas [outside Beirut] of Zahle, Jounieh, Batroun, Tripoli and others have been visiting her café to enjoy her delicious coffee, she said.

However, Coco said the dollar crisis that has badly affected Lebanon has not spared her business. She imports coffee beans from Ethiopia and pays a person $10 a week who flies weekly to her homeland to bring her supplies, which also cost $10.

“Everybody has been supporting me. In return, I call on all my Lebanese friends and the citizens not to leave their country, stay and work for this lovely land. If they leave, who will make the change … Lebanese should stay and work for a better Lebanon. I am confident Lebanon will rise again,” she said.

Meanwhile, Eddy concluded by pointing at Coco and saying “most Lebanese should learn from this successful prototype.”

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