Sara Yirga: Brewing the Future with Ethiopia’s First Love

The first-born of seven, Sara Yirga, who was very quiet as a child, is from Addis and grew up in the Dejach Wubé neighborhood.  “Arada sefer,” Sara said with a big smile.  Young Sara was full of doubts and had many responsibilities as the oldest of four girls and three boys.  Being raised by educated parents—a mother as a teacher—Sara had no choice but become studious from early on.

Sara recalls the family going through hard times but nevertheless resilient and committed.  Shared responsibilities alleviated stress and made tasks bearable; the father cooked and cleaned, which was out of society’s norm even more so than today.  Eventually in the banking business, the mother stayed extremely busy as she was committed to her development.  While the relationship was tough, Sara remembers and learned a lot from seeing her mother’s resilience; she learned a woman can have children and do what she wished.  While naturally not very chatty, Sara’s father was more available to talk.  He was organized, asked for daily reports from the children, and even created a meal prep schedule for the week.  Time management and the likes were discussed growing up.  “You live your decision,” is a way of being Sara’s father embedded in the family.

In decisions that led to her different career paths, Sara always stayed true to her desires and followed through with action—persistently.  Her project management days extend back to the NGO world in Dire Dawa, where a project supporting street children better their lives came to her as a student at Haremaya Univeristy extension program.  Twenty-two year old Sara came across a posting on a wall for a project coordinator position.  She insisted she would learn all she was asked to meet to get the position.  She landed the job. Eventually with a business management degree, Sara coordinated apprenticeships and more connections for the children.  She still sees one of the children as her daughter.  What Sara remembers profoundly is her work helping her deal with questions of life:  Why is the world not fair?  What can I do to make it better?  Following the street children project, she has worked in UN Occha, UNFAO as an Emergency Project Coordinator and the World Bank as an administration and client support specialist; she had interned for the UN in the past.  Sara explored the international NGO world from 1997 to 2008.

Then came YA Coffee Roasters.  Still in existence in the Jackross area as a retail shop, YA Mart was a grocery store first; then the coffee business was born.  That is where the client base came from said Sara, the general manager of YA Coffee Roasters.  What is the drive and connection to the company?  Dagmawi Iyasu, Sara’s life partner and a biochemist, loves mixing and extracting everything.  With Sara’s development and management background, it was a match made in heaven!  The couple educated themselves, Dagmawi receiving a Master in Coffee Economics and Science.

Sara is adamant about addressing fallacies to understand the power of tradition while embracing new ideas.  YA coffee beans are prepared using the natural and washed processes, natural being the traditional way.  This method can bring the best coffee.  The misconception that if it is not washed, it is not “specialty” coffee needs to end, she said.  As for the names of their roasts, “We don’t want to do what everyone is doing,” Sara said.  So the couple’s children’s names—Misgana and Addis Alem—along with Tefetro were identified, and Fikir was added.  The idea is to label the company’s coffee differently, separating them from the crowd.  YA Coffee Roasters, which has 10 employees, works with small-holder farmers and has many women’s hands in it.  It is about precision.  It is about perfection.  This comes naturally more with women, she said.  Women are also more trustworthy in not letting the defective beans pass, ensuring quality that contributes to the success of the brand.

Work is “relation-based” and the company doesn’t just sell to sell but is selective about who they engage in business with; they must know the coffee market, which requires intensive training that Sara and her partner conduct.  Sara is a sought-after international trainer in specialty coffee.  She is one of the three—all women—Authorized Specialty Coffee Trainers in the Country.  YA Coffee Roasters has trained many individuals as well as other local coffee businesses as specialty coffee professionals.  The partners have engaged in disseminating knowledge and trainings to the likes of Hadero, Haile Gebreselassie’s Coffee Company and The Coffee Society.  This shows YA Coffee’s commitment to make the Ethiopian coffee industry competitive worldwide.

The partners are known for speaking up for the industry to promote dialogue and bring sector-related issues to the attention of policy-makers.  One good example is the issue of access to good coffee locally and loosening some of the regulations that are binding the value addition part of the sector from growing to become globally competitive and successful.

Sara and Dagmawi recently opened Cherish Addis, a café in Bole serving their brews and bites in an atmosphere carefully crafted locally.

What is Sara’s philosophy of life?  GIVE … AND IT SHALL BE GIVEN TO YOU.  As Sara grew up in the church, in the choir, she says it, “All goes back to the Bible.”  When she observes her thoughts and actions, she always asks:  Does it reflect the word of God?  Sara said her biggest gift is JESUS.

Success, to Sara, looks like her two and a half years of intensive involvement with AWiB – an accomplishment she is highly proud of.  She attests to the experience as one that shaped her in partnering with others and assuring a goal accomplished.  She sees being the co-founder of the Women In Coffee Association as a highlight.  The association, established in 2016, offers free trainings to women in the coffee industry at any time with arrangement and brings global partnership.    It took off with 30 women initially getting certified on “specialty coffee.”  Success to Sara is also how you impact other lives.  She sees her parents—her role models—as those who contributed greatly to her success.

Sara’s younger sisters are her role models as she believes we learn a great deal from people of all ages.  For persistency in faith, Sara looks to her sister Ruth.  For commitment to family, Sara looks to her sister Eden.

Giving back to the community is close to Sara’s heart, and it does not have to end; there are opportunities around every corner of life.  AWiB is one platform, and Women in Coffee Association, another.

Traveling is always on Sara’s mind.  As she does it for work, she definitely indulges in her free time.  She enjoys in people-watching…seeing how we interact.  When traveling the world, “(I) don’t know my color…don’t know my gender….”  That allows her to fully indulge in the experience.  With an enormous smile and twinkling eyes, Sara answers to what she is most grateful for in her life:  LIFE!

As a leader, one has to create the atmosphere to flourish for self and others.  Give all involved space to grow.  There is nothing written in stone.  A leader creates one’s own style.  “True self suffers when you try to fit a mold,” she said.  Her biggest drive to keep going?  Humanity.

To the younger generation, Sara’s message:  TRUST YOURSELF.

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