“Growing up, my grandma every morning, she would roast…she makes her coffee on a traditional jebena, and that’s how you start your day,” said Kinani Ahmed.
Ahmed’s birthplace of Ethiopia was already well-known for its coffee, which accounts for 34 percent of the nation’s total exports. And, sure, the Ahmed family’s homebrewed passion for roasting was a part of everyday life. But it wasn’t his primary focus early on. After completing secondary school, he moved to the U.S. to attend the University of San Francisco (USF) and study medicine.
Then he dabbled across fields, working with computers for a year until he grew tired of staring at screens. While the former USF student’s cycle of trial and error wasn’t uncommon for someone his age, he was still searching for his lifetime passion. Finally, one day, he woke up and smelled the – well, you know the rest.
“I was thinking…’Why not just coffee? Why don’t I build a company out here in the West?’ So I dove right into it and started learning about coffee,” said Ahmed.
Nine years after learning the ins and outs of the coffee industry, Ahmed launched Sextant Coffee Roasters in 2014, an independent roastery in SoMa. At first glance, the cafe sports a familiar look. Brown brick walls and jet black countertops capture the essence of an archetypical third-wave coffee movement cafe with enough legroom and internet access to pretend to work. Die-hard fans love items like the Oat Milk Chai Latte and the Pour Over, one of Sextant’s smoothest drinks. The pastries fly under-the-radar despite receiving enough rave reviews to deserve a shop of their own.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Sextant transcends anything material that customers see. Ahmed emphasizes social responsibility, partnering directly with farmers in countries like Kenya and Colombia to source grounds and other items. To Ahmed, the practice does more than facilitate productive relationships with suppliers – it helps farmers earn higher salaries back home in Ethiopia.
“So my whole goal is…to do it right here,” said Ahmed. “And then take what I’m doing and take it back to Ethiopia and share my knowledge to the folks over there…teaching farmers how to defend the farm.”
Coffee farmers in Ethiopia face significant disadvantages. Outdated processing efforts and limited plant varieties within farming communities impact the leverage farmers carry when negotiating deals with retail brands. Ahmed also runs an outreach program for farmers to curb these threats, educating them on product quality and global trade challenges involving coffee.
Ahmed asserts himself as an industry leader with answers to the hardest questions. But when COVID-19 spread to San Francisco, he was forced to become a jack-of-all-trades all over again.
“Right now, I’m doing everything…I’m the roaster, I’m the producer,” said Ahmed.
Unlike its pre-pandemic days, Sextant no longer operates with full staff. COVID-19 forced Ahmed to keep fewer employees since foot traffic fluctuated in recent months. Once fewer patrons walked in, he started looking for new avenues to connect Sextant’s coffee to more customers. Ahmed initially hoped to serve professionals at big tech powerhouses like Facebook and LinkedIn. However, as employees started working remotely, the idea quickly became instinct.
Now the roastery is responding in its own digital-savvy fashion. Ahmed refined Sextant’s web presence by adding an online menu that has also helped make up for lost ground in sales. The online menu offers whole bean packages of flavors like Dancing Goat and Black Lion. And the website sells equipment to create brewing experiences at home, including french presses and ceramic coffee grinders.
COVID-19 and the rest of 2020 leave Sextant—as well as other cafes—with more uncertainties ahead. Yet the only difference now is that for the first time in years, Ahmed has the same exact joy from watching his grandmother brew when he takes a hands-on approach to roasting coffee at his shop.
“It’s very challenging, really, because I have a love for coffee. I’m just having fun.”