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Let’s do coffee, the Lagos way

Let’s do coffee, the Lagos way
  • PublishedJanuary 1, 2016

Legend has it that, as with many other things, Africa – Ethiopia to be precise – is the birthplace of coffee, and visiting Nigeria’s capital Lagos today reveals an unprecedented, thriving coffee culture. Welcome to The Jazzhole, the Art Café, and Café Neo, to name a few hip cafés taking Lagos by storm, where your guide is Emmanuel Akinwotu.   

The 90s “caffé latte culture” explosion and the almost global appetite for evaporated black beans, never really caught alight in Nigeria. In the last few years coffee has had emerging traction. But the increasing number of cafés that have opened speak to more than an affinity for coffee in and of itself. That affinity is real, but is interwoven with the value of entering a free, quiet and public space, likely with WiFi, within Nigeria’s frenetic, populous cities.

On a main but quiet road in Ikoyi, an affluent corner of Lagos, on the island across from the mainland, The Jazzhole café is easily missable, even if you’re looking for it. But the book and music store has existed discretely since 1975. Through the door, hanging on the walls and along the ceiling, are select photos of iconic figures; Etta James and Charlie Chaplin, national legends like Fela Kuti and Ebenezer Obey. Old issues of Fader and The Financial Times sit in piles beneath the music stands with a breadth of genres indiscriminate of the Spice Girls, Ibeye, or Macy Gray.

Deep in the far end of the store, the café has been open for the last 10 years. Jazzhole is owned by Glendora, the oldest bookshop chain in Lagos. Olatundun Tejuosho, who started the café , is forthcoming bordering on blasé about coffee culture in Lagos. “Yes, it is definitely a thing here now. Coffee has really become more popular but also, people like the bookshop itself. It’s coming into a nice environment here, reading or taking a break, and of course the coffee too.”

Jazzhole offers coffee but in reality it’s the tea they’re passionate about. The shop offers nearly 40 different varieties of tea. Hot drinks on the whole, Olatundun insists, are on the up, but coffee’s ascent is particularly notable. “When you think of Nigerian life, coffee hasn’t been something you’d fit into that. But you know the more we travel to different places, we start to adopt these things.”

 

New-kids-on-the-block

A green “Easy Street” road sign hangs on the wall above multi-coloured teapots and mugs and a menu chalked on a blackboard. The dim lights deceive you into feeling you have to search for the reel of classic and contemporary literature and records, but they are nothing close to scarce at every turn. A red British telephone box sits high on the side of the counter, where there are traditional instruments and insignia on display. There’s a makeshift stage in the corner where Asa, Brymo and Nneka have all performed in the last year.

The café has the feel of a chapter tucked in the middle of one of its books. “Ultimately it’s the bookshop that is the main thing here. I decided to give the café a try because customers came and wanted to stay around and you know it made sense that they’d want to sit and relax in a place like this. It has been going for over 9 years now and it’s doing well.” The coffee is one prism but the place itself is another.

If Jazzhole was an anomaly in Lagos, in a sense it no longer is. There are new kids on the block, cafés that aren’t necessarily as hipster but that each offer something different. Barely 10 minutes’ drive away in the Victoria Island area, if the traffic is kind, there is the Art Café, initially a gallery, which also added a café to cash in on a growing popularity.

Beneath the café and flowery outdoor seating is a dance studio that holds Zumba classes, an exhibition room of paintings from independent Nigerian artists, and a shop crammed with artwork and antiques. The art is the focal point, with paintings lining the walls on the steps up to the café. The art in the café itself draws on heavily western themes. In the background, talk of friends and lives linked and based abroad floats in and out of hearing.

The free WiFi means there is a small loyal following of young photographers, journalists and artists, both native and foreign. The store takes pride in its coffee but for customers, the catch is in the space provided.

Here on Lagos Island, across the bridge from the mainland where the majority of citizens live, similar places are popping up here and there, including across the street from the Art Café.

 

African roots at Café Neo

Café Neo, a chain which started in 2014, now has 8 branches, and is growing. The chain’s success is unsurprising. They also use their own coffee brand produced in Rwanda, pitched as a “return of coffee to its African roots”. In each branch there is free WiFi, muffins and frappacinos, and light jazz playing in the background. The baristas write the customers’ names on takeaway cups. It has a deliberate Starbucks feel that is obvious and understandable.

Many businesses are adding pseudo café areas to their restaurants. For Nigerians used to places like this on their travels or expats from Europe or the US that miss them, this is a real draw. The WiFi is handy too in a city where free and reliable internet connection can be scarce. For entrepreneurs or more or less anyone with a laptop or smartphone, it’s a valuable and comfortable space.

But the prevalence of these places away from the mainland is a story in itself. When I ask Patty Mastrogiannis, who co-owns the Art Café with her husband, whether she has any plans for expanding to the areas outside of Victoria Island, she’s open yet partly dismissive. “Ikeja [Lagos State’s capital] would be a good place really, but not for now I think.”

The relatively close proximity of Café Neo’s branches, all in and around the Island, point to a similar hawkishness.

The upgrowth of these cafés shows a world away from the frenetic, more congested, more populous life on the mainland, where these new cafés remain broadly unknown. “Coffee culture” is growing, but predominantly along class lines. Coffee becoming a part of Nigerian metropolitan culture is still a long shot.

Poor infrastructure and excessive traffic stifle an out-of-work-hours relaxation culture that coffee shops in western cultures thrive on. The hours before and after work are more likely to be spent on often arduous journeys home than on social activity. Yet even now, the value of such spaces, diverse and emerging, is easy to see and revealing. The coffee is a small part of that. NA

Written By
New African

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