This study deals with the early history of Jimma town and its growth from its foundation until 1936. It explores social, economic and administrative themes, but also attempts to show the interrelationship between these themes. The town of Jimma evolved during this period from being the home-town of a relatively homogenous society and culture into a place of residence for a diverse and increasingly cosmopolitan population. Economically, the story of Jimma during this period is one of both continuity and change. It is a story of continuity because Jimma, which had been a center of trade from the very beginning, continued to be so during this period. There was significant change, however, because unlike the previous decades in which Jimma had served as a point of exchange or transit for elite goods that mostly originated from beyond the borders of the Oromo Kingdom (such as slaves, ivory and musk), during this period the town developed into the chief center for the collection, organization and export of a cash crop that was grown locally (coffee).
Economic change, therefore, resulted in both production and exchange. The social, economic and administrative history of Jimma is closely intertwined, however. The mixture of peoples and cultures, as well as the nature of the urban social institutions that evolved in the town, are closely tied to “the cash crop revolution”, which brought streams of permanent and temporary residents to the town; the evolution of the town into a chief administrative center, as well as the introduction of somewhat peculiar administrative and fiscal institutions, came about, at least in part, as a result of the location of the town in the heart of the “coffee country”, as southwestern Ethiopia came to be known. In short, both the urbanity and the urbanization of Jimma can be explained by the story of coffee production and trade. This article documents these processes extensively and accounts for the growth of a major town in modern Ethiopia.