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Ken Kerr

Coffee with a conscience

How the fairness gets into fair trade coffee

By Mike Milne

With Nicolle at piano lessons and eight-year-old Jack in the back seat -- glued to a video on the car's DVD player -- Jennifer Weaver has one more stop, her favourite fine food shop in one of the strip malls that dot the Toronto-area suburban city of Aurora, Ont. Her shopping list is short: an easy dinner and coffee for breakfast.

Jack's distracted by the cookie display, but the fair trade label on the coffee grabs Weaver's attention. Then she gets a whiff of the coffee beans, redolent of fruit, chocolate and flowers. It's Organic Ethiopian, $13.95 a pound, twice what she usually pays. It's fairly traded, she's told, so small coffee farmers in Africa get a decent price and a better life. She decides to give it a try and heads to the checkout counter.

Half a world away, at the Hafurssa Farmers' Co-operative in southern Ethiopia, Muluwork Tessema is picking defects from red coffee cherries she just delivered, hands moving deftly through a square wooden tray holding about 20 lbs.Around her, the green forested hills and patchwork clearings of the Gedeo zone 400 km south of Addis Ababa are densely populated but lush and productive. On her land, Muluwork can grow avocadoes, pineapples, guavas, payayas, bananas and citrus fruits along with enset, the starchy local staple food. Trees provide firewood and shade for her coffee bushes.

It's early November and the co-op is processing the first fruits of the four-month coffee harvest at its hillside pulping and drying station. A widowed mother, Muluwork lives with her six children and two grandchildren and farms just over an acre of coffee and other crops.

In the three years she has belonged to the co-op, her life has slowly improved. "They are buying coffee at a good price now," she says, "and I get a dividend, too." The extra money has helped increase her herd of cattle and sheep, build a new house and keep her children in school.

The co-operative buys her Yirga-cheffe coffee for an initial payment that is equal to the quick cash offered by free market traders. The added dividend paid later comes from profits earned when her co-op's umbrella co-operative union sells the coffee to roasters around the world.

Jennifer Weaver and Muluwork Tessema couldn't live in more different worlds, but they are connected and the currency of that connection is a coffee bean. Muluwork has grown the coffee and Weaver has purchased it through a marketing system that returns more coffee profits to the people who grow it. Not a new idea, fair trade is a simple but elegant equation that may be the only hope for small coffee farmers in a free market world where corporate profits often come at the expense of the most vulnerable people.

I have come to Ethiopia with photojournalist Ken Kerr to see whether fair trade has the traction to pull those farmers out of poverty and narrow the gap between producers in the global South and consumers in the affluent North.

A legendary goatherd named Kaldi first discovered coffee in Ethiopia around AD 800. The bean is a source of historical pride and revenue, providing almost half of the sub-Saharan nation's export income. But coffee farmers aren't getting rich selling their prized product. If they were to receive an average share of the country's gross national income, the typical Ethiopian family would earn $1,440 a year. But the average coffee grower earns about one-quarter of that -- less than $1 a day.

Coffee is the world's second most valuable trade commodity after oil, worth almost $10 billion a year at wholesale prices. Ethiopia is its fifth-largest producer behind Indonesia, Vietnam, Colombia and Brazil. All coffee producers are at the mercy of a New York-based world market that sets its prices through public bidding based on supply and demand.

Coffee prices began slipping in the early 1990s after long-standing quotas set by international agreement fell apart. Around the same time, Vietnam -- encouraged by the World Bank -- increased coffee production tenfold and flooded markets. By 2002-03, coffee prices were at a 30-year low -- as little as 45 cents a pound, compared to today's free market price of about $1.20. Many coffee growers, including Sidama Region farmer Asefa Adolla, pulled out their coffee bushes. With eight children in school, Asefa couldn't wait around for coffee prices to recover, so he started farming khat, a plant with a mildly stimulant leaf that is chewed legally by many Ethiopians and Somalis, illegally by growing numbers of Canadians and Europeans. Prices have rebounded in the last couple of years, and Asefa has replanted coffee. But growing coffee still does not earn him enough to support his family. When I toured his well-tended farm near Yirgalem I noticed coffee and khat intercropped with enset, ginger, fruit trees and vegetables.

The free market still handles most of Ethiopia's coffee business. Independent traders buy coffee beans directly from farmers for a single cash payment then sell them at auction in Addis Ababa. Exporters mark up the prices and sell to roasters around the world, pocketing the profits.

Though still smaller than the free market, the fair trade market is growing exponentially. Hundreds of local farmers’ co-operatives that meet fair trade standards set by European-based agencies buy and process their members’ coffee. The co-ops sell directly through regional unions to fair trade roasters at a higher-than-market price set by the international Fair Trade Labelling Organization. Profits that would otherwise go to middlemen and exporters are returned to farmers and their communities in the form of fair trade dividends.

Consumers who pay more than twice as much as they would for free market coffee complete the transaction. More and more people are buying in —Canadian fair trade sales are soaring, up 46 percent in 2005. What began as a grassroots alternative-trade movement is gaining momentum in the marketplace.

We arrive in Mojo, a busy crossroads town about 60 km south of Addis Ababa, where a party is under way. A well-amplified band singing in Amharic and Oromo is entertaining about 400 farmers milling around an outdoor stage. I elbow my way past them, through the dusty compound and into a cavernous cement-block warehouse housing an agricultural trade show. Today, the Lume Adama Farmers’ Co-operative Union is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Lume Adama was the first of a wave of Ethiopian co-operative unions developed in the last decade to help local co-operatives market their agricultural products. There are now 140 such unions across the country, including six dealing exclusively with coffee farmers.

In one of 50 booths filling the warehouse, the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Union greets visitors with a cup of coffee, served by a woman in a traditional white robe. It’s a good way to begin a meeting with the union’s general manager.

Tadesse Meskela is well known in local and global coffee marketing circles as the main subject in Black Gold, a 2003 documentary film about Ethiopia’s fair trade coffee program. With help from activists around the world, Tadesse has enlisted some high-profile help in his fight to improve the lives of Ethiopian coffee farmers. Back in the union’s Addis Ababa office, Tadesse’s computer screensaver shows a photo of him with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a 2004 meeting.

The Oromia coffee union was founded in 1999 to help 34 local coffee co-ops sell their beans. It now has 129 member co-ops with 130,000 farm families and sales of $12 million annually. The success of the Oromia union has spawned five other newer regional coffee co-operative unions marketing coffee for 135,000 more farmers.

As the fairly traded portion of the country’s coffee business grows, the co-operative unions enjoy increasing support from the Ethiopian government. They also get help from international organizations such as Oxfam, which funds coffee unions’ promotional trips abroad and local co-op equipment purchases through its Addis Ababa Oxfam America office.
Local co-operatives are also investing in their own communities. Oromia co-ops have used fair trade dividends to build five primary schools, 17 classrooms, four health posts, a bridge, an electrical supply system and 36 community water systems. This year, total dividends paid to farmers through their local co-ops jumped to nearly $800,000.

International coffee-tasting “cuppers” rank the coffee grown by Ethiopian co-ops among the world’s best. Like fine wine, gourmet appeal commands better prices. Nevertheless, coffee farmers — even those in the fair trade system — remain among Ethiopia’s poorest, says Tadesse. During lunch in the shady outdoor courtyard of a Mojo restaurant, he looks at the well-dressed and well-fed grain farmers crowding around the buffet table. “Not many coffee farmers here.”

Kerr and I and our driver-translator-consultant Salfiso Kitabo head further south, where there are lots of coffee farmers. The rugged Nissan four-wheel-drive rental takes us past the regional capital city of Awasa and deep into coffee country. We share the road with overloaded buses and trucks, as well as hump-backed Ethiopian cattle herded by itinerant traders or local boys. In towns and villages, donkeys, carts, goats and people line the dusty roadsides. Children watch passing traffic, play soccer or hold lumps of charcoal to indicate an adult is lurking nearby trying to make a clandestine sale.

In the sunny, flat fields of the Great Rift Valley, farmers harvest teff, a fine grain used to make injera, the sourdough flatbread that is part of most Ethiopian dishes.

Off the main highway, the nearly impassable secondary roads are lined with tukuls, the round, mud-walled, thatched-roofed huts where farmers and their families live. Children run alongside our Nissan as we negotiate monster potholes. They shout, “You, you, you!” or “Highland!” (Got an empty Highland Springs water bottle?) or, most commonly, “ferengi!” (foreigner!) as an all-purpose greeting or public announcement.

The high population density means almost all arable, accessible land is cultivated, used for housing or shared pasture, right up to the rounded hilltops. Even under forest canopies, people grow crops in clearings. Coffee trees, growing over four metres but pruned for easy harvesting, thrive in the shade everywhere.

In the fertile green hills south of Awasa, it’s easy to forget my two earlier visits to Ethiopia, when Canadian-backed food aid and development projects were on the agenda. My last visit was in 2003, when about 13 million Ethiopians were threatened by drought and famine. Since then, the country has had more consistent crops and has also been better prepared for food shortages.

Part of Canada’s $75 million annual development assistance to Ethiopia is helping the Ethiopian government create a “safety net program” for about eight million people who are chronically short of food (the technical term is “food insecure”). Some are among the 15 million people who rely on
coffee farming. Canada also funds programs aimed at improving marketing and productivity, mainly among livestock farmers. Two pilot projects are helping coffee farmers improve the quality of sun-dried coffee by providing micro-financing to let them buy drying racks.

According to co-op officials, the average coffee farming family has seven children. They work land that the government owns but allows them to use. In the dark tukuls, parents sleep to one side of the entrance, children to the other and animals in a back room partitioned by woven mats. An open cooking fire sits in the centre of an earthen floor. Farmers with extra cash upgrade to more Western-style homes with square mud-plastered walls, windows and steel roofs.

Ethiopians don’t like to parade their poverty. So when visitors arrive, fair trade co-operatives push their most successful farmers to the front. But they also tell me that many farmers can’t keep their children in school year-round, lacking either the $2-a-month cost or adequate food.
It is easy to see how a fair trade dividend that raises their coffee income by 16 to 25 percent can make a huge difference in the life of an Ethiopian coffee-farming family.

Morning rain has turned the fertile soil to mud by the time I arrive in Yirga Cheffe, the town whose name is becoming synonymous with quality coffee. The only indications of its claim to fame are a truck checkpoint monitoring coffee shipments and an oversized jebena, the traditional black clay pot used in coffee ceremonies, mounted on a concrete platform in a tiny fenced-in park.

Downtown Yirga Cheffe is a grimy strip of small cafés and shops, most little more than kiosks. A new single-storey hotel and restaurant, with a walled courtyard and modern amenities such as ensuite bathrooms and hot running water, awaits visiting officials, journalists and ferengi coffee buyers from Europe, Japan and the U.S.A.

Turning off the main highway, we head east to Hafurssa where we are about to meet Muluwork Tessema for the first time. As shops and houses give way to forests and farms, red carpets of sun-drying red cherry coffee appear along the roadside and the sweet, fermenting odour of coffee being processed lingers in the air. The rain stops just as we drive into the fenced coffee-processing compound of the Hafurssa Farmers Co-operative. During the November to February coffee harvest, farmers who are co-op members bring their red cherry coffee here. Lower-quality cherries are sun-dried whole for local consumption on drying racks.

The pulping machine, fermenting tanks and washing troughs remove the best coffee beans from the cherries. The beans are then laid out to dry on two-dozen rows of raised racks perched on the sloping hillside.

It’s legal for Ethiopians as young as 14 to work, but no one under 18 works here. At noon, workers take an hour-long break. These working conditions and age restrictions, plus equal opportunities for women, are all part of strictly enforced fair trade requirements.

As the washed coffee beans dry in the sun, Muluwork joins the sorting crew, removing any broken or substandard beans. Dried beans are bagged and stored in a warehouse before being trucked for final processing and sorting in Addis Ababa. Once there, both free market and fair trade coffee beans are tested to verify grading, before and after final processing.

You can’t tell the difference between fair trade and free market coffee by taste. But what happens next makes a big difference. The free market beans go to a daily auction where Ethiopian export buyers and brokers representing multinationals such as Procter and Gamble, Kraft, Nestlé and Sara Lee purchase them. Fair trade coffee beans bypass the auction and head straight for container ships docked at the Red Sea port of Djibouti for direct export to buyers worldwide.

Fair trade coffee beans bound for Canada make their way to companies that include the Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op in Wolfville, N.S., Planet Bean in Guelph, Ont., Alternative Grounds and the Green Beanery in Toronto, plus Invermere, B.C.’s Kicking Horse Coffee, and Saanichton, B.C.-based Level Ground Trading Ltd. Churches are among Canada’s most vigorous fair trade coffee boosters, but the gospel of fair trade is now spreading beyond the sanctuary walls to specialty shops and growing numbers of fair trade cafés. Many supermarkets are beginning to stock fair trade coffee, too.

At the end of a long day in Aurora, Ont., Jennifer Weaver pulls into her brick-paved driveway, the house porch lights flicker on and the garage door lifts automatically. The kids pile out and head inside. In her kitchen she puts away her purchases and switches on the convection oven to make dinner.

In near-equatorial southern Ethiopia, darkness engulfs Muluwork Tessema as she heads home along a narrowing dirt road. Light from electric lamps glows inside the homes she passes and radios blare music. The co-operative installed the electrical service with its portion of the fair trade dividend last year. Next year, if profits hold up, there will be a central water system: less work for her daughters, more time for school work.
She has no way of knowing that Weaver has made a simple household decision that can bring that dream a little closer to reality. What she does know is that her life is slowly getting better. And that’s likely all that Weaver needs to know as well.

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.


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