Celebrating Fair Trade in Ethiopia

I have just returned from an amazing two weeks with the farmers of Oromia Cooperative in the far-flung reaches of southern, eastern and western Ethiopia (as in ten hours by car every other day!). I want to share with you both the amazing success of Fair Trade in Ethiopia, the sad reality of conventional farmer's lives, as well as the overheating political situation in the Horn of Africa.

The names Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Jimma and Harar are evocative, exotic and well-known in the coffee world for the incredibly high quality coffees found in those regions. Yet there exist two realities side by side in each of these regions. The bright spot is the situation of Fair Trade certified farmer coops. It makes me crazy when I hear people (mostly cafe owners) talking about how Fair Trade doesn't really help farmers or how the quality is low. I have never met one of these self-appointed experts on other people's lives who has actually been to any of the places they judge so flippantly. But it is a convenient justification for the mantra of that sector of the coffee industry "buy low, sell high". In the meantime, in the Negele Gorbitu Cooperative in Yirgacheffe there are a host of new homes since my last visit four years ago. These are substantial mud brick walled, multi-roomed buildings with tin roofs, replacing the grass huts that house extended families in this region. I asked Tasew Gebrew, one of the farmers if the sound of rain on the tin roof bothered him at night. He laughed and said that even though it was noisier than grass, the noise always reminded him of the blessings and progress in his life.

In this village, which sells all its coffee Fair Trade, children are able to go to school for the first time in history because the Coop pooled their Fair Trade premiums to build a school and hire teachers. I sat in on the math lessons one day, as illiterate kids struggled to read and learn to add, subtract and multiply. I even got up and answered one of the addition questions wrong, just to show that we all make mistakes and can learn from them. In the back of the second grade class sat several teenagers. Grade level is determined by accomplishment, not age, and since these young people had never had an opportunity to go to school before, well, they had to start from scratch. But they were determined, not embarassed, and have some hope for the future. It is really important to know that in the neighboring villages, which are not organized cooperatively and do not participate in Fair Trade, there are no schools at all, so generations of Ethiopian children will grow up illiterate and with little opportunity to better their lives. Similarly, the villagers used part of their premiums to build a health clinic, which was under construction during our visit. This will be the only health facility for about twenty miles. Coincidentally, as we drove up to the village, a group of people was walking by carrying a woman on an improvised stretcher. They were taking her to that distant health clinic. This experience made the need for that new Fair Trade funded clinic very real.

In Jimma, at Haro Cooperative, we celebrated the water supply system we paid for under our Miriam's Well program. First, we walked the mile straight downhill from the village to the stream used for water in the past. Women and children walked the mile every day and returned with one or two forty pound plastic jugs of water for the family's daily needs. Our project built a tank to capture the water directly out of the spring, before it could be contaminated by animal and human runoff. Many of the surrounding villages now get their water from the tap off the tank (about three thousand people, they told me), insuring clean, potable water for the first time ever. The villagers of Haro then dug a trench by hand, as deep as nine feet in places, through the forest to the village and built a water distribution in the village itself. Now, villagers can access clean, available water right in the town square, without having to walk the mile back and forth for possibly contaminated water. The celebration was loud, raucous and sincere, complete with a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony to bless the project. I was fortunate to be accompanied by Chris Shimkin, head of Global Village Engineers, a sort of Doctors without Borders for Engineers (Engineers without Sliderules?). Chris volunteered to come to Ethiopia and check out the water supply system, as we are looking to expand the concept but need a little professional guidance. Poor Chris, when we got to the village the distribution point was a bit clogged, so the villagers thought he was making a house call and put him to work figuring out what was wrong. Our Man With The Plan was on it instantly, and gave several suggestions on how to chek and address the problem. I am looking forward to working with GVE in a more structured way (and traveling with Chris was a real hoot!).

We also visited the family of Rahema Hussein, the young Moslem girl who holds out the coffee cups in our famous Ethiopia photo. She has finished high school, but her family can't afford to pay for any more schooling. So this bright, alive young woman was going to be sent to Saudi Arabia as a domestic servant. I made an offer, which her family accepted, to pay for her college and support her living in Addis during that time. Rahema was over-the-top happy about this arrangement, and I was officially inaugurated as her "second father" in the Oromo tradition.

In Harar, we watched as Russian-built tanks lumbered by on their way to the nearby Somali border. Ethiopian troops are already in Somalia to bolster the flagging Transitional Government in Baidoa (some say to claim Somali territory for Ethiopia), while the rest of the country is under the control of the Islamic Courts, who have their eyes on this part of Ethiopia as part of their vision of Greater Somalia. Does this stuff ever end? Harar is a very arid region and almost all of the coffee is sun dried (meaning the beans are dried like raisins, without water, instead of hulled and soaked like other coffees). The need for water systems was apparent in every village we visited, as women sat under pipes or at slow moving streams to collect their family's water. It is a tough and distant region, and the farmers are poorer by far than in other areas of Ethiopia. One bright spot is the Fair Trade-built primary school in the Oromia Cooperative there. As in Yirgacheffe, eighty kids jammed in a small classroom learning basic social skills along with reading, math and science. Our presence was incredibly disruptive, which (as a bad boy from the NYC public school system) gave me an evil delight. We went over the books of the cooperative to observe the higher payments being received by the farmers due to the Fair Trade sales. It was very real and beyond dispute.

But let me be real. Only 11 of Oromia's 80 or so cooperatives have been Fair Trade certified. They are trying hard to get 14 more certified by the end of the year. Only twenty percent of Oromia's coffee gets sold as Fair Trade. The rest gets sold under conventional pricing, which even at the current higher level does not give a farmer much to feed his family, and certainly doesn't give the community enough to build a school, a well or a health clinic. This is not Oromia's fault. It is the same coffee grown in the same manner.

The problem is that most people in the coffee industry are not willing to recognize Tadesse, Tasew and the other farmers as true partners in our businesses-they are simply cheap wage slaves whom we can give pennies to while selling their coffee for inflated prices here. It is not an economic issue - even at our higher-than-fair-trade-prices we make a very good living. It is not a quality issue - non-Fair Trade roasters are buying the same beans as we are from Oromia, just not paying the price. Quality actually improves under Fair Trade because there is simply more money for technical training, new processing equipment (Oromia is currently installing suer eco-friendly washing stations from Colombia in several coops) and the farmers have an incentive to care for their crop better if it will bring higher returns. It is not an availability issue - eighty percent of the Oromia crop is out there waiting. It is first and foremost an ethical issue, plain and simple.

So at this Holiday season, I want to personally thank you all for making a choice that has real meaning in the lives of the farmers of Ethiopia and the other eleven countries we source from. We will keep bringing you the highest quality they offer at the lowest prices we can give you. And hopefully, by the success of our example, more coffee roasters will see the win-win of Fair Trade.

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