Relationships Matter: Fairtrade Coffee in Ethiopia

Monday, March 9, 2015 | Tags: ,

More than a decade ago, towards the end of 2003 I found myself bumping down a rutted road in Ethiopia towards the coffee communities of Killenso Mokonisa and Killenso Rasa located in the Southern Sidamo region of the country. Pulling into the villages that formed the hub of these two communities I was struck by two things; the absence of any real practical material possessions, for example there was not a push bike in sight, but also most starkly by the children. The distended stomachs of the young, coupled with the hollow faces of the farmers told a story of struggle. And yet meeting the co-operative members for the first time on that trip you could see a drive to build a better future.

Ethiopia fairtrade and children

This was a tough time to be at the sharp end of the business, where coffee gets grown, picked and processed; a mixture of market speculation and global pressures had recently pushed international coffee prices to 35-year lows. This kick-started a wave of urban and cross-border migration in Central America but no such options existed here in Ethiopia, farmers just struggled on. An Oxfam report on the coffee crisis at the time quoted a multi-national coffee company as saying that “the market will find its own solution”, clearly in this part of Ethiopia it had not. Like most coffee value chains still to this day, small-holders in remote parts of Ethiopia found themselves at the end of a long chain of intermediaries stretching from Sidamo to Addis Abba, to Djibouti and beyond to roasters, grocery store shelves and espresso bar grinders into your cup. Intermediaries all with a function, but the end result is often a very small piece of the cherry for the farmer.  

Ethiopia cherry

My reason for being there at that time was two-fold, this was the start of our second season of sourcing from these villages from the community owned organisation Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union (OCFCU) and we wanted to understand more about our supply chain. I was also visiting to look at the opportunities to work on environmental standards in a part of East Africa that was plagued by poor waste water management at mills while at the same time saw communities struggling to get access to clean water.

Fast forward to February 2015, I find myself enjoying the ride down the same, slightly less bumpy “improved” road in Sidamo. This time I’m the company of one of our customers, who’s joined me in Ethiopia. I’ve been back many times in the intervening years but I reflect with her on what has changed since my last visit. Glancing out of the window I see that Addisu and Negale Shoroka and their family (shown in the first picture which was taken outside their old house) have a new house located close to the wet mill, gone is the traditional hut and in its place is a new building with a tin roof making it easier to fit a flue for the fire to reduce respiratory problems in the family. Visiting the Killenso Mokonisa community office we hear passionate farmers sharing their community success and how they are proud to have improved the quality of their coffee and income from these small-holdings for more than a decade now. This community spirit is what defines Fairtrade at its best, linking farmers with a collective will to the buyer and a coffee shop operator from the UK standing in their office. 

Ethiopian coffee farmer

Elsewhere stands a basic but functional community medical centre where back in 2003, OCFCU had committed to build such a facility. It’s been extended over the years and now has a doctor to supplement the district nurse that operates there. Similarly, where the government has struggled to meet the community’s needs, the co-op has plugged the gap building schools and classrooms with the first secondary age pupils now passing through to college supported by co-op bursaries. A simple ethos of building a successful community business and making sure it benefits the community is what Fairtrade looks like on the ground here. Back in the capital Addis Ababa, Killenso Mokonisa and Killenso Rasa have partnered with the 300 other community co-op members of OCFCU to build what is one of Africa’s most modern coffee export processing plants. Here farmers get to add more value to their crop by controlling more of the value chain that links OCFCU to us and our customers.

New OCFCU mill 

While not our first project in these communities, this visit marked a deepening of our relationship with OCFCU as we discussed our joint investment between a UK retailer and ourselves along with the Fairtrade Foundation to improve the quality of dry processed coffee here. This project will look to develop new and interesting flavours from heirloom varieties of coffee, a botanical heritage linked to Ethiopia, it being the birthplace of coffee. By focusing on this traditional way of processing coffee we’ll also reduce the process water required to prepare high quality coffee here and so play a part in our farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Coming back from Ethiopia, within days I was back on the road again to Honduras, visiting our sources for in the west of that country before heading back to Africa again and to Uganda. Our travels follow the coffee harvests and will take us to remote parts of Peru this summer before heading to Sumatra in Indonesia later in the year. The travel is a privilege, but also brings the real opportunity to build direct relationships with our farmers to better enable us to understand the real impact of how we buy and source delicious, sustainable coffee.

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