I love coffee – from its unique aroma to its velvet taste – and one cup of Good Arabica coffee can satisfy all day!  Recent health reports conclude that drinking coffee has health benefits too.  Coffee contains antioxidants as well as minerals including magnesium and chromium and drunk in moderation may help reduce certain conditions such as diabetes, Parkinsons disease, dementia, high cholesterol and strokes.  But whether coffee is good for us or not, it is the morning drink of choice for millions of people all over the globe. 

Despite being raised in Ethiopia, I am ashamed to admit that I grew up as a child thinking that coffee came from Italy – so strong was the marketing of the roasting and blending that little thought was given to the small modest bean let alone the farmers who nurtured and harvested the plant.

In 2003 at a time when fluctuating global coffee prices were crippling the livelihoods of farmers, a documentary film team decided to fly to Ethiopia to investigate and report on the plight first hand.  They discovered that this coffee crisis impacted 15 million people in Ethiopia who relied on coffee for survival and that the country’s economy derived almost 70% of its export income from coffee. It also highlighted the fact that the farmers without whom coffee could not be harvested were paid a pittance. The release of the film in 2006 called Black Gold and screened in over 60 international film festivals worldwide had an immediate ripple effect and countless people not only became aware for the first time about the entire process from bean to cup but learned about the incredible disparity in profits within the industry and began to make conscious Fair Trade coffee choices.  Through time people power definitely made an impact and helped resolve the coffee crisis through positive action and personal choices and slowly but surely the farmers finally started being recognized and became regarded as the unsung heroes within the coffee industry.

But the real story goes back much further and begins with the life and vision of an Ethiopian man named Tadesse Mekela who was born and raised in the countryside just outside Addis Ababa. The son of an agricultural farmer, Tadesse grew up poor – walking to and from school for two hours each day barefoot because his parents were too poor to buy him a pair of shoes or send him to school with a packed lunch. He knew first hand about the struggles of a farmer trying to support a family and was determined to work hard at school and receive an education as a route out of poverty. At the heart of this, Tadesse also had a dream and a determination to somehow help alleviate the poverty of men like his father.  Since agriculture was the backdrop to his childhood, it seemed the obvious choice of career for Tadesse and he was inspired and encouraged by his 8th grade teacher to apply for agricultural college.  He excelled academically at high school and college from where he joined the Ministry of Agriculture as a farm management expert within a newly created department.  Within a few years, Tadesse had been recruited to be the Oromia Minister of Agriculture.  The regional state of Oromia is one of the largest in Ethiopia and covers 65% of the most fertile land in the country for coffee production.

This was a position Tadesse knew he would be able to use to promote and implement real and positive change for the farmers and to improve both their lives and productivity.  To do this Tadesse wanted to reform the existing cooperatives so that they would truly benefit the farmers. After an opportunity to attend a 2-month cooperative training program in Japan, Tadesse became convinced that this indeed was the only way to move forward. However, he needed to impress and convince the Oromia management upon his return that the existing and long run model of cooperatives needed to be updated and restructured. Once he had convinced them, setting about establishing new and fair cooperatives became his sole focus. Tadesse worked on the premis that if the farmers themselves could join the cooperatives, they would be taken out of poverty. This meant ensuring that they were treated fairly and assisting them with improving their productivity and competence on all levels

With the newly formed cooperatives proving successful but the coffee prices still at an all time low, Tadesse then turned his attention and work towards forming a Union for these cooperatives, so that they could begin to see real dividends from their collective hard work and that huge amounts of revenue would not continue to go to middlemen and exporters. During 1999 the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Union was established, with 35 member cooperatives, which for the first time allowed them to start to sell their coffee for a higher price within a regulated and stabilized market and to improve and maintain the quality, productivity and sustainability of coffee production itself. The Union has grown to represent 197 Coops (with over 194, 000 members).

The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperatives grow both conventional and organic coffee beans over 313,613 hectares of land across the Oromia region and produce an estimated 234, 970 tons of around five different types of coffee per annum.  This includes the popular Sidamo Coffee, which Starbucks attempted unsuccessfully to trademark as their own in 2004.  To ensure this did not occur again, Ethiopia decided to successfully trade mark their own region coffees in the US (their largest export market) – including Yirgacheffe and Harar as well as Sidamo with the support of both DFID and Oxfam (UK) but had to wait three years until the Starbucks petition had been dealt with. Starbucks had refused to drop their claim, which led to public criticism of the chain and questions raised about its alleged dedication to selling ethically grown and traded coffee! By 2007 however, the Starbucks dispute finally came to a close with an agreement to work with Ethiopia rather than against – to license, distribute and market the specialty coffees unique to Ethiopia.  Other well-known coffee chains around the world especially in the USA have embraced the Oromia coffee and the UK chain Costa Coffee used their Ethiopian coffee consumption profits to build five high schools for the cooperatives

Oromia coffee farmers today get a fair price and through union membership the communities of the farmers have also improved with the building of new schools, health centres, clean water supply stations and critically that 70% of the net profit is paid back to the member cooperatives every year in the form of dividends.

The coffee beans are harvested by the farmers in their coops and then sent to regional Ethiopian Commodity Exchange centers where the beans are graded on a scale of 1-10 (1 being the highest grade) – the OCFCU only accept beans of grade 1-6 for export (7-10 grades are sold to local buyers for local consumption). Here they are meticulously sorted (coffee samples are also roasted and tasted) and thus graded before they are then sent to the Addis factory and headquarters.   Small sample bags containing this high-graded coffee bean, are then sent to prospective and regular buyers and upon approval from them – wherever they are in the world, a firm order is placed, money is wired to Ethiopia and the coffee is bagged in jute bags and sent to Djibouti for its onward global destination.

Today the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union is housed in an impressive new compound within the same countryside outside Addis where Tadesse grew up as a boy and he is the General Manager of OCFCU.  The compound includes a high tech coffee processing factory, and three large coffee storage complexes and employment for over 1500 local people. The site facilities for the employees are excellent with clean and spacious restrooms for men and women, a large canteen with windows overlooking the hills beyond and an onsite clinic with medical staff.  Tadesse is proud of the fact that this facility was constructed without any bank loans but from their own Cooperative resources.

Tadesse has much to be proud of – with the struggles of his agricultural farmer father in mind, he took up the struggle of the coffee farmer determined to fight their cause  – the road was long and often hard especially when he came face to face with Big Business and started “creating a stir” but his resolve remained firm and steadfast.  He is particularly proud of the fact that the farmers now not only get paid a fair wage but also are part of thriving and sustainable communities improving and elevating the lives and opportunities of the coop members.

If you are interested in learning more about OCFCU, or ordering coffee directly from its birthplace, Tadesse welcomes hearing from you!

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