Grounds for change: Images of the Coffee Industry in Ethiopia
The consumer driven societies of Europe, the U.S, Japan and Australasia are revolting. For years they have been screwing the food producers of the world with demands of “more” and “cheaper”. Using the considerable muscle of their supermarkets, households have had ever-cheaper food delivered to their tables for many years now, but today there seems to be a whiff change in the air. There is a perceptible shift occurring in the shopping habits of the small but powerful and wealthy societies of the North. Today customers in London, New York, Tokyo and Wellington can be found at the checkouts with trolley’s and baskets full of Fairtrade labeled fruit grown in a sustainable manner in the Caribbean, T-shirts produced from non-exploitative cotton plantations in Asia, meat – produced on a farm that they drive past every day, chocolate, wine and coffee from real farming families in Africa. O.K, so this is perhaps not the revolution the likes of Che Guevara had in mind, but things are changing and many believe they are changing for the better.
Having spent decades eating food produced in industrial quantities, by mechanical means the Northern consumer is now increasingly concerned about food health and safety issues and the social and ecological implications of their international purchases. Given their growing distrust of conventional agro-industrial foods, consumers are tuning in large numbers to organic and Fairtrade labeled products. Organic and Fairtrade products represent some of the fastest growing segments of the global food industry, with demand expanding at 20-35 percent per year.
The organic and Fairtrade movements criticise, what they believe to be, the unsustainable and unreasonable character of the global food system. They argue that the agro-industrial food system under-values true ecological and social production costs and therefore fuels the degradation of environmental and human resources, particularly in the South. They argue that since mainstream political and economic institutions fail to stem this degradation, there is a need for the organic and Fairtrade movements to develop their own higher ecological and social standards and voluntary certification. They have developed labeling systems that identify products matching these standards, helping the consumer to purchase products that match these standards.
“Certified Organic” means that the food produce was grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which not only benefits the environment by minimizing contamination of soil, waterways and wildlife, but it also protects the farm workers’ health by reducing their exposure to these chemicals. However, organic certification does not address economic inequality or social justice issues.
Buying Fairtrade coffee does. It enforces the concept of social justice in supporting the concept of the rural family. Instead of buying coffee from a large corporation hiring individual, unrelated workers, Fairtrade coffee provides a unique opportunity to directly support the small rural farmer and his family. Because they are dependent on the annual harvest of their crop as their sole source of income and thus their vehicle for food and human dignity, the Fairtrade farmer is viewed as a trusted steward of the earth. Conversely, the hired hand is paid for his or her labour and is therefore not motivated by stewardship of the land.
The Fairtrade Mark was created in 1994 in Britain. The first product to receive the Mark was Green and Blacks’ Maya Gold chocolate. Over the next 10 years many national initiatives followed in other countries, based on the Fairtrade Foundation “model”. In 1997 Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO) was established to set international standards for all products and to certify producers. FLO now has 21 “national affiliates”. Accompanying this growth was the founding of commercial organisations, such as Cafe direct and the Day Chocolate Company in Britain, and AgroFair in the Netherlands, to trade exclusively in Fairtrade products.
“We have been Fairtrade Certified for two years. Our members have greatly benefited from the profits generated. On top of that, we are now getting technical and financial support that enables us to continue our tradition of excellence. Therefore, Fairtrade membership is very important to our organisation and its members,” says Tadesse Meskela, General Manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union Ltd, Ethiopia (O.C.F.C.U.) and hero of the 2006 documentary film Black Gold.
Tadesse grew up in the countryside outside Addis Ababa in the 1960’s. By the early 1990s he was working as a senior expert in the state Agricultural Bureau and after a two-month co-operative training placement in Japan, was inspired to develop a union of coffee co-operatives as a way for farmers to retain some of money being paid out for the services of middlemen and exporters. O.C.F.C.U was founded in 1999 by 35 small certified-organic cooperatives. Its members, indigenous farmers located in the vast Oromia State of southern and southwest, live in the mountainous, rainforest areas at altitudes of 1,500 to 2,000 metres of Ethiopia, producing 65% of the country’s coffee.
The Union’s mission was to make its members economically self-sufficient and ensure that families could feed themselves when the harvest fails and famine threatens. It aimed to maintain the quality of coffee production, increase farmers’ incomes and strengthen the capacity of the organisation so that members were less vulnerable to external forces such as the current crisis in world coffee prices. So far the Union has facilitated the building of four new schools, seventeen additional classrooms, four health centres, two clean water supply stations, and $2 million have been returned back to the farmers in the form of dividends. Today Tadesse represents 129 co-operatives and the livelihood of over 120,000 coffee farmers, which, including their families is over half a million people.
By 2001, coffee prices had fallen to their lowest levels ever, totalling less than one third of 1960 levels. This fall in prices impacted more than 25 million households in coffee-producing countries world-wide and has undermined the economic sustainability of a number of countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Ethiopia is one of those countries.
Several factors contributed to the decline in coffee prices: the dismantling of the International Coffee Agreements’ price regulation by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a fluctuating market, the exploitation of market power by roasters and retailers, rapid supplier growth with not enough demand and policies implemented by the World Trade Organization (WTO). One such policy in the 1990s saw Vietnam increase its coffee production by 1,400 per cent, much of it at the expense of smaller coffee producers in other countries.
Amid the turmoil the multinational coffee companies continued to dominate an industry worth over $80 billion, making coffee the most valuable trading commodity in the world after oil.
Making coffee production more sustainable, as the O.C.F.C.U is attempting to do, would grant small-scale family farmers, who produce 75 percent of the world’s coffee supply, a living wage. When coffee prices fall, the economic and social effects are profound. Oromia operates under an Auction Market Waiver that allows it to export directly to specialty markets in the USA, Europe and Japan. This means it can bypass both middlemen and the Ethiopian coffee auction and therefore achieve a much higher price for its members’ coffee. Oromia provides credit facilities and technical assistance to its members and has acquired funding from the Common Fund for Commodities to set up a cashew nut project to diversify incomes.
In 1999 World Bank Development Data stated that under a quarter of Ethiopian children completed education. Tadesse points out; “The farmers cannot afford to buy school uniforms for children, cannot afford to pay even a small amount of contribution to the schools, they cannot afford to pay for food for when they stay in school.” Recognising the essential role of education in the fight against poverty, Oromia is in the process of building and extending primary schools in order to help farmers keep their children in school.
“Buongiorno!” Mulugeta Ababa calls out from the doorway of his house in Choche village the “home” of coffee, in the heart of the Oromia State, (although Italy under Mussolini, occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, the Italians failed to colonise it in the European “Scramble for Africa”). Inside his two roomed home Mulugeta introduces his wife Wegaye, and six children. Their farm is of an average size and includes 1.2 hectares of coffee (about 1000 bushes), a quarter of hectare maize, an ox and three cows. After school the Ababa children help on the farm – carrying out chores that all children are expected to carry out in these farming households.
When asked about the benefits of Fairtrade to the family Mulugeta replies “There is an educational benefit to the children because of the extra classrooms at the school. And because of extra income, both from Fairtrade and from the dividend paid by the Coop, we can buy clothes and books for them, too. There is also the benefit to the community of potable water from the protected spring when the village water supply is interrupted. We are also building a clinic.”
Scars from the coffee crisis in 2001 still run deep in many of the coffee producing families. Mulugeta speaks of the time when the price of coffee was 9 birr per farasula (a traditional Ethiopian measurement, equivalent to 17 kg) for cherries, compared to the 450 birr per farasula he is now getting. Catastrophic though this was they did not suffer like some, because they had maize in reserve. But they did have to sell their cows, and for some time the children did not go to school. When asked about the future he replies, “I worry about the price of coffee falling again, and the price of grain rising, but I am sure the Fairtrade premium will help if it happens again.”
Buying Ethiopian Fairtrade coffee is making a difference. Farmers, like Mulugeta, and communities, like Choche, are currently better off than they have been. Safe water sources have been protected; classrooms and clinics have been built. Farmers are raising their production standards and have more money to spend on their families and their businesses. They are beginning to plan for the future, and their children’s futures. Their wives are able to visit clinics when they or their children are sick; their working conditions are safer. However, they are still very poor and if we for one moment believe that the current Fairtrade premium and price alone will lift them out of the grinding poverty of the subsistence farmer we will be greatly mistaken. “Coffee in Ethiopia is produced by desperate people. The only thing that keeps them in coffee is that they lack alternatives.” Is Tadesse’s grim analysis of the situation. At present buying Fairtrade and organic coffee is a start, a good start, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Poor countries like Ethiopia need more and better-targeted aid, particularly in the agricultural sector, and many more of us buying Fairtrade certified coffee.
Tadesse Meskela’s dream is for farmers like Mulugeta the world over. “One day the consumer will understand what they are drinking and eating. Consumers can bring about change if awareness is given to them. It is not only about coffee, all products are getting a very low price – and the producers are highly affected. Coffee farmers need not only better prices than they are getting in consumer countries, and that includes Fairtrade, but also government support in the form of subsidies – after all that’s what farmers in the North get, don’t they?