Wake Up And Smell The Coffee

The masked economics behind the bean you enjoy

It’s 7:00 AM. Millions of people along the Pacific Coast switch off their alarms and roll out of bed and into the kitchen. Eyelids drooping, they access their stash of coffee grounds and the early morning wake-up ritual begins.

Elsewhere in the world, in the country known as the birthplace of coffee, impoverished “buna” (coffee) farmers are finishing a day of hard labour preparing their crop for sale. Multitudes of picked coffee beans will lie for the next two weeks spread over large woven pallets, sifted and stirred frequently to ensure dryness. This is Ethiopia, home to some of the world’s finest coffee. Ethiopians drink coffee routinely – the bitter brew is integral to their culture and is indigenous to the ancient Abyssinian land. It’s no surprise then that coffee comprises 60 per cent of Ethiopia’s export value.

Globally, coffee is the second most widely traded commodity, and the trade’s annual worth surpasses $150 billion. Yet the average Ethiopian coffee farmer receives just over $100 a year. That money has to support a family as well, but living in such dire poverty means frequent trips to the medical clinic, where one hundred dollars does not go very far at all. The result: Ethiopia ranks 170th out of 177 in UN development statistics.

However, Ethiopians don’t want aid, they want empowerment. In 2007, headlines reading “Ethiopia battles Starbucks” and “A Hot Cup of Money” caught my attention. Intrigued, I discovered that Ethiopia was trying to obtain trademarks for three of their major coffee-producing regions: Sidamo, Harar, and Yirgacheffe. A pound of coffee from these areas is commonly sold by Starbucks for $25, yet farmers are often paid less than 80 cents for that same pound. A trademark would raise the market value of beans recognized as distinct to that region. Starbucks ardently blocked Ethiopia’s move, invoking the National Coffee Association to declare Ethiopia’s regional areas “generic.” However, this is duplicitous: Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region coffee is trademarked in similar fashion.

By the beginning of 2007, 11 coffee companies had consented to Ethiopia’s trademark bid, in which Ethiopia promised royalty-free agreements, but Starbucks’ opposition as the leader of the global coffee trade was pivotal. It did not look like Starbucks was going to budge, but finally in May 2007 resolution was achieved. In a press release, Starbucks “agreed to recognize the importance and integrity of Ethiopian specialty coffee names.” This will hopefully result in better income for farmers and well-merited recognition for coffee such as the Sidamo region’s exquisite mocha.

I boycotted Starbucks out of loyalty to Ethiopia, my childhood home, and purchased elsewhere. My decision was met with varying degrees of understanding. Many of my friends from my university’s International Social Justice Club (Trinity Western University) gave me their full support, whereas others told me in true postmodern fashion, “I understand your decision, but that’s not for me.” Still others told me that I would never make a difference. But that wasn’t the point. I simply could not consciously support an organization battling one of the poorest countries in the world over a matter of cents per pound, cents that mean an awful lot to the farmers but are pocket change to the producer and consumer.

Above all, I was inspired by one man, Tadesse Meskela, representative of a group of 74,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers, who has traveled the US and Europe over the last three years meeting with coffee companies like Starbucks to achieve fairer prices for their beans (only 6 percent of Starbucks coffee is Fairtrade). Watch the documentary Black Gold and witness the difference he has made. In the meantime, ensure the coffee you drink doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.