Producer Profile: Ethiopia

Written by Cafe Campesino on Apr 1, 2003 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |

It is the oldest independent country in Sub Saharan Africa and the only African country that has never been colonized. Its Great Rift Valley is known as the cradle of humanity, for the fossils of the oldest known hominid, the 3.5-million ‘Lucy’ that were found there in 1974. It is a beautiful land with a troubled past and an uncertain future. And it is the birthplace of coffee.

All varieties of coffee, whether grown in Asia or Africa, Central or South America, the islands of the Caribbean or Pacific, can trace their heritage to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. The earliest records of coffee use come from Ethiopia, where the native arabica tree has been harvested for centuries. More than any other country, Ethiopia has a broad genetic diversity among its coffee varieties. Nine different bean varieties are cultivated in the four growing areas, all with distinctive tastes, sizes, shapes, and colors.

The mountains to the west of the Great Rift Valley is ideally suited to growing arabica coffee and traditionally produces some of the best coffee in the world.

The Ethiopian nomadic mountain peoples of the Galla tribe may have been the first to recognize coffee’s sustaining effect. They gathered the coffee beans from the trees that grew in the region, ground them up and mixed them with animal fat, forming small balls that they carried as rations on trips. Other indigenous tribes ate the beans as a porridge or drank a wine created from the fermented crushed coffee beans. Brewing the beans came later.

Today, Ethiopia has over 800,000 acres of coffee under cultivation. Coffee accounts for 60% of the country’s export earnings and one-fourth of the population is engaged in coffee production, transportation and marketing. By all rights, the income from the country’s coffee trade should have helped it to develop into a more advanced nation, but this not the case. Ethiopia is the poorest country in Africa and among the poorest in the world. Why? The answer lies in its war-torn history.

Centuries of Conflict

Landlocked on the eastern side of the African continent, Ethiopia sits between Sudan, Eritrea, the tiny country of Djibouti, Somalia and Kenya. Its history can be traced to the 3rd century BC, when the Queen of Sheba’s son, Menelik I, began a long-running dynasty in Axum. The kingdom of Axum survived attacks from various forces for the better part of a thousand years, but finally broke down into constituent provinces in the 18th century, triggering 100 years of armed conflict between rival warlords. The empire was reunified in 1855, and after a succession of rulers, Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (better known as Haile Selassie) became heir to the throne in 1916. He was proclaimed emperor in 1930.

From the start of his reign, Haile Selassie attempted to implement reforms and modernize the country. But World War II, and invasion by Mussolini’s troops, put his plans on hold. Selassie fled to England where he lived in exile until 1941, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. After the war, Ethiopia continued as an independent nation, although the province of Eritrea remained under British control. In 1952, the UN organized a plebiscite, federating Eritrea with Ethiopia. Needless to say, the people of Eritrea were unhappy with this course of events. In 1962, the federation was dissolved and the province was annexed by Haile Selassie. This resulted in widespread guerrilla warfare, which would last for 30 years.

Though Haile Selassie was seen by many as a national hero, opinion turned against him as the nobility and church in Ethiopia were allowed to line their pockets while millions of landless peasants starved. In 1974, a loose coalition of students, workers, peasants and the army rose up against Selassie and he was deposed. A military dictatorship, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, took over, throwing out Americans, jailing trade union leaders, banning the church and turning to the USSR for economic aid. This led to more upheaval, and Somalia saw their opportunity to invade. With help from Soviet and Cuban troops, Mengistu was able to turn the Somalis back across the border.

But Mengistu’s troubles didn’t end there. He attempted to tighten his grip on the country by instituting conscription, curfews and disastrous population transfers, and found himself with a discontented population and war in Eritrea, Ogaden and Tigray. The Eritreans took Ethiopia’s main port, the Soviets pulled out, coffee prices fell and a major famine ravaged the country. An outpouring of international relief – including the Live Aid “Feed the World” recording and concerts – helped some, but in reality did little to address the country’s widespread problems.

The Seeds of Democracy

Finally, in 1991, with rebel forces about to seize Addis Ababa, Mengistu hastily left the country. When the rebel coalition under Tigrayan Meles Zenawi took over, they inherited six million people facing famine and a devastated economy. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, however, the new leaders made moves toward democracy.

In 1994, a new constitution was written, and in May 1995, Dr. Negasso Gidada was elected President. Ethiopians were at last given a say in their government at both the local and regional levels.

Coffee Reforms

In the 1980s, the Ethiopian government created the Ministry of Coffee and Tea Development to increase production and improve the cultivation and harvesting of coffee. This ten-year plan (like all other African plans) called for the increase in the size of the state farms producing coffee from 30,000 acres to 110,000 acres by 1994 (this plan was very unrealistic). This goal was not met, due to the strains on the government’s financial resources and the consistently declining coffee prices in the world market.

With the demise of the ten-year plan, a visionary Ethiopian coffee farmer named Tadesse Meskela was inspired to improve the lives of poor farmers in his homeland. Though the coffee farmers had been organized into cooperatives, many were suffering great monetary losses to middlemen and exporters. Tadesse worked with the cooperatives and the Ethiopian government’s cooperative bureau to form a strong union. In 1999, The Oromia Coffee Famers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) was established with 34 participating cooperatives. Tadesse was appointed General Manager.

Old Conflicts Die Hard

Though reorganization into a democratic government continued throughout the 1990s, fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea over their disputed border broke out and became a full-scale war in 1998. By the time peace was established in 2000, 100,000 people had been killed and 750,000 had been driven from their homes.

The Ravages of Nature…and Politics

While the war was devastating for the government’s efforts to revitalize the Ethiopian economy, a severe drought over the last few years has put the country on the brink of a disaster of even grander proportions. The lack of crucial seasonal rains have put an estimated 10 million people in need of food. The drought has dealt a double blow to coffee farmers – threatening the quality as well as the quantity of production.

Not everyone in the country is affected by the drought, however. Water shoots from the fountains outside the Sheraton Addis, a luxury oasis in the midst of the cramped neighborhoods of the capital Addis Ababa. Well-heeled Ethiopians and tourists drive their SUVs to resorts in Lake Langano or the mountain terrain in the Simien highlands. As in many countries around the world (including our own), the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

An estimated 85% of the Ethiopia, some 55 million people, are dependent upon subsistence agriculture. Most of them have no electricity, no running water, and limited government services. Still, the population is growing quickly, from 45 million in the mid-1980s to nearly 65 million today. HIV is climbing, with more than 3 million people infected.

Add drought to the mix and the situation gets truly desperate.

Fair Trade Brings Hope

In partnership with Oxfam, OCFCU has begun an international campaign to raise consumer awareness of the plight of the Ethiopian coffee growers. During April, Tadesse Meskela has been on a speaking tour of the U.S., with stops in the west, Midwest and on the East Coast.

According to Tadesse, “There are communities that are growing coffee that have never bought clothes for the past three years. They have cancelled their marriage plans for their children because of the falling coffee prices. There is no money for the celebration that is important to the culture. Malnutrition is seen in coffee areas, because farmers…are better at [growing] their crop than saving money, so we have a plan to establish societies to help them save, then to use the money for when they are short of cash to buy food [during the growing season] when there is no harvest.”

Another essential way to fight poverty is to promote children’s education. But when families face hard times, school expenses are hard to meet. Part of the reason OCFCU is working so hard to promote sales of their coffee is that the increase in revenues going back to the communities can be used to build schools. This is addressing one of the direct barriers to education for impoverished communities in a country where only about a quarter of the school-aged children attend school.

Tadesse believes that Fair Trade is the answer. In 2001, eight of OCFCU’s cooperatives (7,107 members) became Fair Trade certified. More will achieve Fair Trade certification in the near future. In only its third year, the OCFCU is already starting to return 70% of its gross profits back to the Fair Trade cooperatives, in order to help coop members. Through its sister organization Cooperative Coffees, Café Campesino buys Yirgacheffe and Sidamo beans from OCFCU.

By increasing the revenues going back to Oromia’s coffee farmers, OCFCU is helping Ethiopian farmers continue their proud tradition of coffee cultivation in the face of the most serious economic threats they have seen in generations.

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