26 January 2015

Black Gold - the Story of Southern Ethiopia and Coffee


I just watched a well-made documentary about the international coffee industry, focused on Ethiopia as a source: Black Gold. (If in the States, you may be able to watch for free right now on Hulu.com.) The film does an excellent job juxtaposing the coffee farmers living in developing country conditions against the lives of the coffee consumers in developed countries. In some of the cases, the contrast is absurd. Having spent time in Ethiopia, especially the Ethiopian south that one man I traveled with called the "Green Desert," I can say that the conditions are not exaggerated. The story follows a man, Tadesse, who has created a coffee collective, based on the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. The Oromo live over a large territory, so the coffee is sourced from several different areas of Ethiopia, but the story that these regions are poor, sometimes in need of food aid, is the same. The consumers are largely oblivious to the chain of people and powers that the coffee must pass through to get in their mugs or take away cups. Why is this the case?

Global markets predict pricing on coffee. Just four multinational companies dominate the $80 billion dollar industry. Familiar names are Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee.
In fact, part of the New York Stock Exchange is responsible for price changes on coffee daily. The film states that coffee is the second biggest traded commodity on the market, after oil. Let me say that again. Coffee is the second biggest traded commodity on the market, after oil. The film shows representatives from the multinationals in Ethiopia at a trade and bidding event. The main character in the film is attempting to bypass these multinationals to bring a better price for his farmers. The Ethiopian growers in the film make about $0.10 a kilogram. It is not clear to me if the national government also receives money in this exchange.
Now, it is common that the source of materials, or raw materials, fetch the lowest prices in the chain of goods worldwide. The miners of gold, the growers of coffee, the loggers of trees. There is a cost of getting the raw goods to market in a recognizable form. In the case of coffee though, much of it arrives to the destination as green beans, bagged on location, and shipped. There are large and small roasters in most cities that then supply to stores that grind and brew what goes into our mouths. If you pay $1 or $2 for a CUP of coffee, why can't growers be paid more than 10 cents for a kilogram, why not a $1, why not $10, why not more?

The irony is that developed countries pay out money in taxes and charities to countries such as Ethiopia - to help people who are malnourished or starving or sick because of these conditions. Pay out money to build schools or capacity build governments to build schools and set a curriculum. Pay out money to sponsor a child in a poor community. Pay out money to pay off guilt of living so well while others suffer. I am guilty of this as well. But what if we could change our current system in regard to this - pay out fair wages to raw material growers, gatherers, producers and enable a man and a woman to earn a wage that they can live on and live on well enough to provide their own nutrition, provide their own schools for their communities, provide for medicine? We could probably still enjoy relatively inexpensive cups of coffee while also knowing that whoever grew the coffee was also enjoying their quality of life by making a decent living.

From the film, it is pretty clear that coffee growers should band together and set an international price base from which the traders can then move from. This is a way to benefit while still working in the existing world trade system. Certainly the sensibility around coffee rivals that of wine or scotch in many countries of the world. Where I was just living, the Pacific Northwest, the locals pride themselves on coffee knowledge, how to roast, prepare, pour, and savor high end coffee. Options for fair trade are present and prominent in the stores. Certainly no one would be caught drinking what I grew up on and what people drink from the corner deli in New York City. The coffee on sale, Maxwell House, Folgers, or Chock Full o Nuts is described in this article as "sub-par" and "coffee my parents drank." Don't even imagine real coffee drinkers in the coffee culture of America would drink Nescafe. I have admittedly bought all of these brands in a pinch as an adult. When working a 9 to 5 (or 8 to 6) coffee is just fuel. Maybe on the weekends I can enjoy a more nuanced experience. I cannot even get into the horrors of the American recent obsession with Keurig coffee. For those of you who do not know this wasteful phenomenon, the design of the "Kcup" is to provide one serving worth of coffee (or tea) in a plastic cup that fits into a machine that runs hot water through the cup. The result is a hot beverage to enjoy without mess and clean-up - you just throw the plastic cup in the garbage. Green Mountain Coffee has a facebook page and the company claims to be sustainable - or at least working at it. I have no idea how that is even possible, given the product. Little can be found about sourcing - though I suspect since they are based in Vermont, they are taking advantage of trade agreements with Central America.

Coffee culture is not just a developed world obsession. The places where coffee is grown also enjoy coffee culture. The most amazing coffee I've ever tasted was from simple Ethiopian buna bets when the coffee is roasted on a simple pan over an open small fire, ground, and then put into a long clay necked dispenser, called a jabina, then poured into (rinsed from a jerry can) small tea cups. Buna bets translates roughly to coffee house, but really these are little more than a few stools clustered together in an area on the sidewalk or just off of the main road or walkway, straw or fake grass under foot. The coffee ceremony is a big deal in Ethiopia and a daily routine in some circles. (Ethiopians drink coffee sometimes with butter in it for special guests and times, with salt, sugar, and milk, but most often black (and eat popcorn). And there are plenty of other non-Ethiopian examples.

Do we often think about the sourcing of our special blends and beans besides the exotic names and locations the coffee is coming from? Do we really know what fair trade implies? Are there people like the man in this film opting out of the multinational monopoly and searching for alternatives on behalf of growers? This film gives another view of the coffee industry and how the people that grow and produce the coffee on the supply end participate. The man who runs the cooperative implores coffee drinkers to choose the fair trade option is possible. I have visited coffee farms in Ethiopia and plantations in Laos, PDR. The industry on the source end employs many people, but these people are mainly the very poor. In Laos, there are plantation owners who run their business like a winery tasting room, complete with manicured grounds, full food menus, festivals. But those working in the plantations bore the look of poverty. I'd really like to see more coverage of growers where they live and what the situation is in other parts of the world that bring me my favorite daily beverage.