Ethiopian coffee farmers show commitment to trademark initiative

By Oxfam America
Ato Gemede Robe, farmer, speaks at the coffee ceremony. Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oxfam partner Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, looks on.

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In a public show of solidarity, coffee farmers from around Ethiopia traveled to their capital city this December to demand that Starbucks recognize their country's ownership of its coffee names.

Following a traditional coffee ceremony featuring some of Ethiopia's finest coffees—Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe—the farmers said they wanted the opportunity to make more money off the coffees they cultivate, which command such high prices among consumers.

While Starbucks charges as much as $26 a pound for Ethiopian specialty coffees, Ethiopian coffee farmers get only 5-10 percent of that price. For this reason, Ethiopia has asked Starbucks to sign a trademark agreement that would give Ethiopia the ability to control the use of its coffee names, occupy a stronger negotiating position with foreign buyers, and capture a larger share of the market.

"Just because I'm a farmer, don't think that I don't understand what's happening in the global market," said Tadesse Terro, who traveled from Yirgacheffe to speak out. "I do listen to the radio and I know how much my coffee retails for overseas. The money I earn for my hard work does not come close."

More than 200 people came to the Sheraton hotel in Addis Ababa to attend the coffee ceremony. Government officials and diplomats joined community activists and farmers. Each person signed a petition asking Starbucks to honor its commitment to Ethiopian coffee farmers by recognizing the country's ownership of its coffee names.

One farmer, 85-year-old Gemede Robe, left his Abaya district hometown for the first time to attend the event. Unable to read and write, he signed the Starbucks petition with his fingerprint.

Robe became the face behind Ethiopia's trademark initiative late last year when Oxfam began using his photograph to publicize the campaign.

"Like any other human being, we Ethiopians hold our names very dear," Robe said. "If given the opportunity to speak with people at the big company (Starbucks), I would ask them why they're resisting us owning our coffee names. I am sure they know, as the whole world does, that our coffees are some of the best in the world. But why are they refusing to give us the recognition we deserve?"

Oxfam is part of a broad coalition calling on Starbucks to sign a trademark agreement with Ethiopia. More than 89,000 people in 70 countries have already joined the campaign. Earlier in December, activists from New Zealand to Scotland to the US demonstrated outside of Starbucks stores. The coffee ceremony in Addis Ababa represented the culmination of these global actions.