Ethiopian farmers meet with importers and roasters

By Seth Petchers
Members of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union prepare coffee. Women from the coops prepared Harar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe coffees.

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It's been nearly four months since Oxfam launched our campaign supporting Ethiopia's right to own the names of its finest coffees, Sidamo, Harar, and Yirgacheffe. I continue to be perplexed by why Starbucks, a company that plays up its commitment to farmers, still refuses to honor these rights. But this week in Addis Ababa, I attended a historic meeting that showed me, despite Starbucks's resistance, Ethiopia's trademark and licensing initiative is gaining momentum.

Billed as the first summit between the Ethiopians who produce the coffee and the US and Canadian companies that buy it, this week's meeting showcased real unity and support for Ethiopia's efforts. Ethiopia has asserted ownership of the names of its coffees so that it can increase the coffees' value, gain more leverage, and receive an equitable price in the market. Already some companies, such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, have agreed to work with Ethiopia on this initiative. Their representatives showed their support by attending the meeting.

"Now that the trademarking work is becoming fruitful, many in the specialty coffee market are happy with us and accept that we want to increase our negotiating power and ensure greater returns to small farmers," said Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oxfam partner, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union.

As the three-hour meeting unfolded, I was struck by the achievements already realized by the Ethiopians. It was clear that everyone in the room was ready to work together to help Ethiopian farmers get an equitable share of the coffees, which have sold for as much as $26 a pound in the US. The stakeholders and coffee companies left the meeting with a "To Do" list and a promise to meet again in the coming months.

It was a tremendous achievement for Oxfam's partners, three farmer cooperative unions, to sit side-by-side with private exporters, government representatives, and foreign coffee buyers, discussing ways to improve the livelihoods of Ethiopia's coffee farmers.

During the meeting, I had the opportunity to speak about the tremendous global support Ethiopia's efforts have garnered. Since October, more than 90,000 Oxfam supporters from around the world have voiced their solidarity for Ethiopia's initiative. Through their efforts, these supporters have sent a clear message that coffee companies must recognize the legitimate right of countries and farmers to use the names of their coffees and their unique reputations to compete in global markets and realize higher incomes.

While much attention has been paid to Starbucks's unwillingness to recognize this right, I left the meeting feeling inspired. The conversation has moved from whether Ethiopia has the rightful ownership of its coffee names to how the coffee industry should recognize those rights and act accordingly.

As Ashenafi Argaw of Oxfam partner, Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, said, "Our farmers deserve a better price than they are getting right now. Let's plan and discuss ways to get them better benefits from the market."