Ethiopians, North American roasters move forward with trademark initiative

By Seth Petchers
Dean Cycon of Dean's Beans shares his ideas about how roasters can promote Ethiopian coffees.

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In the seven months since Oxfam launched a campaign to support Ethiopian's right to own their specialty coffee brands, global attention to the issue has ebbed and flowed. But behind the scenes, there has been a steady increase in activity to lay the groundwork needed to turn Ethiopia's claim to its coffee brands—Sidamo, Harar, and Yirgacheffe—into tangible benefits for the 15 million Ethiopians who depend on coffee for their livelihoods.

Earlier this month, Ethiopian farmer cooperatives, coffee exporters, and government officials met with American and Canadian coffee companies in Long Beach, California to talk more about the trademark and licensing initiative.

The historic meeting at the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference represented the next stage in dialogue between Ethiopians and North American roasters, which started in Addis Ababa this February. There, roasters committed to help bring their peers to the table and Ethiopians agreed to begin building the program's infrastructure. Much was accomplished in just three short months. Getachew Mengiste, director of the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office, told a standing-room-only crowd in Long Beach about recently completed training workshops for staff from embassies, farmer cooperatives, and exporting companies.

Ethiopia launched its coffee trademark and licensing initiative to give farmers more control over their world renowned coffee brands, strengthen farmers' negotiating position, and ultimately help them capture a greater share of their coffee's value. At the conference in Long Beach, the Ethiopians used their time with roasters to discuss the best ways to work together to put the program's "nuts and bolts" into place.

"We are working together for a common cause," said Mengiste as he opened the gathering. "This initiative should meet the interests of farmers to ensure that they get benefits from their fine coffee. The interests of our roaster partners should also be met. The whole idea behind this initiative is to connect our coffee farmers with the roasters."

Attendees agreed on the key points for discussion, which included ways that the coffee brands would be used on packages and labeling, joint marketing promotion strategies, guaranteeing quality, and expanding the network of participating roasters. Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oxfam partner, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, opened the floor for discussion. As he stood in front of the room, Meskela thanked all of the participants and gave special acknowledgement to the roasters who have already committed to the project by signing a licensing agreement.

For two hours, participants discussed ideas, challenges, and opportunities for moving the trademarking initiative forward. The spirit of the conversation was collaborative with roasters giving the Ethiopians many points to consider when they return home and begin implementation. Participants took on a shared sense of responsibility for carrying out their individual roles in the process. As Dean Cycon, owner of Dean's Beans Organic Coffee Company, one of the most recent companies to sign a licensing agreement with Ethiopia, said, "Whatever we're creating together we want to protect."

It will take a lot of hard work to ensure that the trademarking and licensing initiative creates real change for Ethiopia's poor coffee farmers. But the second meeting of Ethiopian stakeholders and North American roasters ended with participants ready to take up the challenge.

"We have said that the farmers have the right to own their coffee brands," said Ashenafi Argaw of the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. "Now all of the stakeholders need to work very hard together to bring them the benefits."