There's no arguing with the math: For many coffee farmers in Ethiopia, poverty is their only pay for a product that fattens corporate coffers around the world.
That's the lesson Tadesse Meskela, an Ethiopian coffee activist, offered to a crowd of Boston University during a stop on his Oxfam-sponsored seven-city tour to raise awareness about the gross inequities in the global coffee trade and to promote "Black Gold," a new documentary about that industry.
In a small but packed auditorium, Meskela walked the students through the maze of market factors that cut coffee farmers out of their fair share of profit for a commodity that's worth, by some accounts, $80 billion a year in retail sales.
Converting Ethiopian currency into dollars, one student quickly calculated the true cost of that imbalance: What farmers sell for pennies a pound, large coffee roasters can command $14.
"That's a little more than 100 times what the farmer gets," said the student.
Getting more of those profits into the pockets of farmers is the main objective of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU)—a 90,000-member organization with which Oxfam America has worked for four years. Meskela is the union's manager and the "star" of "Black Gold," which explores the links between the multinational coffee corporations and the poverty that plagues so many of Ethiopia's coffee growers.
Across the country, about 15 million people rely on coffee for income. Fluctuations in its global price leave growers struggling to feed their families and send their children to school—a luxury many simply can't afford.
Membership in the union helps farmers tap into the "fair trade" market which guarantees them a higher price for their beans—sometimes three times what local dealers and exporters offer. Fair trade rules also ensure that some of those higher earnings are set aside to improve the farmers' communities through the construction of schools, health clinics, and clean water supply systems.
Founded in 1999, OCFCU has already facilitated the construction of four new schools, 17 extra classrooms, four health clinics, and three new water supply systems. Every cup of fair trade coffee consumers here in the United States drink will help improve even more the lives of farmers scattered through the cool, green hills of Oromia.
But what surprised Meskela most as he traveled from Boston to Madison—with stops in New York City, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Chicago, and Milwaukee—was how little people really knew about the brew that gets them up and going in the morning.
"What I noticed was 95 percent, and above, do not know where coffee comes from," said Meskela. "They don't know the life of the person behind the cup." It's that farmer—laboring hard in an industry dominated by a market that puts the needs of growers last—that Meskela wants consumers to understand and appreciate.
"We have to create connections with producers—and awaken all Americans," he said.
Roots in the countryside
Meskela has a deep affinity for coffee growers and the hardship that defines their days. From the Oromia region himself, he grew up in a large farming family. But unlike many other farm children, Meskela got to go to school—as did every one of his siblings.
"My father is unique," said Meskela with pride. "He has sent all of his children to school. He was the first person to send a girl to school in the 1950s from our Oromo culture. If all of us had stayed on the farm we would have been poorer and poorer because the land would be shared among 13 of us."
Instead, among his brothers and sisters he now counts two engineers (civil and electric), an accountant, two secretaries, a draftswoman, and a high school principal. Meskela himself graduated from college with a degree in agricultural economics.
While some family members are still on the farm plowing fields of a grain called teff, education has offered his brothers and sisters a range of opportunities that Meskela would like to see others be able to take advantage of, too. Making trade fair is the first step in that direction—and educating consumers about the links between their morning cups of coffee and the growers who produce the beans is critical.
"All of them say 'what shall we do?'" said Meskela, recounting the reactions he heard time and again after people watched "Black Gold" or heard him give a presentation. "The first thing you can do is buy fair trade coffee. And the second is support us in campaigning to get a better price."