A Family Affair

Eleven years ago, a man with a visionary idea walked into the Government office of Ato Tadele Dargie to seek his advice. The idea was so bold, so ambitious, that Tadele was prepared to do everything he could do to help turn this idea into reality. Many years of little contact passed between the two men after their encounter on that auspicious day. Then, early one morning, Tadele received an unexpected phone call. He knew exactly what was being asked of him when the voice at the other end of the line said the words: ‘The day has arrived, I need you now’.

That man was Ato Tadesse Meskela.

Fast forward more than a decade and I’m standing on the steps to the entrance of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s (OCFCU) new offices, 30kms south of Addis Ababa. Tadele, electrical engineer by trade, and brains behind the design of the state-of-the-art coffee processing facility is retelling the story of how he and Tadesse first met.

Opened at the start of this year, the bright, airy four-story office building overlooks a factory with a cavernous warehouse adjoined at one side. At full capacity, the facility can process a staggering six tons of coffee an hour. This is no mean feat when you consider that the raw green beans are separated in three stages; by size, density and colour. The facility is surprisingly devoid of dust too, courtesy of a powerful – and ingenious – reverse suction system. A whistle-stop tour of the plant reveals the mechanised complexity of the entire process; siphons, hoppers, destoners, and a high-tech Cimbria photosensitive grading machine are all connected by a spaghetti junction of pipes and pulley systems. To the rhythmic rattle and hum of mechanical noise, the vast majority (95%) of foreign matter and defect beans are removed. The last stage is done by a keen eye and dexterity of the hand. Over one hundred women workers are seated at a long line of conveyor belts to perform the final stage of quality control, bean-by-bean, before it finds its way into 60kg sacks ready for shipment.

You can see them at work here.

Tadesse Meskela, General Manager and Founder of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), emerges from behind the polished glass front doors beaming with the same shared sense of pride. With a brotherly camaraderie, they exchange a fond farewell and quickly pose for a snap next to the union’s elegantly sculptured bronze coffee farmer which stands in pride of place outside the entrance.

So who is Tadesse Meskela? From a loyal family man with a wife and five children; astute businessman to his contemporaries in the coffee sector; paternalistic leader with boundless levels of energy to his Union colleagues and cooperative members; driving force behind the award-winning film about coffee and trade Black Gold; staunch humanitarian and fair trade campaigner; Tadesse is many things to many people. Yet his unfailing determination to improve the economic and social livelihoods of tens of thousands of Ethiopian coffee farmers is an inspiration to all.

Born into a family of twelve siblings with three sisters and eight brothers, some of his earliest memories are of helping his father tend to the livestock and crops on the family farm in the central highlands. Like many of his fellow countrymen and women, his upbringing was dominated by the rhythms of the land and farming life from an early age. This continued all the way through his school years, despite having to make the two-and-a-half hour trek on foot each way to attend secondary school. It was during these formative years that he observed how the odds were stacked against farmers as they struggled to fetch a fair price for their crop in the marketplace. He remembers how it was his mathematics teacher who enlightened him about modern agricultural practices at college and inspired him to bring about change to the agricultural conditions of the country. A pivotal moment in his life, Tadesse was spurred on to study for a BSc in Agricultural Economics at university.

As we drive through twists and turns of the suburbs outside Addis, he tells me: ‘After my studies, I worked to organise grain farmers into cooperatives during the time of the socialist era. What I saw were farmers producing coffee but not benefiting from the coffee sector. That is how I came to know that the beneficiaries were the traders, collectors, suppliers, exporters. It is they who were benefiting from the producer. The only way for farmers to overcome their problems was to bring them closer to the buyers abroad – the roasters and consumers – so that the farmers could get a good price for their coffee’.

The seed of the OCFCU was first planted during the crash in the global coffee price of the early nineties, in part due to the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1989. Without a stabilizing mechanism in place to regulate world prices between major producer and consumer counties, the cost of coffee was subject to the ‘hidden hand’ of  market forces and went into free fall. Within three years, the international coffee price had crashed by 70% to an all time low of $0.49 per pound. Fuelled by a new creed of unchecked export-led development enthusiastically embraced by world development banks, and multinationals such as the ‘Big Four’ – Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, Sara Lee – who encouraged increased production of the bitter-tasting (and considered lower quality) Robusta variety in countries such as Vietnam, a glut of oversupply exasperated the slump. For Ethiopian farmers, this was in effect a ‘double whammy’ to their livelihoods as they struggled to bounce back from the decade-long Coffee Crisis. Communities were devastated, farmers were forced to abandon their homes in search of work elsewhere (or switched to growing more lucrative cash crops such as the leafy narcotic chat), whilst levels of child malnutrition rose.

When you consider that one-quarter of Ethiopian households are directly or indirectly dependent on the coffee sector – contributing more than sixty percent to Ethiopia’s foreign exchange – it was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster that deepened the vicious cycle of poverty for millions.

‘The price of coffee is decided without considering the lives of the producers, the cost of production, and the cost of living. During that time, farmers were losing a lot of money. People were getting hungry because of the low price of coffee. By empowering cooperatives to come together, they would have greater bargaining powers to sell their produce for a better price by bypassing the middle men.’ Tadesse added.

The seed began to take root in 1994 when he visited Japan for two months to study the development of agricultural cooperatives in Asia. Seeing the direct benefit to producers for himself, he decided to bring the model of forming a privately owned, democratically run coffee cooperative union back and apply it in his own country.

The task ahead was huge. As ninety-five percent of Ethiopia’s coffee production comes from smallholder farms – who are extremely vulnerable to the wild fluctuations of the international foreign exchange markets in financial centres such as New York and London – he needed to achieve the economies of scale to engage effectively with a global free market economy. Although most people would be resigned to begrudgingly accept the seemingly insurmountable downward pressures of the global marketplace and unpredictability of the country’s traditional ‘auction house’ system (now replaced by the booming Ethiopian Commodities Exchange where commodities are still bought and sold on the trading floor with a ‘high five’), Tadesse was undeterred and ploughed on. After seeking agreement from the 34 primary coffee cooperatives that they would be willing to work together in union, Tadesse proceeded to lobby the lawmakers in Parliament. His powers of negotiation evidently worked because in 1998, the Council of Ministers approved an amendment to resolution 147 to allow for the formation of cooperative unions.

With no time to waste, he set out to establish the Oromia’s Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in June the following year with four clear goals:

  • To improve farmers income by selling their coffee for a higher price
  • To improve and maintain quality, productivity and sustainability of coffee production
  • To regulate and stabilize the local market
  • To assist coffee communities in providing social services such as schools, health centres and clean water

Its mission serves to make small holder farmers economically self-sufficient (as opposed to aid dependent) and their households’ food secure through the mobilisation of individual coffee cooperatives into an organised union. By forging a direct link between farmers and international markets, the union can promote its member’s coffee – for a better price. In just over a decade, the OCFCU has expanded from 34 to 197 primary cooperatives representing nearly 200,000 household farmers across the Oromia region today.

Geographically, the federal state is as vast as it is culturally, linguistically and ecologically diverse. One of eleven regions that make up the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; Oromia stretches from the Sudanese border in the west, the Kenyan border in the south, to Harar in the east, with Addis Ababa at its centre. It is the widely differing characteristics of the union’s single-origin coffee that reflects these contrasts so perfectly: From the floral richness of Yirgacheffe to sweet Sidamo, the long finish of Lekempti to the winey Limu, crowned by the spicy, mocha infusion of Harar; there is variation to suit every palate – or time of day.

Coffee Farmers' training workshop in Jimma

The secret to the OCFCU’s success is the participation of its members and central role that training plays, something which Tadesse regards as a vital tool for development. ‘We help farmers to work together to increase the quality of their product through better training in good agronomic practices, processing coffee, machinery maintenance and management’, he says with a clear, resonant voice that is amplified by his broad frame. In economic terms, it’s a blindingly obvious motive and a shrewd business move rolled into one. By focusing their priorities on producing quality beans over quantity, the cooperatives are responding to the speciality coffee market which is currently enjoying sustained growth. This year alone, the union has already invested 1m Ethiopian Birr (ETB) to roll out training programmes across the length and breadth of the region. More than 200 ‘trainer’ farmers have participated so far. Through a method of ‘cascading,’ skills and expertise are imparted to other cooperative members, increasing the impact exponentially.

When it comes to the quality of Ethiopian coffee on the international stage, Tadesse is unequivocal in his conviction: `The world recognises that Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee – you don’t get the quality of coffee like you get in Ethiopia. Other coffees may fetch a higher price not because of quality but because of promotion; when it comes to coffee, Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world,’ Tadesse says as he gestures to our driver to pull into the roadside. A group of excited children gather at the window, each holding up half-a-dozen startled looking chickens. Joyfully, he leaps out of the car to barter the price for three birds to take home to the family for the impending Ethiopia New Year festivities. As we drive on, he applauds their entrepreneurship: ‘They’re involved in direct sales, a fair trade between seller and buyer.’ Why should coffee be any different?

One of his achievements that he speaks of most proudly is his effort to raise the issue of one of the underlying causes of poverty; unfair trade. With the help of international partners such as Oxfam and Global Exchange, he has travelled the world to talk to audiences about the realities of the coffee farmer in his country. The catalyst to his ceaseless campaign work arrived in 2006 with the release of the critically acclaimed film, Black Gold. Filmed, directed and produced by brothers Nick and Marc Francis, its worldwide impact catapulted the 53 year-old and his powerful message into the limelight. The feature-length documentary went on to take the film festivals and cinemas around the world by storm with its hard-hitting exposé on the inequities of a rigged global trade system in favour of rich countries. It still continues to resonate with audiences today, illustrated by the recently launched Black Gold Foundation, a partnership with the Lorna Young Foundation and the filmmakers.

Increasing year-on-year demand for the OCFCU’s fairtrade, organic (certified by bodies such as FLO, UTZ and Oko Garanite) coffee – and the premium it receives from this – has done much to finance a whole host of social and public works. In addition, the union augments the premium with a dividend (70% of net profit) which is paid back to its member cooperative societies based on their level of participation each year. Since 2003, sixteen primary schools, six junior, and six high schools have been either refurbished or built from scratch. Eight health clinics offering life-saving medical treatment as well as family planning services have been established. More than sixty clean water points have been funded for its members. This is in addition to a number of infrastructure projects such as the construction of bridges and flour mills.

Whilst its conventional coffee is still traceable right back down the value chain to the producer, just over one-in-ten of the union’s beans are certified organic (13%); and fairtrade (12%) respectively. This is partly due to the volume of paperwork and strict criteria that accreditation bodies require for full endorsement – a huge challenge when the illiteracy rate in Ethiopia hovers around 50 percent in rural areas. The irony is that due to economic restraints in obtaining pesticides and other toxic agricultural chemicals, approximately 95% of Ethiopian coffee is actually organic.

In terms of production potential, the union stands on solid foundations. Currently, its member cooperatives own 60 pulperies, 26 hullers, and 75 warehouses across the region. The combined effort yields and annual coffee production potential of 234,970 tons per year from an area under cultivation of more than 300,000 hectares. At the annual General Assembly meeting in a few weeks’ time, there are already twenty new cooperative applications pending approval. Tadesse mentions that in line with the Government’s plan to double the nation’s coffee production in the next five years, its members are aiming to upscale their annual yield potential to 400,000 tonnes.

With the assistance of Dutch-based NGO Solidaridad, honey exports are now well within his sights. A plot of land has just been secured for a new facility that will start processing organic Ethiopian Highland Honey for domestic and international consumers next year. As a means to diversify farmers’ income, modern beekeeping methods encourage the conservation of the forests that offer the ideal shade growing conditions for the coffee Arabica tree to thrive. The by-product is honey: A perfect symbiosis of sustainable development, ecological management and agricultural economics. ‘This is how you fight poverty,’ he says with deep resolve as a large herd of goats being hurried to market blurs passed.

But the expansion doesn’t stop there. Tadesse continues: ‘We have plans to roast our own fine beans for the benefit of coffee drinkers in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries.’ Meanwhile, the plump golden-crested cockerel perched on the back seat of the car chimes in with a resounding cry, as if to underscore the statement of intent, yet blissfully unaware of his own fate.

It could be said that the seed of the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union that was planted many years ago is now bearing the fruit of one man’s passion and full-throttle determination. But it would be wide of the mark. ‘We work together as a family’, Tadesse conjectures, ‘a family that is genuine, positive-thinking and has respect for the human being’

When you buy Oromia, you’re buying into more than coffee – from tree to cup.