Trading seeds of change

Oromo Coffee CompanyBorn in the Oromia town of Warra Jarso, 175kms north of the capital Addis Ababa, Abiyot Shiferaw was brought up with his two sisters and four brothers in a happy family environment. Like all Ethiopians, they celebrated special occasions by holding a traditional coffee ceremony. From an early age, Abiyot had a strong sense of fairness but saw injustice all around him. He saw how his fellow countrymen and women did not have access to clean water or could not pay for basic medical treatment. He observed how children were denied an education because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. He witnessed state-sponsored corruption at the hands of government officials and the police.

And his struggle for human rights, fairness and justice nearly cost him his life.

‘There were political problems in the school’, he says, ‘thirty-seven students including myself were arrested one day for being members of the Maccaa-Tulama Association, a civil society group in the Kuyyu Distinct banned by the Ethiopian government in 2002. The organisation was seen as a threat to the government’s political wishes. We were arrested without any reason or proof that we had done anything wrong’.

Abiyot was imprisoned for three months during which time his family were prevented from visiting him. He was eventually accused of being affiliated to the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group who are still fighting for self-determination.

‘We were investigated but there was no evidence,’ he adds.

After being released, Abiyot studied law in Addis Ababa and was later employed by an Oromo law firm. He says he found it almost impossible to act in the interests of his clients as a result of excessive police pressure or government administrators to exact a favourable verdict: ‘It was very difficult to apply the law independently. In the end, I realised that I couldn’t undertake my duties to represent the people fairly and decided that I could no longer continue’.

But the bloody aftermath of the 2005 national elections where hundreds of people lost their lives in protest was a turning point for Abiyot. He successfully ran as a candidate for the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and was elected to represent his home town constituency in the federal parliament. The sweet taste of success soon turned sour when the national election results were called early by the incumbent alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, and a state of emergency was declared.

In response to the public unrest that followed, public gatherings were outlawed and Prime Minister, Meles Zanawi, assumed direct command of the security forces, replacing the capital city police with Special Forces drawn from elite army units. Reports of massive human rights’ violations across the country were reported by international observers. ‘The election was stolen’, says Abiyot, with the zeal of a political activist; ‘the government was defeated. They did not win one seat in the capital but described themselves as the outright winner. The government should listen to the people’s voice’.

Shortly after the election, plain-clothed security police arrived at Abiyot and his friend’s residence in the dead of night. They were forced into a car and blindfolded. Abioyt tried to stop them by showing his parliamentary identification card, stating that (Article 54) stipulates that no member of the parliament shall be arrested or prosecuted unless his or her immunity is revoked by the legislature. ‘They trashed my identity card and told me to use it as toilet paper’ he recalls. They were driven to an unknown church cemetery out of Addis and told that their graves were already reserved for them. Severely beaten and threatened that they would be executed and buried unless they confessed that they were inciting students in Oromia to rise up against the government, Abiyot says he will never forget the terrifying moment when ‘one of them put the muzzle of his rifle into my mouth while another one poked my stomach with his gun’.

Determined to continue his struggle, he contacted the international media, NGOs and the British embassy to inform them of what had happened. Knowing that his life was in danger, a petition was presented to the federal parliament in a bid to stop the police intimidation; it was rejected. Abiyot could not go anywhere without being followed by the authorities. He could not visit his friends or family because he did not want to put them at risk. He realised that he had no choice but to flee.

It took six months for Abiyot to reach Kenya. He and a friend travelled on foot through the remote forests of the rural highlands in southern Ethiopia to evade the regular police checkpoints on the main highway. ‘Even in Nairobi, we weren’t safe. We were arrested by the security forces, tortured and imprisoned’ he says. With no one else to turn to, he contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and European Parliamentarian, Ana Gomes MEP, for help.

In April 2008, Abiyot arrived safely in Greater Manchester after being granted refugee status. His first few months adjusting to life in the UK came as a shock to him: ‘When you come to a new country, it is the same as being like a new born child again. The impact of a new culture, different language, and different system of employment was a challenge. My qualifications were not accepted in this country’. However, Abiyot did not want to be reliant on welfare benefits and with the support of the pioneering Lorna Young Foundation, his local MP, James Purnell, and assistance from Refugee Action, he established the Oromo Coffee Company (OCC) with other members of the Oromo community in the Northwest.

OCC bagsBased on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities, OCC works towards direct trade between Oromos in Ethiopia and the UK. All its coffee is sourced through the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union is organic, Fairtrade certified, and expertly roasted in Huddersfield by Bolling Coffee. From spicy Harar, to floral Yirgacheffe and the darkly roasted after-dinner Limu, the OCC has some of the finest Ethiopian coffees covered:

“The Oromo Coffee Company brings a great concept to the world of Fairtrade and we are proud to be working with them. The coffee tastes great, originating from the birthplace of coffee itself in Ethiopia and the mission of the company is taking Fairtrade to the next level”.

Herriet Lamb, Executive Director the Fairtrade Foundation

Due to graduate in law from Huddersfield University in June this year, the aspiring human rights’ lawyer’s struggle is far from over. He says: ‘Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. It makes you feel positive and strong. Through the Oromo Coffee Company, we are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of the smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education’.

Abiyot passionately believes coffee has the power to change the dire political situation in Ethiopia. More than a commodity, it holds the key to unlocking the vast potential of his country men and women by promoting skills and education through community-to-community trade: ‘If there are no skills or education, we are blind’ he says, ‘only through education can the people know their civic duty to protect and exercise their rights. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better’.

You can be part of that change by supporting the Oromo Coffee Company to help smallholder farmers in Ethiopia earn a decent living here.


In the Footsteps of Kaldi

Determined to get to the bottom of the  legend concerning Kaldi and his Dancing Goats, the coffee trail pointed me in the direction of the hallowed ground of Keta Muduga; conveniently situated just a few kilometres away from Choche village. It is said that all those centuries ago, the Abyssinian goat herder took his flock there to graze. The ‘proof’ of the matter can be found in the earth said my guide, Ahmed, who agreed to show me the Arabic ‘inscriptions’ carved into the rock surface that I had heard so much about. He told me how the history of Kaldi had been transmitted down the generations by his forefathers.

Joined by the stoic Bulbulo wet mill foreman, Jerbose, who battled the heat in a lambswool three-piece suit, we strolled passed the patchwork of deep red hues from the coffee cherries that had been  left out to dry on tables before taking a detour to visit to the Choche Primary School’s very own coffee farm. Under the shade trees, kids were enthusiastically helping out with the harvest. Their small fingers were nimbly adept at picking the red coffee cherries. The familiar cry of ‘Choche buna bureadu!’ (beautiful Choche coffee!) could be heard over the excitable hubbub of children playing. In Choche, coffee runs in the blood. Children are expected to take part in the harvesting activities on the family farm from an early age. Now they were engaged in picking their very own fine organic Choche Primary School coffee cherry, to be later sold to the cooperative. The profits are then returned back to the school to fund the provision of educational materials.

‘It’s a good example of how trade can have a direct and positive impact in the community’, explained the Director of the school, Sisay Akassa, who had kindly given up his afternoon to help translate for me. ‘Most of our students are the children of coffee farmers. Fairtrade helps those farmers get a fair payment for their coffee so that they can improve their living conditions’, he added.

After a steep climb amongst the coffee trees, ducking and diving under branches bursting with red and green cherries, the path eventually led to an open clearing. Tufts of golden grass swayed in the breeze. A natural vantage point, tree-clad hills were set against a hazy horizon all around us. The early afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on the red rocks. A concrete shell of a half constructed guard-house and the octoganel skeleton of a museum (that has remained uncompleted for more than a year due to funds drying up) were the only blight on the scenery. They looked more like crumbling coastline WWII gun batteries than a celebration of coffee. A plaque at the top of the hill reads:

With a spring in his step, Ahmed led us to the start of our story; Kaldi’s very own spot in which to recline and while away the sunny afternoon hours in his chair. I have to say that it really was quite comfortable… for a stone chair. Reclined in Kaldi’s seat, Ahmed, proudly unfolded the events that are believed to have taken place here. He described how Kaldi, a man of artistic pursuasion, had hewn messages into the rocks to remind the world of his important discovery. We next moved to another spot of exposed rock, eroded by the elements. Partly covered by lichen, grass and dry leaves, there are some truly fascinating features to be found, and one-by-one, Ahmed related the significance of each. Here was the evidence presented:

Goat footprints
'Insira' (Ethiopian water vessel)
Kaldi's footprint






Continents of the World #1
Continents of the World #2
Continents of the World #3



Continents of the World #4
Continents of the World #5
Continents of the World #6



Continents of the World #7
Ahmed points to an outline map of Ethiopia (prior to Eritrea)




Horse stirrup







Cultural pillow complete with lipstick holder


Monk's Habit






He said there were many more examples but they needed help to fully uncover and conserve the ‘handiwork’ of Kaldi for future generations. Now, here’s the rub… I’m not in the business of stealing anybody’s thunder, such as Ahmed’s was, but I have my reservations. To me, these distinctive features are the work of nature’s hand, not that of a legendary goat herder. Although some of the ‘inscriptions’ do have a striking resemblance, they are to my eyes, forged through unimaginable metamorphic forces in the melting pot that was Ethiopia millions of years ago.

Arabic script?

But where were the Arabic inscriptions?

Anticipating this moment for a while now, I somehow expected to find ancient Arabic script that had been carved into the rocks containing early references to coffee and the trade links that the old Ethiopian kingdoms enjoyed with the Persians and Arabs. This was to be the defining moment I had been waiting for – to see for my own eyes a a small piece in the great jigsaw puzzle that is the history of the bean and how it went on to conquer the world. But, like life itself, what you look for isn’t necessarily what you find. For one, my own expectations were far to literal. In fact, what I found at Keta Muduga was evidence of something deeper, far richer, and much more profound. In that special clearing surrounded by miles of coffee forest, I had been privileged to witness a proud and passionate claim that this was the work of Kaldi and hence the birthplace of coffee, just as the coffee forest that surrounded us is. Surveying the landscape, I felt like I was standing on a giant, elaborate storyboard that connected Ahmed like an umbilical cord through the past to his ancestral heritage.

Coffea Arabica: The stuff of legend

Surely this was also an example of early ‘coffee culture’ long before the macchiato or tall-skinny latte was ever dreamed up? In those sun-kissed rocks was a communities’ burning desire to tell their story to a wider world about the origin of coffee, and their place in it. And the overriding message rang loud and clear; coffee is as old as time memorial.

Winding our way back, we stopped to speak to Kalifa and Rida who were collecting the fruit in handwoven straw baskets. Two of them were brimming full of bright red berries already. A few kilometres further and we came across the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Choche Coffee Field Gene Bank), a government body dedicated to protecting the country’s biodiversity. Inside its 41 hectares it houses – at the last count – 4898 different strains of the coffee Arabica genus discovered in Ethiopia alone. The Manager of the Field Gene Bank, Jara Negash, had this to say: ‘More strains are being found each year. Genetically speaking, Ethiopia has the most diversified varieties of coffee types to be found anywhere in the world. We have only just scratched the surface.’

A tour of the carefully tended nursery beds revealed the marked difference in the foliage and fruit of each strain (there are largely two main groups in Ethiopia; Bourbon and Typica varieties). Planted in neat rows, the beds contain samples of the bean in various stages of development from young sapling through to mature tree. It was like walking through a living open-air museum; breathing, fruiting proof of the incredible genetic diversity of the genus coffea Arabica. Heart warming also to see the important role that the gene bank plays in conserving a unique part of Ethiopia’s rich national heritage – and indeed the world – for generations to come.

Energy levels flagging, Ahmed, Jerbose, Sisay and I headed off in search of a brew of the Choche nectar in one of its many Buna Bets (coffee houses). As we sipped and savoured a refreshing cup of coffee, Ahmed turned to me and said: `We have the evidence that explains the origin of coffee but we don’t have the support or materials in which to tell our story. Kaldi was a learned person who wanted to show how Choche gave coffee to the world. Go back to your country and help us to tell the history of the origin of coffee. This is coffee Arabica. Ethiopia’s gift to the world’.

Disclaimer: It is  important to mention at this point that another place rivals Choche as the birthplace of coffee. Found in the vast wild coffee forests that characterise the Kaffa region just 150kms away, it is claimed that Mankira village near the town of Bonga is the true origin. A manifestation of the growing regional rivalry (Choche is in the state of Oromiya whilst Mankira lies just across the border in Kaffa. Both were considered to be in the same region of Kaffa until forty years ago when the boundaries were redrawn) is that both states are now locked in a cultural arms-race to build their own respective coffee museums, evidently with questionable progress so far. Of course I would not wish to offend anyone’s sensibilities, pride or rightful sense of heritage. There is validity to both claims, because they are both right. When you boil it right down, it is Ethiopia that is undisputedly the world’s cradle of coffee, and that’s good enough for me.

Tentside Surgery

One morning, Demesse’s five-year old grandson, Lule, appeared at the tent porch with a cut finger. Nothing serious, it just needed to be cleaned, liberal amounts of antiseptic cream applied and a plaster. Then, the co-operative accountant’s son, Henock, arrived with a nasty sore on his foot caused by an ill-fitting sandal. Again, the same treatment (and a new pair of sandals). It didn’t take long before word soon got around and I was asked to visit Jerbose’s bedside who was suffering from a high temperature and severe back pain. The guardsman, Demesse, told me he had similar symptoms. A trip to the hospital in the nearby town of Agaro the following day for tests revealed that they were both suffering from chronic kidney infections. Jerbose later told me he had been suffering from the infection for over three years because he couldn’t afford the treatment; a simple course of antibiotics.

Jebose enjoys a coffee from his traditional Oromo 'thermos flask'

Oli, the co-operative’s charismatic driver complained of muscular back pain which I think was more a product of old age and years of carrying 60kg plus sacks of red cherry than anything else. Back to the pharmacy for some pain relievers. Later, Buzio showed me a series of nine large red, raised lumps running down the length of her back that were causing her a lot of discomfort. It turned out that she had fallen victim to a particularly unpleasant (Totcha) worm – a commonly found parasite in rural areas – which lays its eggs in the host’s body whilst they are sleeping. I asked her if she had been able to clean her mattress and she replied that she couldn’t because it is made of straw. With only a first aid certificate to my medical credentials, I went off to speak to the chemist again.

Buzio pours a morning round of fine Choche coffee

He told me that the only effective – and traditional – method is to remove the critters by hand with the aid of a smoking piece of wood to draw the maggot to the skin surface. By then end of the week, there were still four of them left to go.

It seems that most cases can treated with a basic knowledge of first aid and access to the appropriate medical supplies and medication. The barrier to receiving this however is simply due to the fact that the majority cannot afford the cost of treatment. In a country with no national health system or medical care facilities with the resources to meet the demand, ailments needing urgent medical attention go left untreated for years, thereby deepening the cycle of poverty. It’s a vicious, needless, spiral that faces the vast majority of the population; a simple lack of access to basic medical health care.

But the picture is not all depressing as efforts are being made to alleviate the situation at the co-operative level. A much-needed clinic has recently been built through the proceeds of the fair-trade premium and the part of the ‘dividend’ the co-operative receives back from the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Co-operative Union. (This also helps the farmers to gain financial security after a second payment is distributed to the members when times are economically tough later in the year). Nearby, the Bulbulo Primary School are constructing a kindergarten, to be opened next year, through the support of the fair trade mechanism. I was cheered to hear that Choche also enjoys active links with the Lakeland town of Keswick in the UK, which had recently donated some computers and IT equipment.

(Coincidentally , it transpires that the birthplace of coffee (Choche) is now twinned with the birthplace of pencils (Keswick). It’s fitting when you consider their respective impact on the world had the power to shape it. Excuse the pun but in many ways, they do go hand-in-hand. When you think about it, the industrial revolution was driven by more than just coal in the mills of northern England).

Director of  Bulbulo Primary School, Aguma Taa, took me on a quick tour. We visited a couple of classrooms, the reading room with spartan shelves and a science lab without a microscope, chemicals, or a bunsen burner. What he revealed was a desperate shortage of resources.

Despite this, Aguma was upbeat about the standard of education his school’s 1300 pupils (grade 1-8) receive, in comparison to other primaries in the area. His concern shifted to one down the road in the village of Bodalo, that hadn’t benefited from co-operative support like Choche and Bulbulo had.  Of the school, he said this: ‘Around 600 students learn at that school. They have no electric lights and the classrooms are full of dust. I visited them recently and I have seen they have a big problem. All around the school, they have a great production of coffee but they do not sell their coffee to the union like in Bulbulo and Choche. If only they can sell their coffee for a good price, they can regenerate the school and improve the lives of the children in so many directions.’

The English class I participated in was aptly entitled: 'What is a Tourist?'

There was a knock at the door and a flustered-looking teacher entered. She was looking for the first aid kit to treat a child who had fallen over in the playground. ‘Oh, and we need bandages,’ he added.

Morning Chorus at the Mill

The organically certified Choche Coffee Farmers Cooperative and its 844 members collectively own two wet milling stations and one dry huller. With a huge debt of gratitude, I was invited to spend a week on one of them. Nestled on the side of a sloping southeast-facing aspect with a gurgling brook at the bottom, the wet milling station is perfectly situated to catch the best of the daytime sun. I arrived just before nightfall and erected the tent with the help of the burly site guardsman, Demesse, and his son, Solomon, on high ground to catch the view of the sunrise over the numerous rows of drying beds that fanned out below. By a stroke of luck, they had only just started processing the red cherries a week ago; I had made it just in time for the early buna (coffee) harvest.

Unzipping the tent porch to a dawn chorus the next day, hundreds of beads of morning dew hung from the chicken wire of the trestle tables, sparkling like diamonds in the early golden light. In the shade trees, deep red flowers appeared to burn brightly as if they had been ignited by the sun’s first rays. In contrast to the scorched landscape of the south, everything was a fertile shade of verdant green. On the hillside opposite, crowds of people wrapped in white shawls gathered at a natural spring to collect water and bathe the sick (It is widely believed that the spring water has the power to heal the mentally ill). The soothing melody of women singing in unison completed the enchanted setting. A group of white Egrets flew noisily overhead, snapping me out of my spellbound, drowsy trance.

It didn’t take long before I was invited for a morning brew. This was no ‘ordinary’ coffee – if such a thing exists. Painstakingly prepared by Demesse’s daughter Buzio, it was to be the daily ritual that I, and my taste buds, looked forward to with relish each morning. From green bean to coffee cup, the parchment (the remaining white, silvery skin that encases the bean) was first removed; then roasted on a metal plate over the gentle licking flames of an open fire. Afterwards, Buzio pounded the roasted beans into a coarse grind by means of sheer brute force using a mogatcha (Amharic for a large wooden mortar and pestle). She finally brewed the coffee in a large earthen jabana (coffee pot); a process that overall, took well over an hour. The aromatic coffee was then poured into small cups and taken with either salt or sugar. Served with a simple but wholesome breakfast of cooked maize, it was well worth the wait because the coffee was – and I am not exaggerating here – to die for; the combined result of an organic product that had been locally grown, washed, dried, prepared and consumed all within a few square kilometres of each other. The coffee was so fresh (good body, balanced taste with sharp acidity and winey, citrus notes) that the complex array of oils floated on its silky surface, refracting the morning light into tiny, miniature rainbow-coloured islands.

The rhythms of the day on the wet mill station soon became a familiar ebb and flow of activity, and I found that I quickly settled into the daily routine. Above all, I did not wish to be treated like a ‘faranji’ (foreigner) or receive any special treatment. I was there to work; pitch in, and help out where needed. Most mornings were spent amongst the rows of fifty-odd foot long trestle tables where the washed coffee was left out to dry in the baking hot sun. Under the shade of our rustic peaked straw hats, a dozen of us worked along each side of the drying beds, chatting and joking – often about the ups and downs of Premier League football which could be considered in many respects a matter of religious importance in the country. The process of sifting by hand through the drying beans still encased in their protective skin of parchment for defects that did not make the grade was a relaxed, unhurried affair. Nothing went to waste and the defect beans were subsequently separated and destined for domestic consumption. There was a genuine shared sense of pride in the work and in classic moments of spontaneity, we all burst into a chorus of Choche Buna Bureadu! (Orominya for ‘beautiful Choche coffee’).

The afternoons were a relatively lazy affair. It was too hot to work under the intense heat of the sun so it was a good time to test the coffee. Each day the wet mill foreman, Jerbose, and milling station manager, Galy, would produce two old but lovingly maintained contraptions: The first was a bulky British-made steel ‘mini huller’ (manufactured in a time when the UK used to actually make things; so it must have been well over half a century old. How it got there is anyone’s guess…) to remove the parchment. The other device, a Danish 1960’s analogue ‘coffee tester’ was used density to measure the moisture content of each batch of processed coffee. Once the measurements were recorded, a small quantity was sent to the cupping laboratory in Jimma for grading. Like rabbits out of a hat, bags of the leafy narcotic, chat, were then produced and the late-afternoon hours were whiled away chewing and erm, chatting, accompanied by another round of fresh coffee.

Catching the Lion

There is an Amharic phrase that says:

‘Spiders webs joined together can catch a lion.’

It is fitting for a culture that still predominantly works to the principles of collectivism rather than the pursuit of personal gain. The tradition of co-operative working has deep roots in Ethiopian society, primarily to address rural challenges such as maintaining food security. In a country where the failure of the seasonal rains can literally mean the difference between food on the table or an empty stomach, collective action is the means by which communities are sustained through hard times. This mode of living starts, above all else, with the family unit.

At the invitation of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, I had the privilege to spend some time on a family run coffee farm in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. Set in thick vegetation under the shade of the colossal age-old oaks and the bird friendly Acacia, the ‘buna ersha’ (coffee farm) is one of 2000 member plantations that comprise the fairtrade and organic-certified Kilenso Mokonisa primary coffee cooperative. Following an introduction by his son, Yomilata, father of eighteen, Mando Dube, and his second wife, Gato, welcomed me to stay on their farm for a few days without a moment’s hesitation.

I’ve put up a tent hundreds of times before but never in front of an audience. My arrival on a push bike was clearly not going to go unnoticed and word quickly spread like wildfire as neighbours from all around the village came to watch the ‘faranj’i (foreigner) pitch his canvas ‘guju bet’ (home) in the family front garden bursting with shady enset (false banana), maize, bright yellow pumpkins, purple cabbage and a towering ten-foot sunflower. With countless helping hands, the tent was erected in no time before each child – and adult – took a good peek inside to nods of approval and gasps of ‘gobez’ (great)! I never thought that putting up a tent could be such a spectacle but it was nothing compared to the reaction that the stove received. Once the MSR was fired up with the familiar roar of its faithful blue flame, I turned to the Bialetti to make an espresso of gratitude for my kind hosts. As the silky lava flow of strong, fresh Tomoca coffee began to rise into the top chamber, a wide-eyed child shouted, ‘it’s crying!’ to ripples of laughter. I almost cried myself from the sheer joy of the moment and couldn’t have wished for a more heart warming welcome.

That evening, I was invited to join the family for a wholesome supper of guju (ground enset strained and leavened into rolls), accompanied by lashings of boiled cabbage washed down with creamy milk freshly squeezed from the resident cow which was taking a nap with its new-born calf in the room next door. Only after Gato had said of prayer of thanks, all thirteen of us sat down to eat around the soft light of an oil lamp that bathed the room in its warm glow. Shadows of animated conversation were cast against the mottled walls of mud and straw as the closely knit family shared their dealings of the day. The eldest daughter, Americh, undertook the revered responsibility of preparing the coffee before pouring it ceremoniously from a large, blackened earthenware ‘jabanna’ (coffee pot) which had been gently warmed on a charcoal stove. Outside, a torrential downpour hammered the canvas to Mando’s great concern. ‘It is too wet. You must sleep in the house with us,’ he implied as we leafed through our only conversational aid – a well used English-Orominya-Amharic dictionary – which was passed back and forth with great enthusiasm. Despite repeated reassurances that I would be fine, his mind was only put to rest when I found the translation for ‘waterproof’ which was received with more laughter and shared glances of relief.

At daybreak the following morning, Mando excitedly thrust a long slender machete into one hand and a fresh coffee into the other as I emerged from under the mud-splattered canvas which had clearly taken a serious battering from the storm. The sun had only just risen and there was already a hushed crowd peering through the garden gate to catch a glimpse of their new neighbour. To my amazement, a channel had been thoughtfully dug around my tent to drain away the torrents of water whilst I had slept soundly inside; blissfully unaware of the excavations that a taken place the previous night. But now it was time to muck in and do some digging of my own. After a breakfast of cooked maize we both set off into the dense undergrowth, armed with our machetes.

Weaving our way amongst the low branches of the heavily laden coffee trees straining under the weight of their fruit, the green cherries sparkled with beads of fresh morning dew. Set against a cloudless deep blue sky, the sun cast shafts of golden light through the gaps in the deciduous canopy. Around us, brightly coloured parrots called to each other in mid-flight. Huge green grasshoppers chirruped amongst the shrubs. The drone of honey bees emanated from the lozenge-shaped ‘gaagura’ (beehives) that were perched high up in the branches of shade trees above. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous bleating of goats and chuckles of young children as they made the long walk to school could be heard in the distance. Occasionally, the baritone chorus of amorous frogs rose to a crescendo before fading away again. The vibrant symphony of nature was in full swing.

Mando demonstrated my first task of the morning with a swift hacking motion. Fanning out across the undergrowth, we buckled down to work by cutting back the enormous leaves of the enset that had snapped under the weight of the night’s deluge and had come rest on the coffee trees. As we went, the sharp curved inside of the machete provided the perfect implement in which to cut back the weeds and nettles that had taken root in the fertile red earth. Weeding and hacking with broad, measured strokes, we gradually made our way to a nursery of coffee saplings which had been selected for their resistance to pests and disease. No GM dark science on this farm, just good knowledge-based natural selection.

Mando skilfully worked at the base of some of the young saplings and transplanted them to their new homes which enjoyed ample space and shade for them to flourish. He traded his machete for a wooden plough-shaped tool and promptly took the soil to task by digging a foot-deep hole with great effort. It was back-breaking work. But his 68 year-old body belied his age and he revealed an innate strength that has worked this land for decades, as his forefathers did. It struck me that this was not just young coffee trees that were being planted but carefully selected saplings that were the product of tireless agricultural endeavour that had been passed down through the generations. For the saplings themselves, it will take another four years before they begin to produce the next offspring of organically grown, heirloom coffee. Mando handed me one of the few cherries that had ripened already to a deep ruby-red with a glint of pride in his beaming bright eyes. A sign of the imminent harvest that – on his farm alone – will produce a yield of more than 2000 kilos of fine Ethiopian Kilenso Mokonisa coffee cherries. When the fruit eventually ripens in another four to six weeks, the whole family will pitch in together to collect their valuable crop.

That afternoon, we took a stroll (joined by a large group of excited, chattering children) down to the co-operative washing station that was being busily readied for this year’s harvest. At full capacity, the station can process more than 160 tonnes of high grade coffee over a twelve-day period. Row upon row of wooden drying beds on the hillside were being repaired in earnest. Wet concrete walls of newly built fermentation tanks slowly dried out in the baking hot sun. A storage warehouse was being cleared of dust. It was an industrious hive of activity as Colobus monkeys lazing in the shimmering mid-afternoon heat looked on from their sentry posts in the lofty pine trees that fenced the large, well maintained facility. We finished the day with a game of football on the village green as cattle loafed about the pitch and made surprisingly effective would-be defenders.

With clockwork regularity, the fresh, late afternoon rains began to fall – prematurely cutting short a decisive match-winning goal, and we returned back to the farm; drenched, covered in mud and in high spirits. Gato invited me into the round Tuku at the back of their house (a round straw and mud hut constructed out of a super structure of strongly bound Eucalyptus and Acacia wood – some can last up to 60 years before termites get the better of them) to demonstrate how to prepare the Oromia speciality of Buna Qualaa. And what a treat it was. Firstly, the coffee cherries – still encased in their skins – are boiled with thick butter in a vessel to the sound of spitting and popping over the hot embers of the fire.

Americh samples the Buna Qualaa before serving up

Then sugar, milk and water is mixed and heated in a separate conical-shaped vessel before being poured into small cups. The cooked coffee cherries suspended in molten butter are then added slowly to form a top layer that sits on the piping hot milk.

Mando enjoys his daily 'fix' of Buna Qalaa with friends

It’s a difficult coffee-based beverage to describe but I can only liken it to the creamy smoothness of a macchiato with the crunchiness and wholesomeness of a tasty snack – a divine taste and texture in a class all if its own. The perfect way to replenish the energy levels. Yomilata later wryly recounted how his father is practically addicted to his daily quota of Buna Qualaa and can become quite discombobulated if he is deprived of it for any more than a couple of days. After enjoying this daily treat, I could easily empathise with his withdrawal symptoms.

Okay, I would be the first to admit that I am in danger of viewing this contented, unhurried rhythm of rural life through rose-tinted glasses. Living on a coffee farm is tough, by any standards. Whilst there is a clear division of labour between the men and women – young and old – the lack of electricity, poor sanitation, and access to clean water (it’s a twenty-minute walk to the local fresh water spring) mean that simple tasks can become time-consuming routines that take up much of the day. Yet the formula behind the communal effort to ‘catch the lion’ is a relatively straightforward one. Through collective action at the family, cooperative and union level, aided by the mechanism of the fairtrade premium supported by consumer solidarity – Mando can be confident of receiving a fair price for a premium product; thereby ensuring food security for his family. And food security means valuable time shared to strengthen the bonds that ultimately bind the wider community together. This is the reality behind the ‘label’.

After three memorable days of helping out on the farm and precious leisure time spent in the company of his children, it was time to pack up and reluctantly move on, but not before seizing the auspicious moment that I had been waiting for. Since leaving the UK late last year, I have carried a small quantity of unroasted Yirga Cheffe beans concealed in my bike frame kindly gifted to me by Master Roaster, Ian Steel, of Lancaster’s finest purveyors of speciality tea and coffee J. Atkinson & Co. A symbolic offering, if you will, from the roaster back to farmer. And so after nearly 200 days and 5000 kms on the road, it now seemed as good time as any to roast my beans. In actual fact, it wasn’t me but Mando’s son, Gelgallo, who took on the special responsibility using my newly acquired roasting pan as I looked on, savouring the moment.

We all watched intently as the beans slowly gave up their locked-in moisture and began to pop under a plumb of glorious blue fragrant smoke. Upon the second ‘crack’ the oils were released and the beans began to change colour from blue-grey to brown. Almost magically, the beans expanded in size and turned to a shiny brown-black on the third ‘crack.’ Sensing the right moment, I turned the stove off. Allowing time for the roasted beans to cool, Gelgallo first offered them to his father and then to his mother. Next were the elders who had turned up to watch the scene unfold, followed by the children in order of age. One by one, we all took a single bean from the pan and crunched away with relish. It was the bittersweet taste of accomplishment. The circle was finally complete. I could now turn my wheels back towards the direction of home.

To an emotional farewell , we said our goodbyes through blurry eyes before wheeling the Sherpa – which had received a spring clean thanks to the kids who had taken it upon themselves to give it some much needed TLC – up to the rough ungraded gravel of the main road. The whole family and I walked together silently in unison. During that special moment, I felt like we had all ‘caught the lion’ in more ways than one by forming an unbreakable web of friendship that will last the test of time.

Catching the Lion: Three generations of the Dube family

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.