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Just Coffee’s Fair Trade Travel Delegation To Africa

An Ethiopian farming family.Our van’s engine idled as we came to a stop along the road. We quietly looked out the back of our van at the second vehicle in our caravan as armed soldiers searched the inside. We waited.

“Some viewus as a threat,” lamented the representative of the co-op we were visiting, breaking the silence.

“But you produce and sell coffee... why do they view you as a threat?” I asked.

He looked at us with a pained heart. “Because we increase our farmers’ income and empower people without power. And we’re democratically owned by the farmers.” Silence returned for a few moments as we watched the van behind us.

The soldiers finished their search then waved the second half of our caravan on. We pulled back on to the road. The gently rolling green hills of sugar and tea on either sides of us began drifting again by our windows.

“The government could say at any time that cooperatives no longer exist.”

“Do you view that as a real, tangible threat?” someone in our delegation asked.

“Yes. When you see our facilities you will see we have no markings saying who we are. We try to keep a low profile,” said the coffee co-op’s representative.

Processing area for picked coffee in Ethiopia. His gaze again moved to the window as we began to see our first coffee trees.

This is Just Coffee’s first delegation to its producing cooperatives in Africa. Over a month-long period we visited coffee co-ops and other coffee organizations in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. Just Coffee Cooperative is a worker-owned, fair trade, coffee-roasting cooperative in Madison. They run these delegations to their producers in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia in order to create transparency of their supply chain and build and maintain strong relationships with coffee co-ops and their owning farmers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movement, fair trade is the movement to create more egalitarian global trade systems. In many global trade systems, producers receive pennies (or less) on the dollar for their products that are sold in developed countries, and the fair trade movement seeks to create more egalitarian, less exploitative global trade. More than that, however, fair trade seeks to raise producers’ standards of living, enhance environmental practices, improve working conditions, and empower marginalized producers around the world through democratic ownership of cooperatives.

Although fair trade coffee is the most developed and strictly certified fair trade industry, practices of fair trade certified producers still vary widely. In some places, fair trade organizations are corrupt inthat they don’t meet the standards or goals of fair trade—they are certified, but they aren’t raising living standards, meeting environmental standards, or running effective cooperatives that are accountable to their owning farmers. Just Coffee’s answer to this challenge is simple yet ingenius: help customers directly visit coffee farms and coffee producers’ cooperatives and let them decide for themselves. Is this trade fair? Those who wish to exploit the fair trade movement are only able to do so if they can obscure the flow of information. By putting consumers in the same room as farmers, each can learn the facts of fair trade and take the control of information out of the equation.

Ethiopian board members.These delegations have been very successful both in creating this transparency and in building more egalitarian long-term global trade relationships. Anyone can participate in these delegations. Aside from learning about the nuts and bolts of fair trade, delegation members also learn about coffee production, the cultures and natural environments of the places they visit, globalization, history, and much more.

While Just Coffee is the only roaster that we know of that runs open delegations, other brands sell coffee from the same producers’ cooperatives we visited in Africa. Equal Exchange, Peace Coffee, Kickapoo Coffee, and more all buy from the co-ops we visited and sell their coffee at the Willy Street Co-op. On this specific trip to Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania we had three broad objectives:

  • Connect consumers of Fair Trade coffee with the producers of that coffee

  • Build relationships between Just Coffee and the co-ops we were visiting

  • Review the fair trade standards of these cooperatives

The first coffee growing cooperative we visited was the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (OCFCU) in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. This co-op was by far the largest we visited. It is a secondary cooperative owned by 171 small farmer-owned cooperatives that each have 300 to 500 owning farmers. Each of these farmers has 2 to 20 people in their family which means hundreds of thousands of people are involved in producing the Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Harar, and other coffees produced and exported by OCFCU.

After arriving we drove south from the capital of Addis Ababa into the Sidamo and Yirgacheffe regions of southern Ethiopia. During the night we would stay in town and we would drive out to farms and the farmer-owned primary cooperatives during the day—weather permitting. We were fortunate while we were there, but rain meant the dirt roads would be washed out and travel would grind to a halt.
Tilahun, the leader of our group while we were in Ethiopia and OCFCU’s Chief Cupper led us on our journey to visit primary cooperatives across the region. As we bounced along the dirt roads, Tilahun told us of OCFCU, Ethiopia, and fair trade. Of OCFCU’s 171 primary cooperatives, 28 are certified fair trade. More are seeking to get the certification but demand is a challenge. At all of the primary cooperatives we visited—in Ethiopia and elsewhere—we heard that the number one thing the farmers want is a higher demand for their coffee.

Board of Directors, our delegation, and Tilahun at a primary  co-op in Ethiopia.Fair trade has done much for the farmers and their communities, but it is frequently not enough to live on or attain what many Americans would consider a basic standard of living. Many communities we visited did not have potable water, schools, or access to health care. This is changing in some coffee growing communities, however. We visited primary co-ops that had built schools, production facilities, clinics, potable water wells and more using money from fair trade coffee sales.

Every time fair trade coffee is purchased, a portion of the sale price goes to the farmers’ cooperative as a “social premium.” What this means is that it is set aside for improvements to coffee farmers’ communities that they identify and manage through their cooperative. This is where the money came from to build the improvements we witnessed.

While the primary cooperatives enable farmers to cooperatively manage this money, their primary purpose is in processing. Farmers we met that were owners of OCFCU brought the coffee cherries they harvested on a bi-weekly basis to the processing facilities in their community owned by their cooperative. Here they would process the coffee cherries into parchment coffee which would be further refined by OCFCU for export.

One of the cooperatives we visited, Kilenso Rasa, told us of another vital benefit of forming their primary cooperative: an end to exploitation by coffee buyers. In the conventional market, buyers traveled to their village to buy coffee from farmers, but they would inform farmers about low world prices for coffee, pay with bad checks, and do anything they could to make the price as low as possible. Because of farmers’ lack of power in this situation they were frequently exploited—but that is no more for coffee farmers who have joined the cooperative. They sell their coffee to their co-op for a higher price and they are free from the exploitation of the market.
One thing we noticed after visiting these primary cooperatives, however, was that only one or two women were usually in the room. We asked about this at each co-op and found that each co-op had at least one woman on the board, but we didn’t visit any co-ops in Ethiopia that had more than two out of a nine to eleven person board. Society in coffee country is very patriarchal, and this was more true in Ethiopia than the other countries we visited. While there are more women leaders now as farmers at Kilenso Rasa noted, they still have limited roles.

Oliver showing us her farm and telling us about her intercropping practices.One of the ways that women have strongly engaged their co-ops in Ethiopia is through auditing. All the co-ops we visited have much more highly developed internal auditing systems than co-ops in the U.S. During coffee harvesting season, for example, each primary co-op sets up an auditing board—run mostly by women—that audits daily transactions to make sure all exchanges are fair and proper. This structure is paralleled in a more permanent way at both the primary level and at the second level with OCFCU: auditing or supervisory boards oversee the operations of the board of directors of each co-op as well as the whole organization to reduce corruption and enhance efficiency.

Future plans for OCFCU were bright. They are in the process of opening a new warehouse and office in the region. At the primary co-op level, the Kilenso Rasa cooperative plans to build a kindergarten for their kids, while other primary co-ops are building clinics and potable water supplies.

The second cooperative we visited was named Gumutindo—or “High Quality”—and was located just north of Lake Victoria on Mount Elgon in Uganda. The first thing we noticed on the road from the capital to Mount Elgon was the higher standard of living of the areas of Uganda we visited relative to the areas we visited in Ethiopia. Willington Wamalaye, the General Manager of Gumutindo, picked us up told and accompanied us on much of our trip. He told us the story of their relatively new cooperative’s development over the last ten years.

Willington (on the left) and Oliver (on the right). Two tremendous leaders of the Gumutindo Cooperative in eastern Uganda.The best analogy for Gumutindo’s creation is that of the mythical phoenix—Gumutindo rose as a fiery return to cooperative roots from a larger, corrupt and struggling coffee cooperative. Bogged down by decades of power consolidation and internal tribal conflicts before being thrust into the world market as part of trade liberalization in the 1990s, the Bugiso cooperative was struggling financially and was no longer an effective cooperative. A small group of idealistic, strong-willed farmers and staff got together and organized the Gumutindo cooperative in 1997 and began as a buyer and international seller using rented facilities before growing into their own warehouse, processing facilities and offices. After a decade of growing pains, Gumutindo has had two years of profit and is leading the way in cooperative innovation in East Africa.

One of the farms we visited on Mount Elgon was run by Oliver, a woman who had seen tremendous success due to a higher fair trade price and skilled management of money. While farms around her are just maintaining financial stability with 300 to 500 trees, Oliver expanded her farm from 300 to 3,000 trees, built a new home and is going to send her three kids to school. While not a representative example of all of Gumutindo’s farmers, Oliver’s farm was a testament to the potential of uniting sustainable financial management with effective farming practices.

Gumutindo is working to replicate Oliver’s success at other farms in a number of ways. Quality has always been vital to Gumutindo’s success—the quality of the coffee coming from their owners’ farms has improved dramatically since Gumutindo’s creation. Higher quality coffee means a better price and a better global brand image. Gumutindo ensures the quality keeps improving by sending extension workers—on dirt bikes—to farms to train farmers on how to improve coffee quality and use sustainable growing practices.

The second half of what extension workers do, however, is more activist in nature. As in Ethiopia, rural Uganda is a very patriarchal society—although somewhat less so. Gumutindo is challenging this very directly, as they have discovered the financial benefit to a farmer and their family of involving women in money management. They find that money goes much more directly to meeting families needs if it is paid to women rather than men. Knowing this, Gumutindo’s extension workers have been working to convince families to share traditionally gendered forms of household labor—from farm work to money management—in more egalitarian ways. Many farmers have begun making this changeover and they have seen the benefit in better living standards. Aside from this, 50 percent of the board of directors for Gumutindo —and their 10 primary cooperatives—are women and more than half of their workers are women.

Dennis demonstrating how coffee tree seedlings are grown in front of a typical Kilimanjaro coffee farmer’s house.Gumutindo’s challenges are many. Aside from helping their farmers improve quality and money management, Gumutindo is also competing with the two largestglobal coffee buyers directly on Mount Elgon. And they are doing so successfully. Beyond that, however, also lie environmental challenges. Like all farms we visited, erosion is a persistent problem. On Mount Elgon this has grave consequences—landslides are common and one this past March killed 300 people, many of whom were members of Gumutindo. Despite these challenges, however, the farmers and staff at Gumutindo are united behind their 100 percent fair trade operation. Their success is reflected in the fact that they are expanding from 10 to 15 primary cooperatives next year and there is a waiting list of 50 co-ops for those five spots.

The final cooperative we visited was KNCU—the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union—on Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. KNCU is a very large cooperative, and their claim to fame is that they are the oldest cooperative in Africa, dating back to the early 1900s. This cooperative is similar to Oromia in Ethiopia in size, although the similarities end there. Tanzania has the highest living standard and most democratic government of all countries we visited. Coffee farmer communities we visited had potable water supplies, well-built homes, paved roads, government schools and more. This means they haveelected to use the fair trade social premium differently: in helping their children attend higher quality schools and in diversifying what KNCU does. KNCU is building a roaster for domestic coffee marketing, and they own a hotel and restaurant.

We spent one of our days in Tanzania touring about a dozen coffee farms that are part of KNCU’s Fair Tourism project. Peter Zakaria Kecima, a life-long coffee farmer, showed us around the farms. One of the challenges facing KNCU’s owning farmers, he told us, was that many coffee farmers’ trees are old and not very productive. The cooperatives see this as an educational challenge in producing the highest quality coffee possible, but the bigger challenge is that some farmers feel the price of coffee isn’t high enough to warrant the labor to produce it. Despite this, however, most fields are in production. We met many farmers and visited processing facilities and homes. We learned that KNCU has a close relationship with government in terms of both agricultural research and gaining financing. Historically, Tanzania’s federal government has been very supportive of cooperatives.

Jeff at a school in Tanzania funded by one of Just  Coffee’s fundraiser blends.Like the other countries we visited, KNCU has primary societies that are centered around different geographic areas. One crucial difference between the primary co-ops here in Tanzania, however, was that they did not process their owner farmers’ coffee—farmers would have their own processing facilities or share in small groups. KNCU has had trouble with gaining commitment from their owning farmers. While KNCU pays a higher price over the long term, farmers will sometimes sell their coffees for a lower immediate price. When these farmers are the same ones that have taken loans out from KNCU, however, it creates financial problems for the co-op. One of KNCU’s goals is to enhance the committment of their farmers through strengthening their primary cooperatives.    

Two main pressures faced all of the cooperatives we visited. Upon reflecting on the entire delegation, they are important to consider—as the farmers stressed.

  • Demand. Again, the number one thing farmers wanted from our delegation was to help grow demand for fair trade coffee. While much has been accomplished due to the success of fair trade—production improvements, new schools, potable water supplies, electrification, etc.—the price of coffee is still barely enough to live on—and sometimes not even that.

  • Population pressures. Farming families we met and visited have many children and traditional methods of equally dividing property upon inheritance mean plots of farming land are shrinking over time to the point where they aren’t sustainable. Education is universally seen as a solution, but this problem is becoming an increasing challenge for coffee farmers and their cooperatives.

What was most important to discover on this delegation, however, was the tangible success of fair trade for these farmers in the form of higher prices for their coffee and improvements to their communities like schools and potable water supplies. While work clearly has to be done to enhance the benefits provided by fair trade, it has already made significant accomplishments for the farmers we met in east Africa.