In trademarking its coffee, Ethiopia seeks fair trade
The move could help the country's coffee growers to earn some $88 million more per year.
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Children run barefoot along the steep mud roads, clothed in tattered rags. People's jaws drop when they learn that a single cup of coffee in the US costs between $1.50 and $2, more than 10 times the going rate for a pound of coffee here: 17 cents.Skip to next paragraph
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"Everything here is green, but people's lives aren't like that," says Dessalegn Jena, assistant general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, one of the country's largest coffee producers. "They are suffering. The can barely buy the things they need to survive."
Still, coffee farmers here are hopeful about the government's moves to trademark Yirgacheffe coffee.
"We hope it will solve the coffee price problem," says Genene Gelegelo, chairman of a coffee cooperative of more than 900 farms in Yirgacheffe. "We expect a better life than today. We expect the price to improve and living standards to improve."
The community has already benefited from "fair trade" initiatives, whereby profits from specially labeled coffee purchased in Europe and the US went directly toward building a health clinic, two schools, and a clean water well over the past few years.
But Mr. Gelegelo says he would rather people pay good money for his coffee because they prefer it to other options, not because they want to help poor farmers. "Fair trade is a kind of humanitarian concept," he says. "This doesn't have longevity. Rather than charity, we want to sell the best quality coffee at a decent price."
Better roads mean better business
If the trademarking and licensing initiatives do improve prices, Gelegelo says that the cooperative would first seek to improve the rutted, muddy roads that prevent faster trade and often render the farms inaccessible for days at a time. The cooperative would also seek to upgrade the basic health clinic to a hospital and add four grades to the local school, which now goes only through 8th grade.
To be sure, trademarking is no panacea.
"It's important for the country as a whole, but that's not enough," says Mr. Jena. "The government needs to give special emphasis to ensuring the quality of coffee to maintain the reputation for specialty coffees," he says, adding that the government must crack down on false labeling of beans and mixing inferior beans into bags of premium beans.
Above all, says Jena, Ethiopia's specialty coffees must be skillfully marketed in the US and Europe.
He considers that task an uphill battle, lamenting that Ethiopia is still seen first in the West as the place where thousands of children died in the famines of the 1980s.
"No one expects good products to come from Ethiopia, which is a huge problem," he says.
"[The trademarking initiative] is all about potential," says Dean Cycon, owner of Dean's Beans, an organic coffee roasting company in Orange, Mass.
Mr. Cycon worked as an intellectual property lawyer for decades and advised the Ethiopian government on the trademarking initiative. "[Trademarking] has the capacity to bring in more money [to farmers] than fair trade or organic coffee," says "The next step is a major marketing campaign to teach people about Yirgacheffe."