I’m recently back from Ethiopia, where I was travelling with a group of seven New Zealand coffee buyers who all source their Ethiopian coffee through Trade Aid.
Half of our party were on their first trip to that country, and as group leader I felt a natural responsibility to not only ensure that they would meet their various business objectives – a main focus of our visit being to improve our collective selection process for Ethiopian coffees – but that they would also get a feel for the country as a whole, and for what it’s like to be a coffee farmer there.
Ten days, 2000km, one pick-pocketing, four visits to co-operatives, one seven-hour vehicle repair job, and four coffee cupping sessions later, I’m confident we achieved that goal. The days were long but everyone accepted the early starts and late finishes with good humour, and treated the travel as an adventure. I can also report that white-skinned visitors continue to offer as much amusement value to small children on the back roads of the Yirgacheffe region – who ran alongside our cars laughing, pointing at us and calling out ‘youyouyouyouyou!’ – as they did on my first trip a decade ago.
As a fourth-time visitor, I could help to put what we saw into a slightly wider perspective. Having returned to Ethiopia every three years or so for the past decade, I have been privileged to bear witness to the positive impact that our purchases is having on the livelihoods of the coffee farmers with whom we trade. Every year, both of the co-operative unions we work with return several million dollars’ worth of extra benefits to farmers through dividend payments and community development projects. I get to see – quite literally – concrete improvements from visit to visit; at one school, new classrooms built are extending the education level of local students, at another co-operative the installation of a new coffee processing mill is improving efficiencies and thereby providing greater returns to farmers.
Having sold coffee under fair trade terms for just on 15 years now, the organisations we trade with have completed an impressively long list of projects with the fair trade social premiums they receive; the Oromia co-operative union alone lists nearly 300 such projects including dozens of new schools and medical clinics. But they still have a very large number of projects on their to-do list as they strive to provide adequate education, health, nutrition, water and energy to their communities, and farmers I spoke with on this visit were still quick to point out that the prices they receive for their coffee do not provide them with more than a subsistence wage.
I still feel like our work here is only just beginning and that although it may feel like we’ve travelled a fair distance with these co-operatives already, that the journey ahead of us remains a very long and challenging one.
It’s lunchtime, and class is out. Although it’s a beautifully fine and warm day there’s little sign of activity at the Illili Darartu school. Most of the teachers have gone home for lunch, and there aren’t any children playing in the school grounds. Here in the Harar region of eastern Ethiopia, education opportunities remain limited and due to a classroom and teacher shortage pupils only attend class for either the morning or the afternoon. Right now, we’re between shifts; the morning students have all set off for home and the afternoon students have not yet arrived.
The classrooms are all of very basic construction; their walls are made of earth and sections of their wooden wall framing are left uncovered. The rooms are, at least, colourfully painted in blue and white and the exterior walls of many of them feature brightly painted murals that serve as teaching aids; a map of the world here, a diagram of body parts there, a periodic table on the outside of the room next door.
In the school’s courtyard a large sign proclaims, ‘nothing is more valuable than education’. The local community clearly believes this, and they have it made their mission to provide the best education to aspiring students in their region that they can afford – with the ongoing support of fair trade coffee buyers.
Since they started to export coffee under fair trade terms a little over a decade ago, the members of the Illili Darartu coffee co-operative – which is now 1100 strong – have received hundreds of thousands of dollars of fair trade social premium funding. Through a collective decision-making process, the group has channelled most of these funds into the construction of 16 new classrooms at three local schools. This means that more pupils are now attending school in this district, for longer; the most recent two rooms constructed at Illili Darartu school, for example, have extended the school’s highest teaching level from grade six up to grade eight.
Getting to class on foot also becomes more likely when there are more schools, and this is a key reason for the explosion in local attendance numbers. ‘The distance for children to travel to school is now much shorter’, explains Muhammed Ali, the co-operative’s current chairman. ‘Now, none of them have to walk more than three kilometres to get to class. There used to only be a school in Bedeno, which is 10 kilometres away’.
Soon the afternoon’s lessons will begin. Pupils will arrive with their small clutch of school books in hand, they will file inside and take their places on low wooden benches. Across the road, at the office of the local coffee co-operative, work will resume in the quest of acquiring more resources for them; more books, perhaps even a library, with the help of next year’s fair trade premium. Here, nothing is more valuable than education.