Natural Mystic: Ethiopia

This week Jeff Moore and I have been travelling in Ethiopia, the mystical birthplace of both humankind and coffee. Thousands of wild varieties are still found in the country and the coffee plants grown all over the world have a lineage back to this source. The high mountains have just the right natural conditions to produce arguably the world’s best coffee. They show complexity, depth and flavours such as jasmine, lavender, lemon, dark berries and chocolate. We started with a tour of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union’s new facility. Just Us! has been purchasing coffee from this organization for about 10 years and Jeff has witnessed their amazing success over this time. It started as 34 co-ops organizing to cut out the middlemen that were exploiting them, causing extreme poverty among the farmers. Oromia’s role is to mill, sort, bag, market and export coffee. The union also provides support for social projects, technical and management training for the co-ops. It is managed by Tadesse Meskela (featured in the popular documentary, Black Gold) and now includes 197 community farmer co-ops. Oromia is making a real difference for small farmers. The organization gives them direct access to international specialty & organic markets, which generates a huge improvement in the price they get for their coffee. They also get dividend payments as the farmers are the owners of their co-ops and together own Oromia as well. The co-ops give farmers dignity and self-determination to invest in their communities as they see fit and to gain more control of their industry. From the capital city of Addis Ababa, we headed to the Yirgacheffe coffee farming region. Along the way we made a quick stop at a Rastafari village. Rastas believe that the former emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie (from 1930 – 74), was a living god (a.k.a. ’Jah’). Selassie gave the Rastas from Jamaica a plot of land here so that they could return to ‘Zion’ (Africa). Rasta is more of a way of life than a religion; it represents brother and sisterhood across races and denounces the corruption of modern civilization (a.k.a. ‘Babylon’). We visited several co-ops in Yirgacheffe, where the coffee harvest was just getting started. The coffee was being pulped from its cherry fruit casing, washed and dried with meticulous hands-on care over raised beds. The farmers took us to see the local primary and secondary schools that were built in their communities using fair trade premiums. Schools were a social priority for many of the villages that we visited as children traditionally have travelled very long distances to receive education, often on their own two bare feet. The farmers talked about their vision for the future, to invest fair trade premiums into adequate roads and to bring electricity to the villages. One of the highlights was watching the sunset with the farmers during a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, with coffee fresh from the drying bed, roasted and ground in a nearby hut. Next we headed to the Sidamo region to visit a couple more of the Oromia co-ops. Here we met with Almaz, a bright young woman whose photo you can find on the back of every Just Us! coffee bag. Several years ago Tadesse approached Just Us! and our friends at Planet Bean, a fellow worker co-op in Guelph, Ontario, to pay Almaz’s tuition so that she could attend nursing school. It was wonderful to talk with Almaz and to see her pride and bright smile as she showed us her recently attained diploma. I have to say that it was a joyful and emotional experience to see how our business made a difference in her life. I could see it in Jeff as well. He has dedicated most of his life to helping others and I was happy that he was able to receive such tangible gratitude. This is only one of the many contributions that Just Us! has made over its 16 years, but very meaningful all the same. Once Almaz gets her license papers, it looks like she will work at the medical clinic in her home community, bringing her efforts full-circle. Our plan is to start sourcing coffee directly from this co-op, of which Almaz’s family is a farming member. This way we can stay closely connected to the family and community and feature their high quality coffee under our Ethiopian label by this spring.