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Starbucks and Ethiopian Coffee: The Bitter Taste of Exploitation


By Rosemary Ekosso


If you go to the website of Starbucks, the international coffee chain, this is what you will read:


Starbucks strongly believes in the importance of building mutually-beneficial relationships with coffee farmers and coffee communities with which we work. The success of the farmers with whom we do business is a critical component of our own success. We are taking an integrated approach to building relationships with coffee communities.


So why is Oxfam accusing Starbucks of preventing Ethiopia from seeking to gain more control over its coffee trade by opposing that government’s application to have some of its most famous coffee beans trademarked?


Starbucks has denied the accusation, saying that they did not, as Oxfam contends, contact the US-based National Coffee Association (NCA) to block the Ethiopian government’s application, and that the NCA contacted them instead.

The head of the NCA says that it opposes the Ethiopian initiative for economic reasons:


"For the US industry to exist, we must have an economically stable coffee industry in the producing world," he said, and added:  "This particular scheme is going to hurt the Ethiopian coffee farmers economically."


This really gets my goat for several reasons.


Firstly, I do not believe the claim by Starbucks that it did not try to block the Ethiopian government. The Oxfam article describes this claim as “disingenuous” and I tend to agree. The Ethiopian government officials say that when they inquired from the NCA as to why their action was being blocked, they were informed that it was because Starbucks had requested it.


Talking of the NCA now. Does America grow coffee? Why does a country that does not grow coffee need a coffee organisation?


The association says it represents American coffee companies, and its success is due to its “ability to respond to external issues, wherever and whenever they arise.”


Yes, like preventing poor countries from trademarking their coffee and making some gains out of it. Like controlling the market by getting the coffee really cheap, with no regard at all for the people who grow it, and selling it at mind-boggling profit.

Below is an excerpt from the statement the NCA published in response to Oxfam’s report:


"The National Coffee Association opposed Ethiopia’s attempt to trademark the geographical indicators Sidamo and Harrar (Harar) because such action would jeopardize the supply of these high quality beans and economically harm producers. "



    Ethiopian Coffee Farmer


How would the trademark impede supply? How does the trademark of a car or a washing machine or a packet of muesli impede its supply? Could someone enlighten me, please? And why, then, does Starbucks itself inflict on itself the unnecessary burden of trademarking its name?


Even more contentious is the claim that the trademark would economically harm suppliers. How? By making the prices of their coffee higher and earning them more revenue so that they can buy food and medicine for their children?


How much does a cup of coffee cost? I can buy a cup of black coffee in my office cafeteria for 90 Euro cents. That is far from hugely expensive. Admittedly, this is not one of the prized Ethiopian coffees, which cost more. But think. How much of what I pay for a cup of coffee goes back to the original farmer who grows it?


Let’s do some statistics. The Oxfam report says:


"Coffee shops can sell Sidamo and Harar coffees for up to £14 a pound because of the beans’ speciality status," explained Tadesse Meskela, head of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. "But Ethiopian coffee farmers only earn between 30p and 59p for their crop, barely enough to cover the cost of production. I think most people would see that as an injustice."


Ethiopian farmers are not the only sufferers, though. A 2002 report, also by Oxfam, states “coffee farmers are getting, on average, 24 cents a pound while consumers in rich countries are paying roughly $3.60 a pound – a mark-up of 1500%. Coffee now costs more to grow and pick than it does to sell


Now go to Starbucks. They sell a cup of coffee for about £2. It contains, maybe, a quarter of an ounce of coffee. If the person who grew the coffee gets between 30p and 59p per pound, that’s between about ½p and 1p per cup. Now suppose that the person serving the coffee takes 1-2 minutes to pour the coffee, take the money and give back the change, etc. At the minimum wage, that’s between about 7p and 14p per cup.


Is that alright? Is it right that the person who pours the coffee and serves the customer should get fourteen times as much for that as the farmer who grew the coffee?


Should we go on drinking our coffee without worrying about the poor people who spend their lives at the mercy of the elements so we can have a warm drink when we get up in the morning, when we need a booster during the day, and when we meet with friends, or just enjoy a cup alone?


At best, the attitude of the NCA is paternalistic. They say that the increased prices that would result from a trademarking of the coffee would price the coffee farmers out of the market. So now they’re telling Ethiopian farmers how to value their efforts.


Are Ethiopians themselves incapable of finding a balance between how much to ask for their coffee and how to keep their market? Are they irresponsible five-year olds?


At worst, it is unbridled profiteering, with no real interest (despite the sanctimonious claims of Starbucks on its website about making sure that the small guy gets something out of it too) in making sure that the people who actually grow a product get something from it that would raise them to the level of dignified, self-sufficient human beings.


If a farmer gets between 30p and 59p for a pound of his coffee, how much does the coffee picker get?


It is all very well for the big coffee companies to say that they are helping the farmer get a fair price for his or her product, but such initiatives are suspect.


What they actually do is hijack the concept of economic justice, to provide as limited a version of it as they can, without jeopardising their profits, while making loud noises about how good and helpful they are to get good publicity and enhance the value of their own brand – exactly what they are trying to stop the Ethiopian farmers from doing.


But if the farmers who grow the coffee try to get the justice they deserve, they are blocked.


It seems as if real justice is too expensive for the people who profit from injustice.


Rosemary Ekosso is a translator and court interpreter with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. She blogs frequently at Ekosso.com


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