Traveling to Ethiopia
In January, I visited Ethiopia with my 10-year old daughter, Ella. We traveled with a group from Coop Coffees, our green coffee buying coop (of which Heine Brothers’ Coffee is a founding member). We drove 9 hours south from the capital of Addis Ababa to the coffee growing regions of Oromia and Sidama. We spent our days visiting coffee growing communities in rugged, rural Ethiopia. These communities are are spread among a beautiful area, 6000 feet up in the mountains. Wherever we went, we were greeted with waves, warm, friendly smiles and people swarming around to say “Salam” (hello in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia). We had multiple opportunities to sit down with the leadership of coffee growing cooperatives where we shared meals and stories of our lives and our businesses (and “Buna,” Amharic for coffee) .
During our conversations, we learned first hand about the monumental struggles many in Ethiopia face. Fetching water and fire wood are part of a typical daily routine, chores made extra difficult by the incredibly rough and rugged condition of the mountain roads. Access to water and the lack of electricity are also major problems for the people of this part of Ethiopia. Through these discussions, it became obvious that buying fair trade coffee will not be the magic solution to the huge challenges the people face. Infrastructure projects like access to water and electricity and building roads are truly monstrous issues – issues that are too big for an extra .10 or .20 cents per pound to solve.
That said, we did come away with an understanding that fair trade does still matter and, within our capacity as a fair trade coffee importer, there is a lot that we CAN do. We can continue to strengthen our partnerships with these coffee farmer coops, we can continue a dialogue where we help brainstorm ideas, we can help get the word out among our allies in the fair trade world and we can tell the stories of these farmers and their struggles to our employees, customers and local communities. And, of course, we will continue to be there to buy coffee from these farmers at prices that are fair to them.
I asked Ella what she thought about the people of Ethiopia. Her response was “they’re really poor … but they’re really happy.” We found that while the daily reality of the people we met is difficult and their struggles are real, so is their level of resilience and their level of hope. And it was affirming to learn that the 10+ year relationship we’ve built with these farmers adds to this sense of hope.
It was a real honor to meet so many of the people that work so hard to grow some of the coffee that we enjoy here at home. Since returning from Ethiopia, I have found myself enjoying my cup of Ethiopia Sidama even more than normal.
After a brief stint in practicing law, Mike Mays started Heine Brothers’ Coffee in 1994 with Gary Heine, and has never looked back.