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Peace Coffee
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
May 10, 2002


A representative of Ethiopian farmers is in Minnesota, trying to encourage Minnesotans to drink Ethiopian coffee. He is visiting Peace Coffee, a Minneapolis-based company that imports the coffee direct from a farmer-owned cooperative. Peace Coffee, says this arrangement can triple the farmers' income and ensure a larger percentage of the consumer's dollar goes directly to the farmer.

Peace Coffee's T.J. Semanchin and Scott Patterson stand on either side of Tadesee Meskela. Meskela, the general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, came to Minneapolis to encourage consumers to drink fair trade coffee. The cooperative sells its beans to Peace Coffee for a fair price.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Ethiopians say their country is the birthplace of coffee. It's also the fourth-poorest country in the world. Tedesse Meskela lives in Oromia, one of the country's lush coffee regions. He manages a coffee farmers' cooperative union. He came to Minneapolis to tell consumers how powerful their dollar can be to an Ethiopian farmer.

"The people from the birthplace of coffee are still poor," Meskela says. "The farmers who are growing the coffee are still very, very backward and very poor. They don't have school. They don't have clothes. The fair trade is benefitting the poor farmers. We're giving 70 percent of the net profit back to the farmers."

In the conventional coffee market, the farmer doesn't make enough to meet costs of production. The route a coffee bean travels on its way to a cup can involve several transactions. Farmers sell coffee berries for pennies a pound. Each speculator, exporter, broker or trader then sells the beans for more and takes a cut.

Fair trade importers want to simplify the process in an effort to increase the farmer's profit.

Fair trade - not to be confused with free trade - means purchasing coffee directly from a farmer-owned cooperative, ensuring the farmers earn a livable wage.

Marcallina James, who is opening a coffee house in north Minneapolis, came to hear Meskela's presentation to learn more about fair trade. She says she likes knowing she can have an impact on a family in Ethiopia.

"It's a slow process. I believe more and more people are starting to develop a global consciousness and really seeing the value of the US dollar of their dollar and how it can benefit others," James says.

Peace Coffee was among the first companies to import fair trade coffee from Ethiopia last fall.

"The world coffee prices right now are in crisis stage, at historic lows hovering between 40 and 50 cents a pound on the New York market, which is the commodity market coffee is traded on. And that reality for coffee farmers is a dire one where they are receiving below production costs for their coffee," says T.J. Semanchin, co-director of Peace Coffee.

Peace Coffee got its start in 1996 with coffee from Guatemala. It was founded by a native Guatemalan who moved to Minnesota during his country's civil war. He wanted to provide economic opportunities for some disenfranchised communities during the peace process. So the company was appropriately named Peace Coffee.

Semanchin says Peace Coffee is working with Ethiopian farmers during a time of political unrest. The coffee there is grown by the Oromo people, the ethnic majority who are struggling for political and economic power within Ethiopia. Minnesota is said to have the largest population of Oromo refugees and one of the largest Ethiopian populations in the U.S.

Semanchin says by helping Oromos economically they have greater potential to gain political power. And, he adds, the farmers are learning the democratic process in their democratically run cooperatives.

"What fair trade is doing in Ethiopia, where it's new, the impact isn't too profound yet. What I witnessed most is the sign of hope. It is providing hope to keep them on their land and in their communities" he says.

Semanchin recently visited the Ethiopian coffee farmers. Farmers still walk several miles to get water and schools are scarce. He says the fair trade movement in Ethiopia is too new to see a tangible impact now, but he sees a lot of hope and possibility.

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