Brewing an Antidote to Poverty: Coffee



After two weeks carrying Jane's camera bag on the Omo River in Ethiopia last month, we stopped in Addis Ababa at the offices of Technoserve to learn firsthand what progress was being made in the $47 million Coffee Inititative sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In January 2008, the Gates Foundation and Technoserve announced the grant with the goal of building a quality improvement program for coffee farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, and it was later expanded to Ethiopia. The four-year grant is envisioned as a first step in the Foundation's commitment to African coffee farmers. The Coffee Initiative is a small part of Gates's overall development programs in East Arica, but it is a significant boost to the East African coffee sector.

The objective is to assist 180,000 coffee farmers in Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia by establishing 288 new wet mills to process freshly picked coffee cherries, and to improve quality so that 10,000 metric tons can be sold to specialty buyers. The remainder of their production can be sold in mainstream commercial channels.

Peet's Coffee is already so impressed with the quality progress that it has developed a completely new blend, Uzuri African Blend (uzuri is Kiswahili for beauty). The blend was introduced last fall to an excellent reception and brisk sales.

Other specialty firms have also taken delivery of coffee from the new project, and first reports are "over the moon" about the quality.

This is not beginner's luck. Technoserve has had many coffee projects worldwide over the past 40-plus years, and it continues an active program in Tanzania that began 10 years ago with a different donor sponsor. Technoserve advisors focus their efforts on four key areas: first, agronomy and training, a crucial area where traditional farming and lack of knowledge about pruning and fertilizers typically produce yields about half that of more well-informed farmers; second, installing wet mills that produce washed coffee (nearly all specialty coffees are washed) and training the operators in the new procedures, teaching them to cup coffees so they can recognize the improvements; third, training in business management, including finances, and good governance of farmer groups; and fourth, helping growers find market linkages with exporters or roasters to realize the economic benefits of their accomplishments.

The early results are in, and some farmers have already doubled their income per pound of coffee, and they will begin to realize additional income from their higher yields in future seasons. One Kenyan farmer, when being paid for his coffee by the coop, asked whether all the money was his, since it was more than he had ever received for his coffee. It was all his, the results of his efforts and the guidance he had received.

I am continually impressed by the experience and dedication of the individuals who come to work on these programs. The deputy director, Chris Jordan, left his position in the Starbucks buying organization to move with his wife to Kigali, Rwanda. The director of the initiative, David Browning, is an Australian who left his cushy job as a McKinsey consultant to work to alleviate world poverty. And I could go on. Suffice it to say that all these people are completely dedicated to the premise that informed guidance of these rural farmers will lead to the intelligent application of their training. Families throughout coffee-growing areas will enjoy higher incomes, and the world coffee market will continue to anticipate the greatly improved qualities.

In the field, all the business advisors are locals who are being trained to assist the farmers. It is they, rather than the expatriates, who are delivering the services day to day. By investing in the training of locals as business advisors, trained cuppers, and agronomic advisors, we are building the capacity of the local industries, creating a sustainable industry on a foundation of one of the region's traditional crops. The Ethiopian project area is in the region where Coffea Arabica was discovered millennia ago. Nice symmetry.