Ethiopia capitalises on its coffee names

In one of Addis Ababa’s bustling and noisy coffee shops, where cups are clinking and the bubbling sound of a cappuccino machine undertones conversations, Ethiopians, who claim they live in the birthplace of java, while away a weekend morning.

Bamlak Getachew sits at an outdoor table at Kaldi’s Coffee, sipping an espresso with a friend. “Coffee is very important to me. I love it.
I can drink it any time, but I must drink one in the morning,” she said, cradling the small green mug in her hands.

And now, Ethiopia is showing its citizens there is more to coffee than just its robust, mild or medium taste.

A precedent-setting deal with coffee giant Starbucks this year was the most renowned Addis Ababa has had in a push to promote the names of its coffee-growing regions worldwide.

Hopes are high that this strategy will increase the coffee’s value and hopefully bring a much-needed increase in income to its poor farmers, and eventually shake up the developing economy.

“Our goal is for farmers to sleep on a mattress instead of on the floor. It’s for them to be able to have at least one meal a day; for them to be able to send their children to school,” said Getachew Mengistie, head of the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Organisation (EIPO), a government body.

In June, Ethiopia signed a deal with Starbucks that would see the Seattle-based company refrain from trademarking the names Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe—its coffee’s brand names but also the names of three of the Horn of Africa country’s coffee-growing regions.

It came after months of wrangling, with the government arguing the names were key to increasing revenue from its largest foreign-exchange earner.

“We see intellectual property as a tool for development,” said Getachew, who helped draft the country’s intellectual property legislation in the mid-1990s.

Ethiopia, best known for its devastating famine that killed nearly one million people, is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than half its population living on less than $1 a day.

Farmers’ cooperatives

About 85% of Ethiopians are farmers who only in the past decade grouped together in cooperative unions to get a fair share of profit for their product.

This season, 1kg of coffee from the southern Sidamo region (also called Sidama) sold for $1,65, with Starbucks selling a bag of the same amount for more than $10.

The farmers make about $550 a year and such a deal, proponents say, could significantly increase their standard of living.

But much work remains to be done. The EIPO attempted to raise awareness among farmers and continues to hold workshops to show them that a good brand must be matched by good quality.

Sidama Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union meets its 87 000 farmers regularly to show them the best methods to produce excellent coffee. “The name will not help us unless we keep the quality. We have a lot to do in this area,” said Tsegaye Anebo, head of the union.

The government must also step in, Getachew said, taking quality assessments and urging small traders to sell only the best coffee abroad. “We need to make our coffee known. But the initiative has just started and it’s a process,” he said.

Meanwhile, he added, ordinary Ethiopians must be shown that the country’s reputation for good coffee is important for them and must be exploited. “People should be convinced that by asserting our IP [intellectual property] right over intangible values, like by promoting coffee, they would benefit. That is the target,” he said.

And Ethiopians at Kaldi’s, whose logo bears a striking resemblance to Starbucks’s green-and-white circle, are beginning to think they might. “In a way this can help those is urban areas. If Ethiopia can earn more money, we might have better roads and infrastructure,” said Adugna Dissassa, reading a newspaper at the coffee shop.

Aid agency Oxfam, which worked with Ethiopia to garner public support for the push against Starbucks, said this deal and others like it have the potential to empower farmers, so they know they deserve a better standard of living.

“IP and branding are tools that corporations around the world use to add value,” said Seth Petchers, who heads Oxfam’s coffee programme. “Now a developing country is seeking to use those same tools that have benefited corporations to benefit farmers.”

Ethiopia has signed similar licensing agreements with 24 coffee companies in the United States and Europe and the goal is to get about 150 companies worldwide to do the same to make sure the names of its regions are recognised to the extent where farmers and unions can set their own price.

“The Sidamo name belongs to the people of Sidama,” said Tsegaye, with piles of coffee bags sitting atop his file cabinet. “No one can take something which is not his property. And we proved that.”—Sapa-dpa

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