Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Starbucks,Ethiopia and the National Coffee Association

Oxfam, a non-profit group dedicated to working with others to overcome poverty and the suffering that comes along with it, has accused Starbucks of forcing an agreement upon Ethiopia that benefits Starbucks rather than Ethiopia. It started after the following occurred:

Last year the Ethiopian government filed applications to trademark its most famous coffee names, Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe. Securing the rights to these names would enable Ethiopia to capture more value from the trade, by controlling their use in the market and thereby enabling farmers to receive a greater share of the retail price. Ethiopia’s coffee industry and farmers could earn an estimated $88 million (USD) extra per year.

Ethiopia has even gone as far as to consult with intellectual property experts and legal counsel, and has asked Starbucks to sign an agreement that acknowledges Ethiopia’s ownership of its coffee names.

Oxfam then claims that Starbucks asked the National Coffee Association (NCA) to block the country’s bid to trademark the three types of coffee bean in the US.

Starbucks says this is nonsense.They also state that:

Starbucks has never filed an opposition to the Ethiopian government’s trademark application, nor claimed ownership to any regional names used to describe the origin of our coffees.

Which is true. Starbucks has never filed an opposition to the trademark application. That honor goes to the National Coffee Association and their Government Affairs division….which happens to be chaired by
Dub Hay, who in his spare time works for…say it with me…the Starbucks Coffee Company.

Can you say “conflict of interest”?

The solution here is simple…If Starbucks “supports the recognition of the source of our coffees and have a deep appreciation for the farmers that grow them”, then they should ask the NCA to discontinue their opposition to the trademark.

The odds of them doing that? Little to none.

Technorati Tags: Starbucks, Ethiopia, Coffee, trademark

The Pre-History of Coffee

Ethiopia is the birthplace of Coffee, at least from anecdotal evidence. So if one is to talk about Ethiopia (as I am), then it seems at least worthwhile to acknowledge Ethiopia’s role in developing this most popular of beverages.

Quite fun fact: Not only is coffee the world’s most traded food commodity. It’s also the world’s second most traded commodity period (with petroleum being the first).

One of the many discovery stories of the bean goes as follows: The ancient people of Ethiopia were a collection of nomadic tribes, rather than one centralized government or even a series of a city states. They would take their flock of animals from place to place, looking for the best place for their domesticated animals to feed. A goatherder took his flock into a new area, and found that his goats were a bit more frisky than normal. Upon inspection, he found them eating brownish-purple berries. Tasting the berries himself, he discovered that he could watch his flock without becoming sleepy. He introduced the berries to the local imam who verified the ability to keep oneself awake with the berries. The imam, in turn, gave the berries to his flock (so to speak) in order to keep them awake during his sermons. The bean, through time, became an ingrained part of several religious ceremonies.

What the bean wasn’t used for was in drinks. Instead it was eaten raw or in a paste format, probably mixed with the leaves of the coffee plant. It’s a fair bet that this was not only used in religious ceremonies, but also taken before battles.

Now the goatherder story is nice and family friendly, but it’s probably taking a fair amount of liberties with the truth. It’s also just as likely (if not, more so) that people who were familiar with the euphoric effects of khat were looking for a new buzz, so to speak. Khat is a plant in which a ‘high’ is obtained by chewing on the leaves of the plant. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a single khat addict found themselves eating the leaves of many dozens of plant products to see if any of them had an affect similar to khat. When they discovered the coffee plant, they noted the affects of the coffee leaves and beans upon their system, and things progressed from there into the hands of the local imam.

Never underestimate man’s desire to alter his consciousness as the primary motivation for food invention and discovery.

Back to Ethiopia – I can hear some of you saying “Yeah, but Kate…if Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, why is it called Coffea arabica, rather than, say Coffea ethiop or Coffea abyssinia?”

It’s a fair question. The answer lies in the country of Yemen, trade with India and the slave trade from Ethiopia. Coffee, the drink as we know it, was most likely created in Yemen, who had learned how to steep drinks from the traders who had come from the tea-rich areas of what is now Sri-Lank and India. The applied this process to the coffee beans and leaves brought with the slaves that had been acquired from the East African area. The Europeans, who were the ones who felt the need to go around and classifying everything in latin binomial names, followed the bean to the Arab peninsula, never thinking that the bean may have been imported from elsewhere.

Technorati Tags: Drink, Food History, Coffee

Ethiopia and Hunger

As mentioned previously, when I asked you, the readers to choose which cuisine I should cover (in addition to Italian), you decided I should write about Ethiopia. I gladly take this task for a variety of reasons, mostly because I enjoy the food from that area of the world, plus there’s a bit of symmetry, as Ethiopia’s and Italy’s histories are inextricably tied together, thanks in large part to Italy’s misguided desire to colonize the area on two different occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both of those incidents are filled with tragedy and triumph and deserve posts unto themselves. As neither of these moments of history are directly food related, I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to research them.

However, it would be impossible to write about Ethiopia and their food traditions without mentioning the regions recent difficulties in feeding their citizens.

The most important item to understand about the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia is that it has to do as much with politics and infrastructure as it does with drought and locust plagues. Here is a country in which 50% of its gross domestic product is agriculture, yet still has difficulty in feeding its people when the food supply is reduced by x amount.

Consider the following: The government of Ethiopia at the time had insurgents in every administrative regions, some areas having more than others. For those with more insurgents than others, the Ethiopian regime tried (and often succeeded) to with hold food shipments to those rebel areas. This most certainly exasperated an already a near-impossible situation.

Since that time, the government of Ethiopia has been overthrown, but the situation has not improved all that much politically. Kjetil Tronvoll, of the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, stated that “There are between 10,000 and 30,000 political prisoners in the country”. In November, 2005 following widespread civil unrest throughout Ethiopia, the government arrested the leaders of the political opposition, newspaper editors, labor union leaders and other and charged them with treason and genocide.

I mention all of this because recent reports have stated that several environmental conditions in Ethiopia (and other countries in the area) make famine in the area a high probability. Recent droughts, together high cereal prices, overpopulation in the region, armed conflict, ban on livestock imports to markets in the Persian Gulf States, all have increased food insecurity. As the Food and Agricultural Office of the United Nations have reported “Initial estimates indicate more than one million people in the Somali Region to be facing severe food shortages. Over $40 million are urgently required to stave off starvation. The onset of the dry season (January to March) is expected to worsen the situation.”

Amartya Sen, an Indian economist best known for his work on famine, human development theory, once said “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” It’s clear that Ethiopia doesn’t have a such a system.

Now let’s add the International Monetary Fund to the mix. According to a July 2003 report in the Wall Street Journal, the IMF pressured the Ethiopian government to pull out of the agricultural markets in favor of an under-funded and inexperienced private sector. However, little provision was made to support this fledgling free market with storage facilities, transport and financing. Or, to put it another way, the IMF pressured Ethiopia to move towards capitalism, yet has provided little in the way of financial aid to help set up a food delivery infrastructure. That’s akin to asking a person to deliver pizzas without providing them a car or gas.

The human drama surrounding this catastrophe will no doubt be heart-wrenching to all of us viewing from a distance. The political drama that unfurls will also be interesting, as no government can exist for an extended period of time if it cannot feed its own people.

Technorati Tags: Food, Ethiopia, Famine, Food Politics