Ethiopia’s coffee could be its salvation against growing drought

The agricultural sector now accounts for nearly half its GDP, and the country is boosting coffee production with the help of Fairtrade

In much of the world, coffee is a social lubricant, an indulgence, a morning eye-opener. In Ethiopia, it is also the backbone of the economy and now, as the country faces its worst drought in 50 years, it may also be its lifeline. 

Ethiopia is a different country from that of the 1980s. It has rebranded as the Lion of Africa, one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Yet drought has been sweeping the north and east. Aid agencies are suggesting that the government – keen to shake its image as the poor man of Africa – asked for international help too late, and that food aid may run out by May, with 10 million at risk of starvation. In the south, security forces are cracking down on protesting farmers fearful for their land as the government plans to expand Addis Ababa. Despite the advances the country has made, food security is back on the agenda. 

Eighty per cent of the country still subsists on rain-dependent agriculture. In good times, the country is almost completely self-sufficient. Agriculture forms almost half the nation’s GDP, according to the World Bank, and about 15 million smallholder farmers depend on coffee for their livelihoods. But although this “black gold” is globally the second most valuable exported legal commodity, prices are still low. A farmer can expect about 12 birr (40p) for a kilo of coffee. Even when weather conditions are perfect, most farmers endure two months of hunger. The government claims that the drought in the north has not yet affected the south, but on the ground farmers say the rain came late last year, and that the crop was disappointing. 

Ethiopia has been building a sophisticated food security network since the late 1980s. The Productive Safety Net Programme, a welfare-for-work initiative, enabled six million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash. Since the government’s appeal for aid early this year, it has secured almost half of its $1.4bn target from the international community.

The government is also pledging to invest more heavily in coffee production, boosting output by 45 per cent, as well as offering incentives and more support to coffee farmers. In addition, the Fairtrade Foundation is working with local farming co-operatives in a drive for better prices and conditions for smallholders. To become Fairtrade certified, farmers and producers have to adhere to certain standards, and are guaranteed a minimum price for their coffee. The co-operatives also have access to the Fairtrade Premium, an additional sum of money that goes into a communal fund for farmers and workers to use as they see fit. 

“Drought is caused by nature, but famine is caused by humans,” says James Mwai of Fairtrade Africa. “We have the technology at our fingertips to predict and pre-empt times of drought, by boosting food reserves and income, but establishing this at a local level can be difficult. While Nasa might be able to predict changes in weather patterns, it seems too technical to farmers. They maintain ‘our elders haven’t told us yet’.” 

Fairtrade works closely with communities to ensure that it is the people themselves who are making decisions. “There is certainly a time and place for aid, to get communities back on their feet, but we are looking at long-term, sustainable goals,” says Mr Mwai. “Fairtrade should be a baseline. We are enabling the people to save money, to store food, to make plans. There is a great dignity in that.”

Even in the poorest communities, there is no shortage of ambition. Parents are eager for their children to get an education, and even go on to university. Wessi Wonago, a father of six and grandfather of 35, has become something of a village dignitary, heavily involved with his local co-operative board. His children graduated from university. “The community sees my family as a model. They are sending their children to school because of the example my family set,” he says. “It is important for our community to work to eradicate illiteracy.”

Almost 90 per cent of children are enrolled in primary school across Ethiopia, according to Unicef, compared to less than half 10 years ago. Mr Wessi has big plans for his grandchildren: “I hope that they will make a difference in the country, not just at community level.” He says his trade, coffee, has been integral in transforming the community.

“Coffee is the backbone of our life, our economy, our social life – it is everything to us. But we want to get a better price for it, so that we can improve our lives.” He says that Fairtrade’s involvement has helped towards that. “The co-operative gives us a dividend to see us through the harsh times. They also distribute things like exercise books without making any profit.” 

Mr Mwai insists that to tackle hunger in the developing world, the chain needs to stretch right back to the consumer. “If a woman walks into a supermarket she needs to know that the choice she makes directly influences the woman picking her coffee.”

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