I first visited Ethiopia in 1997, having just left college. I went there for a few months with an organisation that is now called Link Ethiopia. It was a very early attempt to connect schools in the UK to those in Ethiopia and to try to educate young people about the fact that there was more to the country than the negative images of the 1984 famine.
At that time, if you told people you were going to Ethiopia, they couldn't understand why; it conjured images of a country plagued by famine from top to bottom. They saw it as a barren, starving place in need of Western help. I think one of the biggest problems facing Ethiopia today is that most people still have that perception. But it isn't like that in reality; there's so much more to the place. I had an amazing time and it was the beginning of a close relationship with the country.
Ethiopia faces the question of how it can rebrand itself, a job made harder when news stories from Africa rely on celebrities pleading for our pity. But if the country gets it right, it could be one of the top tourist destinations in Africa. A trip there can recast impressions, not just of Ethiopia but of Africa, and encourage us to question our perception of the entire continent.
That's not to say there is no tourism in Ethiopia and, of course, a year of millennium celebrations has just begun there. It is seen as the cradle of civilisation and has a rich religious and cultural heritage, boasting some of the oldest churches in the world in Lalibela, and the ancient city of Aksum is the claimed home of the Ark of the Covenant. This is also where you'll find the source of the Nile, in Lake Tana near the city of Bahir Dar. It is like the Victoria Falls of Ethiopia.
But these, and some trekking destinations – such as Africa's fourth-highest peak, Mount Ras Dashen – are the main draw for foreigners, and are mostly in the north. For many people, the lush landscape of the south is a surprise. But it's also why the Ethiopians produce the best coffee. Ethiopia is acknowledged to be the birthplace of coffee, as told in the legend of the goatherd Kaldi. While moving his livestock around southern Ethiopia he noticed his goats were going a bit wild after eating the cherries of the coffee plants.
Coffee is also central to the culture, and the coffee ceremony is unique to Ethiopia. When it's time for coffee, you sit down and incense is lit: the beans are ground and roasted and everyone has three cups, each signifying a stage of spiritual transformation, the third of which, called baraka, carries a blessing. You should never leave before drinking all three because it's an honour to have been invited. It takes place three times a day and is traditionally the time to discuss community issues or politics, particularly in the villages.
There is a scene in our film, Black Gold, where the farmers are taking a break and sitting down for their coffee ceremony. It's about genuinely pausing for a while – the complete opposite of our experience of coffee, which is about fuelling a fast lifestyle and drinking on the go. But it's also a poignant scene, because they are asking God to give them a better price for their coffee.
The Ethiopians say that coffee is their gift to the world; they know the value of their biggest commodity, even if they don't receive that value. It accounts for almost two-thirds of the country's GDP and millions of families, almost all small-scale farmers, rely on it for their income. Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Harar, areas in the south of Ethiopia, are where they grow the most sought-after arabica beans, which are snapped up and sold under the brands of the biggest coffee companies in the world.
Even on my first visit, although I didn't go south, I was aware of the problems the coffee farmers faced due to the slump in prices. But it was paradoxical to me that these people were producing the best of the second-most valuably traded commodity in the world after oil, yet they were not reaping the benefits.
Five years later at the end of 2002 the government announced the country could be about to face another food crisis that would eclipse the one of 1984. By then my brother Marc and I were documentary film-makers and we felt there was a story to be told about Ethiopia, one that was rooted in the Western daily consumer lifestyle, a story about our direct relationship with that country through the consumption of coffee.
That's how we came to make Black Gold. We focused on the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Co-operative Union, a grouping of more than 75,000 growers based in the state of Oromia, and their charismatic leader Tadesse Meskela, who works tirelessly on behalf of his members and as an ambassador for the Ethiopian coffee "brand" at world trade fairs. Their aims are clear: to try to achieve a better price for their coffee through more direct relationships with buyers and in turn to pull themselves and their families out of crippling poverty, get access to education and take their country forward. They don't want a one-way relationship with the West where they are patronised and dependent on aid.
The price the farmers receive for their coffee is set by the New York commodity market, which is influenced by the dominant multinationals. At the time we were filming, the price the Oromia Co-op farmers were getting was at a 30-year low – about 12p per kilo of coffee, which makes 80 cups and sells in the West for £150. People who see the film often ask why the farmers can't sell their product directly. But world trade rules make it very difficult for Ethiopia to export packaged coffee that is ready for consumption because the tariffs are set so high.
People have since said that one of the most striking images of the film was seeing communities on the verge of famine, but in a verdant landscape. We also watched as farmers began to destroy their coffee crops to replace them with khat, a narcotic plant, for which they get a much higher price.
Those who've seen Black Gold ask what they can do. There is no short answer, but consumers can ask companies what they pay for their coffee; buy Fair Trade goods; pressure politicians to change international trade rules. But then there's also this issue of rebranding Ethiopia, particularly as a tourist destination. It's not a hard country to travel around independently, and the people are hospitable. You can get a tour out of Addis Ababa – or use the public buses – into the coffee regions to learn more about where your coffee comes from. The language is hard, but Ethiopians are desperate to practise English, so it's easy to get by. Dispel those negative images: see it for yourself.
How to get there
Airlines flying to Addis Ababa include Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; ethiopian airlines.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com), KLM (0870 507 4074; klm.com), and later this month BMI (0870 607 0555; flybmi.com).
Ethiopian Quadrants organises coffee tours in collaboration with the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Co-operative Union, including cupping sessions in Addis Ababa, a visit to an auction and to the coffee co-operatives in Harar, Yirga Chefe and Jimma. Go to ethiopianquadrants.com.
For screenings of 'Black Gold', how to source the Oromia Co-op's coffee, or to join in the debate, go to blackgoldmovie.com.
For more about Link Ethiopia schemes, go to linkethiopia.org.uk.
Further viewing 'Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee', a documentary about coffee, is released on DVD on 22 October (blackgoldmovie.com)Reuse content