'Black Gold' has stuck with me ever since I watched it years ago. It is a documentary film about an Ethiopian union leader, Tadesse Meskela who travels the world trying to find a fairer buyer on behalf of his fellow coffee farmers'. To say the least, it shaped my ambitions while I was studying International Development at UCLA years ago. And even re-watching it today as a social entrepreneur refilled my vein with superior grade caffeine.
Coffee gives you a head start to the day. As one of the Italian baristas interviewed in the film says, 'Without it we are all miserable'. How about the misery of coffee farmers in the original home of coffee?
What the regular coffee drinker in America feels on going a day without coffee cannot compare to how the farmers feel as they work in their coffee farms.
One picture that I can never get out of my mind is of the farmers' reaction to Tadesse's revelation to them: in effect, they would have to save 100% of their wages for 10 days in order for them to afford just 1 cup of coffee.
If the coffee trade doesn't represent the monster of corporate greed, what does?
In the film, one Starbucks' employee brags about how fast their empire is growing. This begs the question if the beverage is black gold, how come the ones who pour their sweat to bring it off the soil die poorer?
The losses that farmers started making since the collapse of the original International Coffee Agreement led them to consider other crops. But which exactly could, say, replace what gives Ethiopia 67% of its export earnings?
A few farmers cut down the generations-old coffee trees and started experimenting with the other stimulant, khat. The market for this is limited to a few countries in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. There is no way it can provide the farmers with a sustainable source of income either.
Thus the best shot at improved lifestyles for about 74, 000 farmers was for Tadesse to find fairer business partners. As the film shows, he did meet with a few successes. He got Ethiopian coffee on the supermarket shelves and participated in the various fairs. He may not have played the Goliath that is headed by the Nestle's and Mary Lee's, but his efforts paid off as the film ended with him returning to the cooperative members their first premiums.
A quick Google search brings up the many more accomplishments that came from one person's dream of a life of dignity for his fellow workers. Not only did the union he led build schools and hospitals in the Ethiopian villages, this year they are set to open a $1.5M coffee roasting and packaging complex.
While the greater threat right now to these coffee farmers is climate change -also a beast fathered by greed, there is hope. Tadesse opened our eyes to how much the world can change when we take back our power as labor and consumers and believe that we are not too small to set the terms of engagement.
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