POST BY CHRIS TRETER
Tuesday February 1, 2011
One realization from meeting thousands of people while running across Ethiopia and spending time in coffee growing communities that supply Higher Grounds with our Ethiopian Yrgacheffe Light Roast and Ethiopian Unwashed Sidamo Medium Roast, is that the coffee industry should learn a lesson from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”.
Abraham Maslow, the founder of Humanistic Psychology, has been immortalized through his creation of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Outlined in “A Theory of Human Motivation,” published in 1943, the work has affected many fields, including education. In the Hierarchy of Needs, Maslow explains that first level needs must be attained before a human can satisfy higher level needs. Basic needs (survival) must be met before Safety Needs (comfort) and Psychological Needs (well-being). If all three can be met, a human can then work to find self-actualization and Peak Experiences.
In modern-day Ethiopia, despite the country’s coffee exports accounting for nearly 60 percent of the national GDP, many coffee farmers and their families live in dire poverty. Education, health care, and access to water are all very limited. In the Yirgacheffe region, where some of the world’s most unique and sought-after coffees originate, little more than half the region’s children complete primary school. The adult literacy rate is 36 percent. Life expectancy is 53 years. Unfortunately for coffee farmers (and most rural peoples) in Ethiopia, the most basic of human needs are not met. These needs reflect human’s needs of water, food, shelter, and clothing.
As a buyer visiting coffee growing communities in Ethiopia many times, one thing that has been quite evident is that fair trade pricing alone is not nearly enough to bring growers out of poverty. However, it should at the very least be the baseline price for any ethical coffee buyer. And, in a high priced coffee market, price alone will not resolve issues of poverty. For most coffee growers, their basic needs of survival are not met. Buyers who attempt to talk about quality of coffee without simultaneously speaking of quality of life are simply not in touch of the reality on the ground and contribute to the development of an unjust coffee trading system.
When one travels through coffee growing communities, the lack of basic needs is quite clear to see. Children smile and wave to you without shoes in a region where podoconiosis, a debilitating foot disease that is caused by walking barefoot, affects nearly 1 million Ethiopians. Their stomachs are large due to malnourishment as their diet is heavy in the false banana (a starch) with limited access to protein. Over 90% of the children never attend high school. Many of those in school study in classrooms with over 100 students, in buildings that have no access to water, and without any food to eat throughout the day.
Alimazi Bedhaso, a 14 year old girl from a growing community that supplies coffee to over a dozen brands in the U.S. and Europe approached me while touring a new high school built with fair trade premiums which she will attend next year. When asked about her education thus far she quickly responded, “For girls it is very difficult. If we do not attend school we are forced into arranged marriage at a very young age. If we are in school there are not enough teachers or supplies and we have no time to study. We must walk for hours to return home where we must fetch water and wood, feed the animals, and cook.”
When asking a group of growers representing 6 different coffee cooperatives, what their largest challenges are as an organization, one is quick to realize that their needs are much different than that of an organization in the United States or Europe. While a U.S. company might talk about a need for an improved accounting system, better trained employees, or access to capital, an Ethiopian co-op will quickly state that water, roads, schools, electricity and health centers are the primary needs. Thoughts of better organizational efficiencies are not even a thought when an organization is still grappling with the survival of its membership.
The largest issue for any farmer I have spoken to in Ethiopia is access to water. As one told me, “Water is life, we spend much of the day looking for water. In fact, women sometimes give birth next to the well while they wait for their turn to get water for their family.” This need for water is evident when anyone walks through a community with an empty water bottle. Children quickly approach you for even just a container to carry water.
Solutions to these problems are not found in foreign minds. As the manager of Homa Cooperative, the co-op that grows some of our Yirgacheffe coffee states, “You cannot provide our solutions, only we can. Our general assembly determines our priorities. Your role is to buy more fair trade coffee and provide us with a premium.” Fair trade is the best alternative in the global coffee system. But, it is not nearly enough.
Higher Grounds believes that while we continue to push for a higher price to growers we must also bring together our community of coffee drinkers to support these communities in Ethiopia struggling to meet their most basic needs. For that reason, On the Ground was formed, a non-profit that works to provide funding for access to water, health care, and education around the world. The first major campaign of On the Ground, the Run Across Ethiopia, was an overwhelming success – raising enough money to fund the construction of three schools. Thanks to many of you reading this, together we are quickly making a difference in the lives of thousands of children in the coffee growing regions of Ethiopia. Such a campaign has never been realized with an audacious amount of support from nearly a thousand individuals throughout the U.S.
While all our activity to date has been an overwhelming success, it is just the first of many steps needed to bring real lasting change to our coffee growing partners. Through your continued support of Higher Grounds and On the Ground, we will walk down that path toward sustainability and be sure to bring you along the way while you enjoy an amazing cup of coffee. With each sip, you can be sure we are busy running toward a better world for all players in the coffee industry.http://www.highergroundstrading.com/
Chris Treter is President/CEO of Higher Grounds Trading Company in Traverse City, Michigan and founder of On The Ground.