In 2002, I met Mr. Tadesse Meskela, the founder and manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, at US Campaign, organized by Oxfam International and Global Exchange to draw publicity to the “Global Coffee Crisis”. Mr. Meskela was a keynote speaker at a forum in Washington DC.
I had studied communication and studio arts at the University of Minnesota and had extensive professional experience promoting and marketing a small business and community organization in the Ethiopian Community, in the Metropolitan Washington DC, advancingcultural and economic development.
Mr. Meskela introduced me to the world of coffee, the growing tradition, the history of the farmer’s cooperatives union, the global coffee business and the challenge the Union faces as it strives to get a better price in the global market. That led to several trips to Ethiopia to visit the coffee-growing region, meeting with coffee farmers and their cooperatives leaders. I learned first hand the impact of the coffee crisis on the lives of the small coffee farmers.
I was fascinated by the social and spiritual value of the coffee culture and inspired by the small farmers’ collective effort to bargain for a better price in the global market. But, I was also baffled by the unfairness of the international coffee market and found myself highly motivated to develop a market strategy and promotional campaign to create market awareness for the Ethiopian traditional coffee ceremony, its cultural significances, and share the culture and story of the farmers with specialty coffee consumers in the US market.
During my research I sought advice from policymakers, including US Congress members, the African Government officials and trade related governmental and NGO officials. Survey methods included face-to-face interviews with Ethiopian coffee farmers’ small to large-scale manufacturers and businesses and community leaders at home and in the Diaspora. Prominent scholars and experts in the field of international finance, economics, trade and marketing provided critical analysis and inputs. This research revealed that the global market access challenges the coffee farmers face is also true for other value chains in the agricultural sector and the challenge hinders African global market access, participation and economic development.
At the end, the research, mylongtime work in media to promote African culture and passion in cultural promotion, and the use of stories to excite markets for African products has resulted in a new market model I named “Virtuous Exchange”, a social business and market that will utilize cultural and economical convergence to dynamically bridge Africa with the Global market and aspires to create international market linkages for higher-value and profit sharing with farmers and producers to foster and advance economic and social development in Africa as well as here in the US.
Coffee, which instigated the research, was selected as a leading product to implement Virtuous Exchange. The coffee model, through trial and error, finally evolved to be inaugurated as Blessed Coffee (BC), a social business that imports, roasts, brands and distributes premium Ethiopian coffee to the wholesale and cottage-café retail market (www.blessedcoffee.us)
BC connects 200,000 small coffee farmers, organized under the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia, with the specialty coffee consumer in the US market. BC plans to share profits with the Union to support the Union's social program, opening schools, health clinics, safe water wells and other social programs in the coffee-growing region as well as community organizations communities in the US advancing social and economic development.
BC is the second company to register as a Benefit Corporation (a public corporation chartered and produce public benefit as well as profit), a hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit models that aims for community benefits as well as profitsin the State of Maryland.
My ultimate hope is to present Blessed Coffee as an alternative business model to the African community in the US, to encourage them to follow suit and establish businesses that advance US-Africa cultural and economic ties for development in Africa, and here in our American communities.
Tebabu Assefa founded Blessed Coffee (BC), a social business that imports, roasts, brands and distributes premium Ethiopian coffee to the wholesale and cottage-café retail market. BC shares profits with the OCFCU to support the Union's social program, opening schools, health clinics, safe water wells and other social programs in the coffee-growing region.