In the Beginning, by Ian Agnew, BGF

I’d like to welcome you to the Black Gold Foundation and our new website. I hope that you will find the site informative, thought provoking, but mostly motivating – our aim is to inform people about trade, and trade justice issues, particularly within the coffee sector, and to start a dialogue – a conversation – with consumers, farmers, the coffee industry, academics and NGOs about how we can all work together to create great coffee and a great coffee industry.

And there is still a lot for us to do. Black Gold Film premiered in 2006 and little has changed for small coffee farmers since that time. Yes, things like fair trade and other certification schemes are growing, but are these really the solution to a screwed-up value chain? Most (thankfully) don’t claim to be, but as consumers, we are very much left with the impression that we can solve the plight of poor farmers simply by choosing a product with a certification label on it. If only life were that simple.

No, the solutions to the problems faced by small farmers are far more complicated and they face multiple challenges every day, from the impacts of climate change to the roller-coaster currency valuations, to food speculation on commodity markets, to the simple fact that farmers are poor and have few options in life.

I’ve just returned from visiting rural coffee growers in Ethiopia and Kenya, including members of the Oromia Coffee Farmer Cooperative Union that featured in Black Gold. I’d spent time with the same Kenyan farmers 4 years ago so I was looking forward to seeing whether things had changed for them since my first visit. But this was my first visit to Ethiopian farmers, so my benchmark against which to judge their progress (or not) was Black Gold. I didn’t set out on my visit with high expectations – I’ve spent long enough in Africa to keep my optimism and expectations in check – but I was still shocked to see how little things had moved on in the 5 years since Black Gold was first premiered.

I met with dozens of small farmers across the Harar region in Eastern Ethiopia. Without exception, I heard stories of poverty, lack of access to basic services – most had no electricity, limited water, no sanitation, little, if any, infrastructure – useable roads, transport or access to local markets.

What struck me the most about the farmers I met and talked to in Ethiopia and Kenya is that they are not “coffee farmers”; they are poor subsistence farmers who, in addition to growing some food crops for their family, also grow a small quantity of cash crops, such as coffee. I think this is a really important distinction to make because when we hear or read about the “difference” that is made in the claims of major coffee chains, buyers and fair trade and other certification schemes, we need to put this in the context of the small farmer. Those few extra cents per kilo that a farmer might be paid for their coffee will have a limited impact for many who might only be growing a few hundred kilos per year.

It was frustrating to see how little farmers on the ground know about or understood what happens to the stuff they grow once it leaves the farm gate. Almost none of the farmers I met knew where the coffee went to in their own country, let alone once it was shipped overseas. They certainly had no idea of the value placed on their crops by us consumer societies in Europe and the US; and they knew nothing about the certification schemes that many of them are bound by – other than maybe having heard of the names. It’s not surprising though, some of the cooperatives signed up to certification schemes are large organisations with thousands of small farmers as members spread over huge distances. It’s not easy to have effective communication right out to individual farmers.

Real empowerment of farmers has to be driven through them being able to access knowledge and useable, accurate information about the supply chain and markets they sell into; and the training to be able to make informed decisions about when and to whom to sell their produce. There is growing access to up to date information, particularly through SMS services on mobile phone networks. In Kenya, I found almost everybody I met had a mobile phone; network coverage was excellent, even in rural areas. However, in Ethiopia, whilst I could get a phone signal almost everywhere I went, most of the villages didn’t have electricity, let alone the means to run a mobile phone.

From my recent visit it’s apparent to me that small farmers face a multitude of challenges in their daily lives; some of them direct – like changing weather patterns, pests and unpredictable harvests. Other challenges are taking place far away from farmers but having equally devastating impacts on their lives. Commodity speculation (coffee is the most traded commodity in the World after oil), fluctuating currencies, global supply and demand changes all have a huge impact on farmers. I was told by some farmers in Kenya that there was no point in them growing more coffee because the more they grew, the less money they got. They’d got confused between the price they get per kilo locally at a given time, and the global rollercoaster that is World coffee prices over the course of a year.

I’ve seen first-hand how farmers are persuaded that prices are on a high and they should grow more coffee and increase yields (which also means increased expensive imported fertilisers and pesticides) but when the coffee is harvested months later, the prices have again plummeted, meaning that it can have cost them more to grow and harvest the coffee than they get paid for it.

When I watched Black Gold for the first time, I saw how small farmers were abandoning coffee and turning their small plots over to growing chat (aka khat) – the high demand, addictive plant, popular in east Africa, Yemen and beyond. Chat is a controversial plant – it can be addictive and have negative health impacts on users, but it’s also extremely popular and there is a thriving market for it. Seeing Ethiopian “coffee” farmers growing more chat and less coffee raised some difficult questions for me. It would be easy to criticise the farmers for doing this (they also consume a lot of it locally), but at times, farmers can be paid almost double the price of coffee cherry per kilo for chat, and they can get their money instantly. If the coffee industry, regulators, certification schemes and consumers cannot make coffee growing more stable and sustainable for farmers, we cannot, in turn, criticise them for finding alternative crops to earn an income from.

I’ve just re-read this blog post and it does look quite gloomy – that wasn’t my intention. Mind you, if I painted a rosy picture of happy farmers quietly supplying us with our daily fix of caffeine, then that would be misleading and, I suppose, would make the Black Gold Foundation redundant.

There are very positive examples of sustainable coffee farming from around the World, typically, where farmers and their communities work together to sort things out for themselves. The examples I’ve given here are all from just two countries and based on a week-long visit to each (this time), so I don’t want to make wild statements about global problems. Instead, we aim, over the coming weeks and months, to bring you the best information, opinion and stories that we can from those involved in coffee around the World, and to invite you to join the conversation about what we – consumers, NGOs, industry, farmers, can start to do to make a positive and sustainable difference.

At the Black Gold Foundation, we love great coffee – we know what we mean by that, but we want to know what you think and work towards a consensus of opinion that we can all strive to turn in to reality in the global coffee industry.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

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