Attempting to Find a Fair Trade at the Birthplace of Coffee

The first time you travel to a new country your senses are heightened. Your camera is always at your side and every new experience is viewed as a potential photo op. The most mundane to a local is the very exotic to yourself.  But over multiple visits, you begin to understand the culture, the people, sometimes the language. A street which might have been a bit scary the first time becomes totally safe after visiting 5 times. You begin to understand the going-ons of your terrain. You find your favorite restaurant, town, and begin to speak and recognize a few words of the language. In a word, it becomes, “normal”. Just like your homeland.

For myself, Ethiopia does not fit into that mold.  It remains as mystical and challenging as I found it upon my first visit 8 years ago. Of course, today after nearly 10 visits, I better understand the culture, recognize the fauna, flora, favorite music, food and people of the land but I can still not become desensitized to the effects of poverty on the people and the environment. And the outrage keeps me coming back.

Arrival into the country is still a shock to my senses – especially when traveling here alone with nobody to distract you from taking in your surroundings. The mountain air, at 7500 feet above sea level leaves you grasping a bit as you walk off the plane. The smell of berbere, a popular spice mixture that is central to Ethiopia cuisine is in the air, (or is it the smell of the many fires lit in the homes of the 4 million throughout the city? I have still not figured it out after asking many Ethiopians), instantaneously remind you where your are at (and the wonderful food you find here).

Even going through customs is unique. A series of officials sit at a long table. One takes $20 dollars from you, the next gathers your visa and write something on a piece of paper, the last fill out your official visa – a large sticker rather then a stamp – something travelers love to admire in their passport. Then you visit a very dated and sparse luggage claim before venturing off into the quiet cool air of a city asleep. The only humans that seem to be alive at night are the cab driver carrying you to the hotel, the young women with swaddled babies on their back begging for change, and the prostitutes that line most city corners. The dire poverty of the country, with nearly 50% of the population living off of less then $1 a day, immediately shows its face upon arrival.

After a 20 minute cab ride I arrive at the hotel and am greeted by guards wrapped in blankets to keep warm. They carry my gear off to a musty, dirty room that costs just $19 dollars. This time it is the Taitu Hotel, which was built in 1898, as the first hotel in Ethiopia. Taitu Betul (1851 – 1918), an Ethiopian Empress and the wife of Emperor Menelek II, established it to provide guests to her city a place to rest their head. Today, its elegance has disappeared and its age shows. It just looks like a hotel that was built in 1898 without much upkeep since then. My room is down a dirty, dimly lit gravel path. The rooms have thin grates protecting it from the outside world. I place my bags blocking the windows so that at least If someone decides to break in I will hear them attempt to move my bag out of the way as they crawl through the window during my deep slumber. Luckily, I get in a 4 hour nap after falling asleep at 5 am due to jet lag. The only thing waking me is the very eager housekeeper that sits directly outside my door waiting for me to leave so she can clean.

As I lay in bed, tired but excited for the challenge of a 6 day whirlwind throughout the south of the country, I contemplate my decision to stay at such an inexpensive hotel. “You could have stayed in a wonderful hotel for about $100 dollars with no noise, complete security, and solid internet!” I say to myself.

My other half of myself defiantly responds, “But why would you spend so much money when you are working to support many who have very little. Isn’t that a bit imperialistic – shouldn’t you be maximizing the amount of funds you can leave with your Ethiopian partners?”

“Possibly but I have thousands of dollars in cash, computers and cameras with me. I have given myself no time to recover from 30 hours of travel and jet lag from the 7 hour time change.” I respond.

My ego and ethics continue the battle until I decide to get up and start my Ethiopian adventure. After 10 years of travels, the creatures of comfort I once could keep at bay on such adventures take a little practice forgetting about, I resolve between the two at the end.

This trip finds myself with a fascinating challenge. I have been on this path of work for over 10 years. The over-arching vision was to found a for-profit enterprise – that being Higher Grounds Trading Co – as a ethically driven company sourcing only fair trade and organic coffees. The hope was to use that as a vehicle to found a non-profit organization with community partners to help harness the consumer base and encourage equal participation from other like-minded companies to act as the engine to fund projects in communities that commodities can never fully support – education, health care and water. Today, that vision has been realized in the creation of On the Ground. The work, to carry it out, is much harder then the ideation of the vision. This trip I will visit 2 schools and a library under construction that we have funded, 3 coffee co-ops that our importing cooperative, Cooperative Coffees buys from,  interspersed with a number of meetings – in 1 week. There is no time for jet lag, food illness, or lack of focus.

My mission: to ensure funds have been used effectively in the construction of the schools, develop next steps for supporting the schools in the next year, make sure the library construction is on track, ensure that the cooperative unions are dispersing funds effectively to the growers for the coffee that we purchase from them while deciding which cooperative unions and cooperatives best match the mission of quality and justice of Higher Grounds for future partnerships, and to evaluate the concept of fair trade at the farmer level.

It’s a tall order for a short trip. Luckily I have excellent support. I’m greeted by Surafel after sipping on a nice espresso in the lobby of the hotel to wake up. He was our on-the-ground logistics coordinator during the Run Across Ethiopia in 2010 and since has become a dear and trusted friend. When one runs 250 miles with 15 other Americans and Ethiopians over 12 days through Southern Ethiopia you quickly get to know the lay of the land and how the best and most efficient ways to travel in the country. Surafel helps me with logistics and translation on this trip. And, this being the 4th journey I’ve taken with him to southern Ethiopia, he is our man “on the ground” – volunteering his time to help us in our quest to support the farmers of Ethiopia.

He arrives about 30 minutes late to the hotel – standard in Ethiopia where everyday travel is difficult and time-consuming. “My drivers’ wheel fell off.” He shrugs and says with a chuckle as he pushes through the crowds outside the gates of the hotel. Turns out it fell off on a dirt road and he had to abandon him, find a taxi to make it to the hotel so we can begin our adventure.”Welcome, here’s a phone you can use while you are here, i’ve programmed all the numbers of your Ethiopian contacts in it for you.” We then scurry off through the busy, dusty streets to head off to our first meeting. A fitting beginning to what will prove to be a challenging, inspirational, and busy week ahead.”

[Chris Treter, chief instigator at Higher Grounds Trading Co. and a founder of On the Ground]