while writing about coffee for the Kansas City Star in 2009.
Even back then, he was passionate about this dream: create sustainable retail model that benefits coffee farmers.
His dream is even bigger now, and last year he launched the Revocup Coffee Foundation to help improve the lives of coffee farmers around the world.
“The crisis and injustice going on in coffee farms is no longer a trade issue,” Mesfin told a crowd of about 150 attending a foundation lunch last weekend.
“We’ve tried to approach everyone on the (coffee producing) chain. They listen, but they don’t commit to solutions. We felt the need to go to the public with a different approach.”
That approach centers on capturing 10 cents from each cup of coffee sold and using it to improve education, access to water and fair pricing in coffee growing regions.
Mesfin began himself when he opened Revocup in 2008 by donating a dime from every cup and a dollar from each pound of whole coffee to organizations working in Ethiopia, where both Mesfin and his wife, Nigist “TG” Ambachew, are from.
But he didn’t want to just donate. He wanted to build.
Mesfin has seen first-hand how precarious Ethiopian farmers’ lives are. Many are subsistence farmers who raise just a few hundred pounds of coffee each year.
They sell it to a local collector who travels between farms buying coffee. It’s then sold to an area buyer. The coffee is processed and then sold at auction to exporters, who then seek overseas buyers.
Importers bring the green, or unroasted, coffee into the United States and sell it to coffee roasters. The roaster then sells the coffee to a retailer or distributes it through its own retail operation. The retailer, finally, is the one who sells coffee to the consumer.
Everyone in this chain makes money except the farmer, who often sells his coffee for less than it cost to produce it, Mesfin says.
“The farmer cannot defend his position or his profit,” Mesfin says.
The Revocup Foundation plans to change that by initially focusing on education. The foundation has during the past year shipped 14,000 books to Ethiopia, stocking eight libraries that serve some 6,000 children. The organization partnered withBooks for Africa to identify existing schools in coffee growing areas that need books. The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union
transports books from port to school.
Mesfin wants to add another 41 libraries as soon as possible. Long range plans include water projects and financing; the foundation will also eventually extend its reach to other coffee producing countries.
“What they need are the tools to improve their lives,” Mesfin says of coffee farmers. “They are not beggars. The system makes them dependent because they don’t get paid enough.”
Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer who writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section, as well as food features. She blogs at food_drink_ life.wordpress.com .