by Helen Russell
Recently the Equator team had the opportunity to participate in an event that not only highlighted the uniqueness of the coffee produced in Aleta Wondo, Ethiopia, but also illuminated the human side of coffee in this very special part of the world.
Equator customer, Peter Schumacher, hosted us and an organization called Common River at his Mill Valley restaurant, Dish . We presented on the current state of coffee in Ethiopia, and the experiences of the coffee farmers we know there. Common River, Common River a Mill Valley non-profit that works to make a difference in the lives of the people in Aleta Wondo was on hand to talk about their work in the birthplace of coffee. Several Equator customers and members of the community attended to learn more about both the coffee and the people of Aleta Wondo.
We recently returned from a buying trip to Ethiopia where farmers grow and process some of the most consistently highly ranked and best quality coffees in the world, with little to no technology. Ethiopia possesses the perfect climate for coffee, but I think one reason Ethiopians produce such great coffees is because it's also a country of coffee lovers—rare for a coffee-producing country.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is such an important part of the culture, and is so widely practiced that 50% of the coffee produced in Ethiopia is consumed there, even though coffee is one of the country's most important export crops. In our slideshow, viewers met people like the vibrant Asnakech Thomas, the only female miller/exporter in Ethiopia, whose passion for coffee is evident in her enthusiasm. Asnakech is the producer of the stellar Amaro Gayo coffee, which we have purchased in the past.
Experts in the coffee industry talk a lot about the superior coffees grown in Ethiopia, almost all of which are grown by smallholder family farmers. What we don't hear a lot about are the human beings tending to and harvesting the crops.
25% of the population of Ethiopia relies on coffee income, which is historically uneven, and seasonal to boot. Coffee also makes up a full 40% of the country's export revenue, putting the country's economic health in serious jeopardy, even during years of high coffee prices.
Coffee farmers in Aleta Wondo produce some of the best coffee in the world. Coffee that Americans are happy to pay $3 or $4 a cup for. Yet their children historically haven't had enough to eat, haven't attended school regularly, and lack proper medical care. If most Americans could see the real price of their daily cup, and the small amount of money it takes to make a real difference in Aleta Wondo, I think they'd be willing to help in any way they can.
You can do so by supporting the work of Common River directly, and also by purchasing coffee from Aleta Wondo.
Mill Valley residents Tsegaye Bekele, who was born in Aleta Wondo, and Donna Sillan, a former international public health consultant, founded Common River in order to create a balanced, productive, self-sustaining community in Aleta Wondo.
Common River shared some of its accomplishments since breaking ground in 2007. Because the first priority for the people of Aleta Wondo was education, Common River's first project was to build a schoolhouse out of traditional woven bamboo. However, though children were eagerly attending the new school, many were fainting in the afternoons from lack of nutrition. In some cases, families were only sending the boys to school, and many children missed days due to illnesses like malaria. Donna, Tsegaye, and the teachers quickly saw that they needed to do more. So they did.
In just three years, Common River has grown beyond its original mandate. Fundraising locally in Mill Valley, mostly from individual doners and with the help of many families from the Mill Valley school district, Common River currently runs a school that educates 130 children in the community. Girls make up at least 60% of the student body and the teachers work with elders in the community to grow food for the school lunch program. The school recently added a few cows whose milk is used for yogurt, Equator will be purchasing another cow in June. Youth volunteers from Mill Valley staff a summer camp program, and other community members regularly travel to Aleta Wondo to lend a hand.
Common River runs all of their programs on less than $1,000 a month, but the long-term sustainability of the project depends on the people of Aleta Wondo making a living selling their coffee.
You can support the people of Aleta Wondo by purchasing Aleta Wondo coffee from Equator Coffees, the Aleto Wondo website , or San Rafael and Mill Valley Whole Foods Markets.