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Oromo coffee, Ethiopia

From Ethiopia to the UK - A coffee business with a difference

The Oromo Coffee Company (OCC) is the first ever community owned direct trading coffee business. It is owned and managed by a group of Oromo people, who came to England from the Oromia region as political refugees. The OCC buys high quality Fairtrade certified coffee directly from The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) in Ethiopia.

The inspiration behind the enterprise

Teshome helps run the OCC. He explains:

 “We came to the UK as refugees in 2008 with the United Nations Gateway project. We didn’t want to go to the job centre or take benefits. We wanted to get training and skills ourselves... So we tried to explain to people; our friends, local people, people in the local church. We discussed things with them and came up with the idea of starting a coffee company.”

The Lorna Young Foundation (LYF), a charity that supports fair and ethical trade, was approached for ideas on how the Oromo community could develop skills and get employment. LYF had already worked with the OCFCU coffee farmers in Ethiopia on another project and had the idea of starting up a coffee business.

Building a better future for Ethiopian coffee farmers

Since 1999 the OCFCU has been working to trade coffee collectively so that their members get a better price and to improve quality. The extra income they get through selling Fairtrade certified coffee to international customers has meant they can invest in things that benefit the whole community, such as better school facilities, medical equipment and clean water supplies for villages. All the sales of Fairtrade coffee through the OCC will help OCFCU do more of this and that’s an important motivation for the people running the OCC here in the UK.

People power!

The OCC’s main customers are independent shops, cafes, community centres, churches and council offices but their coffee can now be found in places as diverse as the Methodist International Centre, a busy hotel and conference centre, and the top-notch organic and ethical gastro-pub The Duke of Cambridge in Islington, London. Getting the coffee on the shelf has been down to a lot of hard work and perseverance.

People in other parts of the country have also helped spread the word about OCC and get their coffee into the shops. Joe Human is a volunteer with the Keswick Fairtrade Town campaign group in Cumbria. He explains how they have been involved with OCC since its launch at Parliament in 2009:

“We were there because of the friendship between our campaign and the Ethiopian coffee farming community of Choche, some of whose coffee goes into the Limu coffee which OCC sell. Realising at the launch that their coffees were of superb quality we resolved to get one of our specialist food shops in Keswick to sell some…Within a couple of days of our return, Fond Ewe Fine Cheeses became the very first shop in the country to stock OCC coffee…Since then they have never looked back. Many coffee lovers in Keswick now buy their coffee there…and whenever we campaigners do talks…or run stalls at fairs and markets…we sell OCC coffee. In this way we boost sales and benefit our Ethiopian farmer friends. It’s win, win, win. At the same time we make the point that not only is OCC coffee Fairtrade but is also some of the finest coffee in the world. Why would anyone want to drink any other coffee?”

Big challenges but many rewards

Dr. Getahun, board member of the OCC, describes how challenging it is to start a new life in the UK as a refugee:

“A refugee life is not very easy. There are communication and culture gaps. It is very difficult if you lack the necessary skills.”

Teshome, who helps run the OCC, also explains:

“We’ve had so many challenges; the language and culture is very difficult. Unless you speak and can read English very well, and can write letters and emails, it is impossible to communicate with other businesses and people. Our big challenge is finance; the costs of running a business.”

In spite of the challenges, the OCC have a lot to be proud of. It has put Oromo coffee in the spotlight. Although the business is about selling coffee, the OCC also wants to spread the word about the Oromo people; their lives, history and culture. As Ian Agnew, from the Lorna Young Foundation explains:

“One of the beauties of this is; who ever heard of Oromo before? What’s most important to the Oromos is, yes, skills and job opportunities but also their pride. Suddenly you have this thing with your name on it! They’ve got their identity and culture back; pride in who they are.”

Ian adds that one of the highlights of working with the OCC is simply seeing the coffee on the shelf:

“When I go somewhere and see Oromo coffee…that’s the best bit. Every time we sell a bag of coffee we’re one step further to making it work!”

The OCC is an amazing example of how a diverse group of people and organisations can join together around shared goals to make something happen. The OCC is having positive impact on the lives of Oromo and indigenous local people here in the UK as well as members of coffee farming co-operatives in Ethiopia. It’s over 3,500 miles from Ethiopia to the UK, but this direct community trading link means people across this huge distance are working together to build a better future for their communities.