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In 2003, international coffee prices were starting the slow recovery from a 35 year low, and it was the Ethiopian coffee farmers at the end of a long chain of many middle men who felt it the most.

I visited the rural coffee communities of Killenso Mokonisa and Killenso Rasa in southern Ethiopia late in 2003 to gain a greater understanding of the supply chain and to see how we could support the farmers and the communities in the region. At that time there were no schools in the area and children could only attend if they moved away and boarded or stayed with family, as a result few members of the community had access to education. 

When we drove into the communities I was struck by two things; the absence of any real material possessions, there wasn’t a push bike in sight, but more starkly were weathered farmer faces. And yet meeting the co-operative members* on that trip you could see a drive to build a better future for their families and communities, including healthcare and schooling, so we worked with them to create this. In 2004 we worked jointly with M&S to migrate all of their existing traceable ethical coffee sourcing to Fairtrade and Organic certified, adding Rainforest Alliance certification as well in 2012. Coffee from the farming families of Killenos Mokonia and Killenso Rasa formed part of this supply chain. 

Fast forward to February 2015, and I’m back in the same in the communities with Hazel Culley, Sustainability Manager for Food at M&S. I’ve been back many times since 2003, and I reflect with Hazel on how every year I come back you can really see what the extra income of Fairtrade means to the families, from improved diet to families moving from traditional huts to new buildings with tin roofs and fitted flues for the fire, reducing respiratory problems. Visiting the Killenso Mokonisa community office we hear passionate farmers sharing their community success and how they are proud to have improved the quality of their coffee and income from these small-holdings for more than a decade now. This community spirit is what defines Fairtrade at its best, linking farmers with a collective will to the buyer and a retailer from the UK standing in their office.

Fairtrade coffee 3

Elsewhere stands a basic but functional community medical centre where back in 2003, Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union (OCFCU) had committed to build such a facility. It’s been extended over the years and now has a doctor to supplement the district nurse that operates there. Similarly, where the government has struggled to meet the community’s needs, the co-op has plugged the gap building schools and classrooms with the first secondary age pupils now passing through to college supported by co-op bursaries. A simple ethos of building a successful community business and making sure it benefits the community is what Fairtrade looks like on the ground here. 

Back in the capital Killenso Mokonisa and Killenso Rasa have partnered with the 300 other community co-op members of OCFCU to build what is one of Africa’s most modern coffee export processing plants. Here farmers get to add more value to their crop by controlling more of the value chain that links OCFCU to M&S and us.

coffee blog

Hazel was not the first person from M&S to accompany me to Ethiopia but this visit marked a deepening of our relationship with OCFCU as we discussed our joint investment along with the Fairtrade Foundation to improve the quality of dry processed coffee here. This project is supported by Plan A funds and will look to develop new and interesting flavours from heirloom varieties of coffee, a botanical heritage linked to Ethiopia, it being the birthplace of coffee. By focusing on this traditional way of processing coffee we’ll also reduce the process water required to prepare high quality coffee here and so play a part in our farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change.

My travels follow the coffee harvests and will take us to remote parts of Peru this summer before heading to Sumatra in Indonesia later in the year. The travel is a privilege, but also brings the real opportunity to build direct relationships with our farmers to better enable us to understand the real impact of how we buy and source the highest quality coffee for you. 

  • M&S has worked with Matthew Algie & Company Limited coffee roasters since 1994, helping us to ensure our coffee is of the highest quality and has been certified by Fairtrade, Soil Association (Organic) and Rainforest Alliance.
  • To find out more about our range of Fairtrade products, read our earlier blog "Celebrating Fairtrade Fortnight 2015"
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*A co-operative is a formal community organisation run on a democratic principles which underpin the Fairtrade coffee certification. In a small-holder community this gives economies of scale for example in terms of market access or processing.