Thursday, 1 October 2015

The world in your coffee cup

Today is the world’s first ever ‘International Coffee Day’, which also celebrates ‘Fair Trade Coffee’.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth, second only to oil. But whilst oil keeps our modern cars and machinery working, and coffee keeps us going even on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon, there is a big difference between the two products.  

Oil producing countries are generally very rich. But countries that provide us with coffee are generally very poor.

Years ago some friends and I embarked on a youthful and idealistic project: to import almost three tonnes of instant coffee from a factory in Tanzania, East Africa. The idea was to support manufacturing in a developing country.  

Most coffee producing countries were selling their raw coffee beans to richer countries, who then processed them, making most of the profit. But we found a little factory in a remote town in north-west Tanzania, Bukoba, next to the border with Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria and the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. 

The factory, jointly owned by a local coffee co-operative and the Tanzanian government, specialised in turning their locally picked coffee beans into instant coffee. This was a rare find in east and central Africa, and we felt, a manufacturing enterprise worthy of our support.
The idea wasn’t to make any money. We simply wanted to place an order for the factory’s coffee and then to sell it across the UK, with accompanying educational literature explaining the poverty of coffee pickers, and how our shopping affects the lives of citizens across the world.

Our base was a vegetarian, co-operative shop in Oxford called ‘Uhuru’ – which means ‘freedom’ in Swahili, the language of the Great Lakes region of Southeast Africa.  

I flew out to Tanzania to personally visit the factory in Bukoba, and to meet Tanzania’s then Minister for Agriculture, who was naturally delighted that young people in the UK wanted to help boost his country’s main export earner - coffee.

It was a struggle to raise the £12,000 needed for the coffee order – and a logistical nightmare to work out all the complicated procedures in importing coffee to Britain from Africa.  

We wanted to sell the coffee in 4 ounce glass jars (about 110 grams), but found that the consistency of this particular instant blend from East Africa wouldn’t fit into standard 4 ounce jars, so reluctantly we had to sell the coffee in biodegradable packs.

We decided to call our initiative ‘Campaign Coffee’.  

The label on each pack of ‘Campaign Coffee’ featured a photo of a pile of pennies.  They showed who-got-what from the typical selling price of a 4 ounce jar of instant coffee – from the coffee pickers and farmers, to the middle guys, to the shipping companies, right through to the shops and supermarkets in the UK.  Of course, it was the coffee pickers who got the least..

With each pack of ‘Campaign Coffee’ came a free 6-page fold-out pamphlet called, ‘The Coffee Crunch’ which I wrote and designed – and now takes pride of place as one of my first attempts at political and campaigning journalism.   

Whilst sipping our Campaign Coffee, we hoped consumers would take on board the political consequences of shopping and read the message we gave them in our accompanying literature:
'It’s ironic that the very drink which stimulates us in our fast materialistic society, is a story of poverty for the people who produce it
'We made it illegal for small boys to climb chimneys over 100 years ago.  Yet few of us today turn a hair at drinking coffee picked by a little boy of five who hardly has enough to eat.'
Alongside the campaign we published a booklet called ‘The World in Your Coffee Cup’, co-written by my friend, Martin Bailey, and myself. We explained the history of coffee and how many of the countries that are poor today remain poor because of their dependency, imposed during colonial times, on selling raw crops such as coffee. Unlike oil, selling raw coffee beans could never make poor countries rich.

‘Campaign Coffee’ was a huge success, and we soon sold-out of our complete stock of 20,000 packs of coffee right across the country. The Campaign was reported by the national media as a ‘new and revolutionary’ idea in shopping.  Campaigners and church groups around the country held special events to taste our more politically-palatable coffee than the Nescafe variety.  

We also had a campaign slogan which, although might seem a little na├»ve now, caught the imagination of thousands of coffee drinkers who previously hadn’t any real idea of the plight and poverty of those who provided their daily-pick-me-up:
'Start stirring for a more just world'
In those days, we had no idea where our idealistic, non-profit-making ‘Campaign Coffee’ would lead. But actually, it became the idea for what we know in Britain today as ‘Fairtrade Coffee’.  

• More about International Coffee Day

Other articles by Jon Danzig:

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Posted by Jon Danzig on Thursday, 1 October 2015

BBC Radio Oxford interview about Campaign Coffee:

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