February 22, 2007

Fair Trade Coffee Goes Global

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Sporting a red yarmulke with traditional Judaic engravings, Joab Jonadav Keki, a native of east Uganda and the president of the Mirembe Kawomera Cooperative based near the country’s border with Kenya, has found a way to promote interfaith understanding among the fellow Muslim, Jewish and Christian Ugandans while improving the economic conditions of his community.

Keki came to Goldwin Smith to speak to students, faculty, and Ithaca residents about the philosophy of his cooperative. The event was organized by Tzedek: Jewish Social Justice and co-sponsored by the Islamic Alliance for Justice, The Cornell Coalition for Trade Justice, Engineers for Sustainable World, and the Carl Becker House.

Formed in 2004 and comprised of 570 Ugandan farmers and their families, the cooperative Mirembe Kawomera, which means “Delicious Peace,” unites locals of the three major religious branches who grow and process coffee beans to be exported to the U.S. and to Europe.

“We have a common [coffee] business and I think if we use that and if we had a market anywhere, then this would teach the whole world, or the other parts of the world, that wherever you go you have got differences in religion, but when you come together you can make something which can develop your area or your community,” Keki said.

Keki, known as “JJ” to his friends, came up with the idea for the cooperative in 2000, following the party elections in Uganda. He was concerned about maintaining peace between the Jewish minority, Muslims, and the Christian majority and about improving the overall social conditions in the area.

“I was very happy,” he reflected. “I though that maybe if we kept up like this, continue, people would think that peace could come in all corners of the world.”

“In this area we work together,” he added.

Mirembe Kawomera produces four containers of organic coffee beans per annum, each amounting to roughly 40,000 pounds. Two of these containers are bought under a fair trade agreement by a California-based Thanksgiving Coffee Company. The rest are sold at discounted prices to various firms in Europe.

According to Keki, before the formation of the cooperative, farmers were selling their product privately for 1,800 shillings (or 40 cents) and had a hard time providing for their families. Mirembe Kawomera now sells its coffee for 2,600 shillings, roughly $1.70.

“Farmers can at least pay for school fees of their children,” Keki said.
With that, Keki suggested that he was lucky to secure an arrangement with Thanksgiving Coffee Company, run by Paul Katzeff ’59.
Katzeff’s firm pays Mirembe Kawomera an additional $1 for every pound of coffee sold.

According to Ben Corey-Moran of Thanksgiving Coffee, the company sells 20,000 pounds of Mirembe Kawomera’s product each year. With a $1 contribution for each pound, the cooperative receives $20,000 in funding on top of regular profits. This money is used to support a variety of local projects, which, among other things, aim to improve the local school and healthcare systems.

“There is something amazing about seeing this work,” Corey-Moran said.
Mirembe Kawomera and Thanksgiving Coffee have caught the attention of the media. Curt Fissel, vice president of Jewish Educational Multimedia Global Learning Outreach and former staff of PBS documentary team, is making a film about Keki and Katzeff’s joint enterprise.

The new documentary is called “Delicious Peace Grows in a Ugandan Coffee Bean.” In it, Elias Hasulube, a member of Mierembe Kawomera, reflected on the philosophy of the cooperative: “We want to spread as gospel that we should unite, let us not fight one another. Because of what? Religion. We all believe in what? One God.”