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February 2007 Newsletter

Cause based coffees, that is coffees sold with the imprimatur of
various organizations such as Transfair, the Rain Forest Alliance
etc., have been getting a good run in the media lately. Some of
this good publicity has come about as a result of the film "Black
Gold", which graphically displays the plight of Ethiopians in the
Oromia coffee farming region and contrasts it with the price
affluent consumers pay for coffee drinks at Starbucks.

As a polemic for Fair Trade and against the World Trade
Organisation the film works remarkably well, with maximum
emotional impact. It emphasises the rotten deal that Africa gets
in terms of trade overall, and decries the evils of Big Coffee,
commodity trading, WTO farm subsidies etc.

What it doesn't do well is explain that the major reason for low
coffee prices worldwide is simply too much production of poor
quality coffee, from places like Vietnam and Brazil. As long as
this rubbish is available the big companies will continue to buy
it at the cheapest possible prices and then clean it up and foist
it off in cans onto clueless, predominantly American consumers.

Since they buy this junk in preference to better quality but more
expensive coffees the overall price of coffee remains depressed,
although it would only take one season of bad weather in Brazil
to alter the situation dramatically.

There is no doubt that Fair Trade coffees, as promoted by
Transfair and Oxfam, can make a big difference to the livelihoods
of some coffee farmers, but there is a rarely discussed elephant
in the Fair Trade room. The Fair Trade system rewards coffee
farmers for quantity, not quality. There is simply no incentive
to produce better coffee, just more of the same. The situation is
not helped by many coffee producing countries being their own
people's worst enemies through government corruption and

It's not all doom and gloom, though. One African country that
reached economic rock bottom after the genocide that saw 800,000
of its citizens killed is Rwanda. With the help of USAID and
other agencies a resurgent coffee industry where quality is
emphasised has been established.

Rwanda coffee now commands higher than Fair Trade prices, because
its quality means that demand exceeds supply. The whole
production system has been set up via a series of cooperatives to
minimise middleman exploitation, so the farmers receive adequate
income for their efforts. Many of the farmers are "Coffee Widows"
whose husbands died in the genocide, so there is a high
"feelgood" factor at work, but for me the economic and
educational model is what Fair Trade should be but isn't.

I don't buy coffee because it's cheap, or charitable, but because
it tastes good. Taste is the ONLY criterion I apply to my
purchasing decisions. True, some of the coffees I buy are Fair
Trade, but that's not the reason I buy them, it's how they taste.

The Rwandan coffee now available in Australia is (to the best of
my knowledge) the first shipment here since the new industry was
established, and it's this month's special because it's superb!

Rwanda Cyangugu

Produced from 100% bourbon Arabica trees.
Mild acidity, with a slightly floral aroma and a rich, creamy
body, beautifully balanced coffee.

Drink it and feel virtuous!