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Ugandan Coffee Farmers Cash in on Religious Differences
The Washington Diplomat / May 2008

By Larry Luxner

Question: How many Jewish coffee farmers does it take to produce a pound of Ugandan coffee beans?

Answer: That depends on how many Christian and Muslim farmers are working alongside the Jews.

In a country surrounded by some of the world's bloodiest examples of tribal violence, JJ Keki and his friends are setting an example for the rest of Africa.

The Peace Kawomera Cooperative sprang to life one spring day in 2004, when Keki an idealistic Ugandan Jew who sold coffee beans to middlemen for a pittance asked his Muslim and Christian neighbors to turn their own religious diversity into a marketing tool that might score points with overseas coffee drinkers.

"We realized that wars are caused by differences," said Keki, 48. "You may be different in religion, you may be different in political views, you may be different in color or ethnicity, and some people use those differences to cause chaos. We thought, 'why don't we use our differences to bring peace into this world and maybe cause some economic development?' That's when we came up with this idea."

The Ugandan farmers who spoke to the Diplomat in Silver Spring, Md., during a recent U.S. fundraising tour established a coffee cooperative called Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace in the local Luganda language) that eventually began selling high-quality arabica gourmet coffee at substantially higher prices. They raised enough money to send their children to school, afford health care and reinvest in their own future.

"We have a feeling of togetherness," said Namudosi Sinina, 21, who officially represents the cooperative's Muslim members. "We have decided to respect ourselves as well as respect others."

Only four years after its founding, Mirembe Kawomera's 754 farmers sell 100% of their production to Thanksgiving Coffee Co., a California-based artisan coffee roaster founded in 1972 that works with cooperatives throughout East Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America.

"When they began in 2004, they started with 250 farmers producing one container, equivalent to 37,500 pounds," said Ben Corey-Moran, project director for Thanksgiving Coffee, and director for coffee buying and producer relationships. Today, he said, the Ugandan cooperative produces three containers a year, or 112,000 pounds a number projected to reach 225,000 pounds by 2010.

Buyers are primarily well-to-do members of churches, synagogues and mosques in the United States who are willing to pay extra for fair-trade coffee gourmet coffee beans. During their March tour, the Ugandans visited four local Jewish houses of worship: Sixth & I Synagogue and Bet Mishpachah in Washington; Tifereth Israel Congregation in Takoma Park, Md., and Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Synagogue in Bethesda, Md.

"Our interfaith outreach has to do with the fact that as a coffee company, we need to build a market for our products," said Corey-Moran. "Surrounded by violence and turmoil, this community in Uganda is building an alternative for peace. And the glue that holds it together is the economic foundation that fair trade provides."

Corey-Moran told the Diplomat that thanks to his company's exclusivity contract, these farmers receive 3,000 shillings ($1.78) per kilogram, up from 800 shillings (48 cents) per kg before the cooperative was established. "In addition, we have a profit-sharing arrangement that sends back $1 per pound of coffee as a rebate," he said. "We buy everything they can produce. We've even trademarked the brand here in the States."

Thanksgiving, with annual sales of $4.5 million, is known for taking on controversial causes. A few years ago, the company infuriated Cuban exiles in South Florida with its "End the Embargo" coffee labels featuring Pope John Paul II embracing Fidel Castro. The company, which strongly opposed the U.S. military presence in Central America during the 1980s, also sources coffee from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Rwanda and Ethiopia. It sells coffee online as well as to upscale grocery chains in northern California.

"We feel that the story of this coffee belongs directly in the hands of people who will be moved by it," Corey-Moran explained. "So our effort has been to build an alternative to the mainstream market that cuts out the middleman and goes directly to the consumers. Our market is Jewish, Christian and Muslim coffee drinkers."

Yet no matter how altruistic their intentions, even wealthy consumers won't spend extra dollars for gourmet coffee if it doesn't meet their standards. That's why the focus is always on quality beans. For their joint efforts, Thanksgiving and Peace Kawomera earlier this year received the Dr. Jean Mayer Award for Global Citizenship from Tufts University's Global Institute for Leadership (South Africa's Desmond Tutu was the 2003 winner).

"Make no mistake, we are here to sell coffee," said Thanksgiving's founder, Paul Katzeff. "I'm out to prove that capitalism is the best model for protecting the environment and delivering economic and social justice. You can't sponsor and promote causes effectively if you don't make money."

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