Happy Farmer,
Happy Coffee

Working directly with farmers in Ethiopia to help support their work and their community


By Arthur Karuletwa, director of Traceability, Starbucks Coffee Company


The first time I saw the school, I didn’t know what to expect. It was desolate. It didn’t look like what you imagine when you picture a learning establishment. A rundown building, set on a patch of concrete with a roof that was barely hanging on.

What reminded me that it was a school was it had a soccer pitch. There were twigs as goals, cut down from eucalyptus branches. Little lines had been dug that indicated the parameters of the field. And there was the flag of Ethiopia hanging, ripped to bits.

The school before renovation began.

I was in the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia visiting the community that produced our most recent Starbucks Reserve Coffees — Ethiopia Konga and Ethiopia Kochere — on an assessment trip. It’s a dry term, for what is an amazing thing. Whenever we go into any community we source coffee from, we don’t just look at the condition of the coffee, we look at the community as well — welfare of the farmer, their family and farm.

This is part of what we call Coffee and Farmer Equity (or CAFE) practices. It’s our belief that the human condition is as important as — and inextricably linked to — the condition of the coffee. It’s hard to find a coffee tree or plantation truly thriving while the farmer and community is not. Happy farmer, happy coffee, for the most part. So we assess the farmer and community welfare. Many communities we buy from face similar issues — lack of access to water, sanitation, climate change, lack of education, gender equity and so on.

It’s hard to find a coffee tree and plantation truly thriving while the farmer and community is not.
Local farmers working on the school project.

Our relationship with the stakeholder on the ground was extremely important in this particular process. Through them we connect to the community and ask them what their needs are. For the coffee farmers in Yirgacheffe, education was their most pressing need.

They said, “We have a school here that could really use expansion, renovation and capacity building.” That’s one of the wonderful things about this and other projects we support in coffee-growing communities — the ideas come straight from the farmers so they have an immense sense of ownership and pride. Together we devised a plan to help them double the size of the existing school, which was dramatically over-crowded, while renovating the existing classrooms and adding safe sanitary facilities.

As we wound through the roads to get to the village where the school is located, there were cattle, camels, donkeys and people crossing the road, inches away from the car. Then the path got narrower, and narrower, bushes and trees hit the car on all sides. When the car could not go any more, we got out and walked a mile or two.

By the time we finally arrived, there were 100 or so kids with us, yelling and singing and screaming. The kids followed us into each and every classroom, sitting at their desks and saying “This is where I sit. This is where I sit.” One of them was imitating the teacher at the blackboard, doing things they wouldn’t do during class.

They love school. It’s a place of comfort, a place where they can laugh and joke and talk. They so badly want to learn. And knowing that our work was going to benefit them, made me feel hopeful and incredibly humble. The sense that something was happening was clearly in the air.

I’ve seen folks saving rainwater and feeding coffee seedlings. I asked, why aren’t you using streamwater? These old men say, “Young man you know nothing. These are the tears of God. We give our seedlings rainwater for fertility.”

In this community, because of the remoteness, the contractor leading this project could not find workers who are not in coffee. When I returned to this site a few months after that initial visit, the project was well underway. I met with the men who were digging the foundation — and breaking the rocks and building the foundation — they were all coffee farmers and 99% of their kids will be going to that school. The contractor said he couldn’t get them to stop working at night. Their energy was infectious, they were singing.

Rocks for the foundation of the school.

The farmers will be the first to tell you they are thankful for the social project, but are more grateful for the business relationship. Because we source coffee from them on an ongoing basis this allows them to hire more teachers, allows them to fix a broken window or door, allows them to educate more children. We also share better and more efficient ways of working so they can keep more of their income, and sustain their trees, and livelihood. Helping farmers realize a more profitable business, only helps them.

The coffee business is by nature, a very tough business and trust is very expensive. It’s important for the farmer to see the end user of their hard work and to see that we are there participating in things beyond coffee. My interpreter couldn’t translate their excitement fast enough. But I could feel it, I could see it in their voices.

Our unreasonable passion to seek the best quality on the globe, is parallel to our commitment to the communities whose hands and hearts are clearly etched on every product. To know our producers, is to know we can come back to build a sustaining and thriving business relationship. It is to know that we can mutually understand the continuous challenges we face in order to mutually address and combat them. I look forward to returning in a few weeks in May because we mutually agreed that sustainability is never static and always a global community effort.


Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere

Floral and fruity with notes of red berries, meyer lemon and candied ginger.

Body: Medium
Acidity: High
Altitude: 6,070–6,725 feet
Processing Method: Washed
Varietal: Typica
Producer: 800 smallholder farms in the Kochere district of Yirgacheffe

Limited availability: Select stores and online