Abyssinian pastor’s new fund helps lift Ethiopian java farmers out of poverty
Ethiopia gave the world coffee, one of the greatest cash crops of all time.
Yet the East African nation’s beans are not among the world’s elite, surpassed by Jamaican Blue Mountain, Kenyan, Philippine and Brazilian-grown brews.
A Harlem church named after Ethiopia’s former name, Abyssinia, is hoping to change that. The effort is the brainchild of the Rev. Nicholas Richards, a 27-year-old assistant pastor at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church (www.abyssinian.org). The church was founded in 1808 by American and Ethiopian seamen who left First Baptist Church in lower Manhattan to protest segregated seating during worship services.
Richards, assistant minister for Global Outreach, has been with Abyssinian since 2007. He’s a 2005 graduate of Morehouse College and earned a master’s in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2009.
“I started here as an intern,” Richards said. “I was the youth minister for two years. What has kept me here is everything about the church. It’s a ministry that focused outside the church walls, on the lives of the people of this community, Monday through Saturday.”
Shortly before he graduated from Union Theological, on a Saturday while Richards was preparing to preach at a funeral in the church, Abyssinian Pastor Calvin Butts asked him what he wanted to do over the long term in his ministry.
“I told him I wanted to start a nongovernmental agency in the church to head development projects to fight poverty,” Richards said. “I knew it was an ambitious goal, but I told him Abyssinian was the most-prepared church institution to do it.”
So was the Abyssinian Fund born. Run by an 11-member, volunteer board, it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) agency in June, 2010.
Hearkening to church history, Richards selected Ethiopia as the fund’s first beneficiary. He was intent that whatever project was selected, it would mirror Abyssinian’s development projects in the city by benefiting more than the benefactor.
“I spent a year after getting the green light writing the business plan and researching development in Ethiopia,” Richards said. “I didn’t want to do anything piecemeal, especially in the place where the church got its name.”
Agriculture is 80% of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product, according to U.S. State Department statistics, with coffee one of the main crops. About 17% of the land in Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, is suitable for raising crops.
“They were the best ones,” Richards said. “They had the best business audit and a coffee consultant we hired said they had the best potential for producing a high-quality coffee if they had the training.
“They were also the first to say they didn’t want a handout, they wanted a partner. That won us over.” With $40,000 raised at a New York benefit, the fund opened an Ethiopian office and hired two Ethiopian staff members to coordinate training and equipment purchases.
“Equipment can mean anything from a pair of scissors to modern harvesting equipment,” Richards said. “Some places had modern equipment, some used methods that predated the industrial revolution.”
The hope is that a premium coffee will fetch a premium price. A legal agreement between the fund and the cooperative will send $1 of whatever unit price the coffee is sold for to the fund for reinvestment in Ethiopia. Ten percent of profits will go to the cooperative to be invested in clean-water facilities and to build a high school and a clinic, Richards