Harlem Helps Raise Coffee in Ethiopia
From a 542-square-foot office above a bustling intersection in Harlem, the Rev. Nicholas S. Richards is building what he hopes will be a 7,000-mile bridge to the eastern highlands of Ethiopia.
It is a bridge more than 200 years in the making.
In that modest two-room office off East 125th Street, the Abyssinian Fund, the only nongovernmental organization in Ethiopia formed by an African-American church, theAbyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, finally has a home.
Mr. Richards, 26, an assistant minister at Abyssinian under the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, is the president of the recently formed Aby Fund, as he calls it, an international aid and development arm ofthe church. It will soon be joining forces with a co-op of 700 coffee farmers in the ancient Ethiopian city of Harrar, with a mission to improve the quality of the farmers’ lives by helping them improve the quality of their coffee beans.
The Abyssinian Fund will pay for specialized training and equipment to help the co-op’s farmers produce a higher-quality product so they can be more competitive on the international coffee market. Once their income has increased, part of what they make will then be set aside in a fund to support local development projects, like much-needed roads, schools or clinics.
Mr. Richards, members of the fund’s board of directors and congregants of the church said the mission was as much about social aid and economic development as it was about the church’s desire to reach back and reconnect with its spiritual and ancestral homeland.
Well woven into the fabric of Harlem, the Abyssinian Baptist Church has a connection to Ethiopia that goes back to the church’s founding in 1808 by free blacks and Ethiopian merchant seamen who refused to worship where blacks and whites were segregated. (Abyssinia is a historical name for Ethiopia.)
Just a year and a half ago, the Abyssinian Fund was a dream that had sprouted from a simple seed planted after Mr. Butts led a group of congregants to Ethiopia in 2007 to celebrate the church’s 200th anniversary.
The fund was inspired by the group’s reaction to the struggle and resilience of the impoverished Ethiopians they had encountered.
“Ethiopia touches your heart,” said Dori Brunson, a donor and congregant who made the journey. “The villages were so simple, so lacking in the amenities that we are so used to, and at one point I just had to walk away, and I stood there and cried.
“Even though we were born here in America, we are part of that African soil. And because of what Africa has given the world and what they stand for, we must give back.”
So far the organization has raised about $130,000, only slightly more than a third of its year-end goal. Mr. Richards has not yet hired any salaried employees or opened a field office in Harrar. Not a single training session has been held or piece of equipment shipped.
Yet Mr. Richards said there was a sense among supporters and congregants that they had crossed a threshold, having succeeded in formalizing the fund’s status in less than a year to a recognized charity with a nongovernmental organization in Ethiopia and an office in New York.
“To see our plan being transformed from just some pages to actual brick and mortar is amazing,” said Mr. Richards, sitting in the sparsely furnished, seventh-floor office, where Ethiopian art hung on the mustard-colored walls and leftover bottles of water and wine from an opening reception a few days earlier were scattered on uncluttered desktops.
The organization will operate as an independent but affiliated body of the church, much like the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has helped create housing and prompt commercial development in Harlem, including a supermarket, schools and homeless shelters.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and the green beans the farmers grow there are prized on the multibillion-dollar international coffee market.
Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil, yet these farmers earn an average of $1 a day, less than $400 a year, according to aid organizations.
There has been no shortage of aid money pumped into Ethiopia from international organizations and other nations, including the United States, which, according to the State Department, gave $4.7 billion in assistance from 1999 to 2009. But Mr. Richards said the Abyssinian Fund would not function as a traditional charity, as the farmers would share the responsibility for the project’s success.
“We are going to try to the best of our ability to provide the highest level of training and the most necessary equipment that the farmers need,” he said. “But it will be the farmers’ responsibility to reinvest. Reinvestment is going to be critical.”
Instead of providing financial aid or food to the farmers, the Abyssinian Fund will hire coffee experts who are specialists in the processing and quality standards of companies like Starbucks that are the chief buyers of Ethiopia’s beans. Substandard processing has vexed the farmers’ efforts to command higher prices.
The trainers will also teach planting and harvesting techniques that help farmers grow and select only the choicest coffee beans, and the fund will provide equipment like scissors, shears and mechanized pickers to ensure that the beans are properly harvested. Many of these farmers still harvest their crops with their bare hands, Mr. Richards said.
Mr. Richards said the goal was for the farmers to double their income in five years. Helping to improve the livelihoods of the 700 farmers in the co-op, he said, could result in better conditions for as many as 3,000 people.
The fund has had to tread delicately in Ethiopia, where the government has been skeptical of the motives of some foreign aid groups.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world, and has come under the scrutiny by human rights groups, the American government and the World Bank for what has been described as a leaky aid system, with accusations of governmental manipulation of food aid to reward political allies.
Reta Alemu Nega, a minister counselor with the Ethiopian Consulate in Manhattan, said the criticisms were the work of political enemies of the state. Nongovernmental organizations operating in Ethiopia “are not always what they present themselves to be,” he said.
But Mr. Nega said the Ethiopian government supported the work of the Abyssinian Fund. “We know the Abyssinian Church,” he said. “We know who they are.”
Mr. Richards said he had to assure the Ethiopian government that the fund would not operate in a political capacity or meddle in local politics. If so, he said he was told, the organization would be kicked out of the country.
“There’s very little concern for us about corruption because we have a direct relationship to the farming community that we are working with,” Mr. Richards said. “We know the farmers. I’ve visited the farmers. I’ve talked to them, and I’ve talked to their leaders. We don’t provide any cash. And that’s a huge way that we mitigate our exposure to corruption, because there is no cash that is being provided.”
So far, most of the money raised has come from Harlem, with donations ranging from $25 a week to one for $10,000. Other money has come from an art sale and gala featuring work by Ethiopian artists.
“Most of the people doing development work in Africa are not of African descent,” Mr. Richards said. “To have a group of African-Americans concerned about a particular nation in Africa, and doing something about it, is tremendous. This is black folk helping black folk, and it is tremendous to me.”