Zach Cohen ’09 was an International and Global Studies major at Brandeis. He works for the international non-profit TechnoServe in East Africa.
Before jumping into the details of my East African adventure, I would like to give you a background of the company, TechnoServe (TNS), I worked for while there. TNS is a non-profit organization that works in many developing countries across the globe with the aim of finding business solutions to poverty. Entrepreneurism and sustainability are central to finding these solutions. The specific project that I worked on was the Coffee Initiative, which seeks to help smallholder farmer cooperatives enhance the quality of their coffee through improved processing methods, higher production, and market linkages.
Throughout my almost two years working for TNS, I performed various activities. My first task was to collect and analyze costs of production data from each of the countries in which the Coffee Initiative has a presence – Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. This information was valuable for a number of reasons. By understanding the industry benchmark in each country, TNS would be able to quantify the impact of its work with the cooperatives and determine which specific areas of operation are strong and which are weak. Much of my time spent on this task consisted of going out to the field and interviewing farmer cooperatives in each country. As you may imagine, this type of work, at times, forced me out of my comfort zone and ultimately provided me with experiences that will forever have a positive impact on me. One thing that I promised the many people that I encountered along my journey was that I would share the experiences with people back home.
Given that I was most recently in Ethiopia, I will go ahead and share some of my observations from there. Let me start by debunking the common misconception that Ethiopia is an arid desert. In fact, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and has some of the highest quality coffee on the planet. It is a country with a very rich culture in food, coffee, and religion.
Ethiopian food is certainly unique, and I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a shot. The first lesson in Ethiopian food culture is that you must always wash your hands before eating. Of course, this seems a common theme with any dining experience in any part of the world, but Ethiopians are particularly strict about it. Why? Because Ethiopian food is eaten exclusively with your hands. No matter what you order, your food will come served on a platter with what would appear to any outsider as a rather large, thin sponge resembling a pizza pie with no cheese or sauce. This is a bitter, very absorbent bread called injera that serves as your spoon, fork, and knife. On it goes any number of culinary delights ranging from tibs, pieces of meat cooked with spices, onions, and peppers, to beyaynetu, an array of vegetable dishes served on fasting days.
As I mentioned before, Ethiopia is among the most highly regarded coffee origins in the world. Obviously, the inherent climate, altitude, and soil conditions are the primary reasons for this. But, ironically, the lack of development of the coffee sector in Ethiopia contributes to its superiority in quality. Due to a lack of large scale processing infrastructure, Ethiopian coffee production is dominated by smallholder farmers. When you have hundreds of smallholder coffee farmers pooling together their coffee at one cooperative, the blend of flavors creates unique coffee profiles that appeal to the most discerning of buyers. By linking these cooperatives to buyers in the US, Europe, and Japan, TNS helps these smallholders fetch significantly higher sales prices than they would have received otherwise. What we are seeing is that the quality of this coffee is high enough to motivate buyers to form sustainable business relationships with these cooperatives so that TNS can remove itself as the facilitator.
While what I shared was brief and incomplete, I hope that I have exposed you to something that is new and different, and that you carry this over to explore some more on your own.