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Ethiopian students seek to make a difference through direct trade

2018/01/31 15:35:56

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

The deadly landslide at a landfill in Ethiopia last March was not just another sad story for teachers at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST). Shocked to the core, they came up with the idea of seeking the help of Ethiopian students to import more Ethiopian coffee through a direct trade program designed to help the farmers of that country.

"Of the 60 Ethiopian students studying in Taiwan, 56 are at NTUST. We felt compelled to do something for them," NTUST Professor Huang Ping-hsi (黃丙喜) said.

Huang and Principal Liao Ching-jong (廖慶榮) proposed the idea partly because most of the students came from coffee-growing areas in Ethiopia.

"We looked at the economics of the coffee industry there and found that coffee farmers typically get only 10 percent of profits generated from their produce," Huang said.

Huang Pin-hsi (fifth from right, first row) and Liao Ching-jong (fourth from right, first row) initiate “Goodwill Farm” project to help smallholders.

Huang, who heads Kooidea Campus, an e-commerce platform launched by the school, suggested to Wang Hsin-chun (王信鈞), CEO of Oklao Coffee Farm, that they cooperate under the "Goodwill Farm" project to provide smallholders with better remuneration.

The first batch of 10 tons of coffee beans from Ethiopia arrived in Taiwan about two months ago, and was recently transformed into product ready to be used by Oklao.

Under the project, Oklao buys coffee beans directly from growers and gives cupping feedback to both farmers and NTUST, meaning a certain percentage of revenues generated from the coffee products sold is returned to local farmers and the school as a reward, Wang said.

"Oklao pays the farmers four or five times higher than wholesale dealers," Wang said. "Which is made possible by cutting out a long chain of intermediaries that constitute exploitation through multiple transactions."

"Making a cup of coffee is an everyday thing," Wang said at an event held at NTUST on Jan.23, "But being part of the Goodwill Farm project has made it different."

Wang Hsin-chun

However, if it were not for the help of eight Ethiopian students at NTUST, their idea would not have come to fruition.

Ethiopian students Assamen Ayalew Ejigu (right), Kebena Gebeyehu Motora(middle), and Lalisa Wakjira Duresa(left) attend the event on Jan.23.

In a country where the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, a public-private auction system, still dominates coffee exports, Wang said about 90 percent of coffee trading is handled by wholesale dealers.

Wang said Oklao was only able to establish channels of direct sourcing from smallholders thanks to a like-minded person who helped it circumnavigate the obstacles that restrict farmers or individuals from directly exporting coffee in Ethiopia.

The eight students have helped Oklao engage more farmers in direct trade which also ensures delivery of high quality coffee beans, he said.

"We also hope that what we have been doing will drive more international buyers in the coffee market to embrace this more ethical model," he added.

Assamen Ayalew Ejigu, a student in the Graduate Institute of Electro-Optical Engineering at NTUST, told CNA that a key issue with Ethiopia's coffee export system is that most farmers do not have export licenses. They have been shortchanged, he added.

The project is beneficial both to coffee growers and consumers in Taiwan, said Kebena Gebeyehu Motora, a PhD student of Materials Science and Engineering.

It frees farmers from interference by intermediaries and ensures additional ingredients are not mixed in with the beans during the manufacturing process, he said.

Lalisa Wakjira Duresa, also a PhD student in the same department, said the project benefits coffee growers economically and psychologically. "They get more benefits in terms of income and confidence," he said.

Since the "Goodwill Farm" project was launched two years ago, up to 104 colleges in Taiwan have joined the e-commerce platform.

Lalisa Wakjira Duresa

The sale of oolong tea from Alishan and "cherry turnip" from Meinong, two types of farm produce previously marketed on the platform, raise the share of the retail value retained by farmers from 30 percent to 40 percent, Huang said.

In addition to connecting smallholders to markets, the project also serves as a platform to cultivate young entrepreneurs, he said, adding that the Ministry of Economic Affairs recently proposed to NTUST establishing a task force to provide international students with entrepreneurship training courses.

"The hope is that they will open their own business when they return after graduation."

Jeff Sun (孫杰夫), who leads the Taiwan-Africa Business Association, affiliated with the ministry, praises the idea of enhancing Taiwan's economic ties with African countries and he especially emphasizes the need to increase imports from the continent.

Jeff Sun

According to the Bureau of Foreign Trade, Taiwan imported US$236.1 billion worth of goods worldwide from January to November last year, with African imports accounting for US$3.34 billion, or 1.4 percent.

Sun said that representatives of South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique, the only three African countries to have offices in Taipei, other than Taiwan's two African diplomatic allies -- Swaziland and Burkina Faso, often share with him their frustration at not being able to sell more to Taiwan.

Taiwan favors imports from its leading trading partners such as the United States, Japan, and Australia, Sun said. "If we can shift part of our imported commodities such as soybeans and beef to Africa, it would benefit African agri-producers and the relationship between Africa and Taiwan as a whole," he said.