Coffee farmer Gemede Robe.
Coffee farmer Gemede Robe asks Starbucks to sign a licensing agreement with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: Starbucks Campaign (Anatomy of a Win)

“You, our supporters, have given voice to our cause.”
Gemede Robe

Andrea Perera, Oxfam staff writer, explains how Oxfam and Ethiopian farmers coaxed a groundbreaking agreement out of Starbucks.

Gemede Robe walked to the podium outside the Addis Ababa Sheraton, a white shawl wrapped around his shoulders. An 85-year-old coffee farmer, Robe had come to support Ethiopia’s trademark initiative.

Robe spoke at this coffee ceremony last December as a kind of local celebrity. His face—the gray beard, the unflinching stare—had become the iconic image of Oxfam America’s Starbucks campaign. Launched in October 2006, the campaign asked that the coffee giant sign an agreement acknowledging Ethiopia’s right to license and distribute its fine coffees.

Aware of Starbucks’ status as a global brand interested in maintaining its socially responsible reputation, Oxfam used grassroots activism and strategic media to draw attention to the issue. Though initially reluctant, Starbucks entered into serious talks with Ethiopia in May. By June, they had finalized an agreement that could change the coffee industry forever.

At Oxfam, we feel it’s important to stop and recognize a victory. But after all the celebratory emails have been sent, what comes next? For an organization interested in creating lasting solutions to poverty, the end of an effort is in many ways the beginning. This is when the real analysis comes in; just what went into this win?

Creating public pressure

Oxfam began negotiating with Starbucks in 2005 when we first learned about Ethiopia’s efforts to trademark its fine coffees. After dozens of conversations between our Boston headquarters, the Seattle home of Starbucks, and Ethiopia’s Intellectual Property Office in Addis Ababa, it became clear that high-level talks would not be enough. It was time to enlist the public.

At a grassroots level, Oxfam worked with a coalition of allies to organize members of the Ethiopian Diaspora, students, Starbucks employees, and our own supporter base. By the campaign’s end, more than 100,000 people had gotten involved, many of them sending Robe’s photo around the world on postcards, flyers, and posters.

“What might have remained a little-noticed bureaucratic dispute became an international affair when Oxfam, a nonprofit relief and development group, began publicizing it in the fall,” wrote The Wall Street Journal in a March 5 article.

Remembering the “ground truth”

When the old farmer from Afursa Waro village, whose face had launched the entire campaign, made one final appearance, it was in a thank-you video for Oxfam supporters.

Sitting among his fellow farmers in a lush meadow overlooking the Yirgacheffe hills, Robe looked into the camera once again. “We know that Oxfam and many people around the globe are standing by our side in supporting us in this effort,” he said. “You, our supporters, have given voice to our cause.”

Then Robe stood alongside his fellow farmers and, in unison, offered a series of customary bows. “Gelatoma. Gelatoma. Gelatoma,” they said in Oromifa, their region’s language. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Watch the "Thank You" Video on YouTube


Text originally published by Oxfam America, November 2007.

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