Starbucks CEO meets with Ethiopian Prime Minister over ownership of coffee names

Published: 29 November 2006

Oxfam calls on Starbucks to move forward on trademark issue

International aid agency Oxfam welcomed Tuesday’s meeting between Starbucks CEO Jim Donald and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but urged the international coffee giant to stop dragging its feet before the holidays, and instead recognize Ethiopia’s ownership of its coffee names and the enormous benefits that ownership could bring to the 15 million poor Ethiopians who depend on coffee for their livelihood.

“It’s significant that after a year of trying to engage Starbucks on trademarks, the company finally sat down to discuss the issue directly with Ethiopia,” said Seth Petchers, Oxfam International’s Make Trade Fair campaign coffee lead. “Starbucks must now follow up with immediate action to recognize Ethiopia’s rights to own the names of its coffees to ensure that coffee farmers get a fairer share of the value of their crop."

Ethiopia’s farmers produce some of the finest and most sought after coffees in the world—including coffees that have been sold under Starbucks’ Black Apron Exclusives line for up to $26 a pound—but receive only 5 to 10 percent of the retail price, in a country where millions live on just a dollar a day. Ethiopia is working to gain greater benefits for its coffee growers by seeking control of its coffee names, a move that would give Ethiopian coffee farmers a fairer share of the profits in the global coffee trade.

“Small-scale coffee farmers are economically vulnerable, in part because large foreign buyers, such as Starbucks, are dictating trading conditions with their extraordinary market power,” continued Petchers. “If poor countries are able to obtain trademarks for unique, locally grown products like coffee, they can capture more of the value of their products for the benefit of the people who produce them. This initiative is a significant and innovative approach to alleviating poverty.”

For over a year, Ethiopia has sought a dialogue with Starbucks about supporting the country’s efforts to return more of the price of its coffees in world markets to the farmers who produce them by seeking trademark rights for Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe coffees. Despite its much-publicized commitment to farming communities, however, Starbucks has continually rejected Ethiopia’s requests to resolve the trademark issue. Absent that step, no agreement was reached at Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is a rights issue and we deserve to have our rights recognized. We strongly believe that trademarking is the way to go,” said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “The right to own our coffee names is the only way that we can preserve our rich coffee heritage; Ethiopia has an obligation to coffee consumers worldwide to protect and preserve our unique coffees.”

Legal and intellectual property experts have supported Ethiopia in its approach, expressing the opinion that the trademark and licensing project is a viable solution to the poverty that plagues Ethiopian farmers. Trademark rights for Ethiopia’s coffees have also been recognized in several European countries, as well as Canada and Japan.

“Our coffees are some of the best in the world and although they often sell for two and three times the cost of other coffees, we are getting a tiny fraction of this price,” said Tadesse Meskela, manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union who is featured in the new documentary Black Gold. “Our objective here is to return more money to the coffee growers’ pocket.”

Last month, Oxfam launched an international public campaign to encourage Starbucks to engage with Ethiopia directly on the issue.

“Over 85,000 people around the world have joined Oxfam in calling on Starbucks to do right by Ethiopia’s coffee farmers and sign the licensing agreement," continued Petchers. “Oxfam and its supporters will continue to work with the Ethiopian government, coffee growers, and exporters to encourage Starbucks to come to a mutually beneficial solution that could make a world of difference for millions of poor people.”

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:
Helen DaSilva + 1 617 728-2409 or +1 617 331-2984
Laura Rusu +1 202 496-3620 or + 1 202 459-3739