Craig Meredith wants to help Ethiopian coffee farmers become competitive in a world market. He’s using his knowledge as an agricultural engineering to assist growers in Yirgacheffe in Southern Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, where some 445,000 farmers produce premium arabica coffee beans.
“Ethiopian coffee is 60 percent of the nation’s gross national product,” says Meredith, a resident of Post Falls, Idaho. “It is the second-most-traded commodity in the world behind oil.” However, Ethiopian farmers are some of the world’s poorest in a country where the per capita income is $100 per year, according to the office of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Meredith got involved after traveling to Ethiopia with a church group in 2001 to visit Kale Hewot Church elders. A majority of these 4,000 elders are coffee growers. They proposed a broad-based partnership with the Americans to help them become self-sufficient in health, business, ministry, and education.
Meredith and other Spokane-area founders created a non-profit called New Covenant Foundation (www.newcovenantfoundation.org), as well as a for-profit business, Dominion Trading Company (www.dominiontrading.com). Dominion returns 60 percent of the net income to the farmers in the form of profit sharing, technology transfer, and the nonprofit.
In addition to helping to improve coffee growing and production, Meredith (’87 Ag. Engr.) assists with marketing and sales. Dominion Trading has been purchasing coffee through a U.S. broker, having it roasted here, and then selling it wholesale and retail on its Website. Last summer, Dominion partnered with Ethiopians to buy a coffee-bean processing plant. This will allow the company to have direct access to the farmers and gives Dominion vertical integration from grower to market, maximizing the profit distribution to the farmer.
“Coffee currently has lots of middle men and costs,” he says. “Buying directly will cut out the middle and better the income for the farmers.”
To assist Ethiopians with coffee production, Meredith emphasizes appropriate technology, a concept he learned at Washington State University. Third-world countries can’t fix high-tech equipment that breaks, and jobs are much needed, he says. For a WSU project, he once modified a bicycle into as a pedal-powered dry-bean thresher for use in Africa.
Coffee production in Ethiopia is labor intensive, involving both wet and dry processing. The newly purchased processing plant will employ 350 people. Coffee beans come from the pits of cherries that are handpicked September to December in the Rift Valley, which has a subtropical climate at a 5,800- to 6,500-foot elevation.
Wet processing requires picking and processing within four hours. After the cherries are hulled, the beans are put in 90,000-kilo vats with water for fermentation to remove mucilage. The beans are then washed and dried on tables for seven to 12 days. Dry processing dries cherries with the skin still on.
“About 30 percent of the coffee goes to wet processing, 70 percent goes to dry processing in this area,” Meredith says. “Wet processing is considered more premium. We want to take the 70 percent that’s dry and shift it to more wet processing. That increases the price of the coffee beans and income to the farmer.”
The nonprofit is exploring using the processing plant off-season for education, health, and cottage industries such as sewing. The farmers also could create revenue from processing the waste. The pulp can be used to grow shiitake mushrooms for the export market. “We’re also researching how to take the excess water from coffee processing to grow Tilapia fish, to help clean the water and provide more dietary protein,” Meredith says.
Additional options include erosion control with trees and other plants, conservation tilling, and diversifying crops. The country’s other industries include exporting fresh flowers and skins and hides. Still, 700,000 small farm holders grow coffee. “Ethiopia is the legendary origin of coffee.”
Meredith does consulting engineering in energy conservation and machine design through his Riverbend Group company. He has a professional engineering license in mechanical engineering and has designed agricultural sprayers, lift trucks, and industrial machinery. He also does consulting work for the WSU Extension Energy Program.