Last Wednesday, Ethiopian coffee farmers beat Starbucks in a precedent setting battle for ownership of the names of Ethiopia’s coffee growing regions.
Ethiopian coffee from regions like Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harar command $10-12 or more per pound at retail. But as little as fifty cents of that ends up in the farmers’ pockets.
Several years ago a friend of mine, Ron Layton, started a project to help Ethiopia gain control of their regional coffee names as a way of heightening market awareness of their quality and thereby raising their value and taking control of that value. Ethiopia is one of the world’s most economically impoverished nations and coffee is its most important export, so anything that increases their coffee income will positively effect millions of small farmers.
Controlling the growing region names is similar to wine appellations such as Champagne or Bordeaux. Only wine grown in the Champagne region of France can legally be marketed as Champagne. But unless Ethiopia instituted a system of ownership for its coffee growing regions, there would be nothing stopping, say, Vietnam from growing coffee from cuttings of Harar coffee plants and then marketing the results as Harar for a lower price than the real Harar.
As soon as Ron’s non-profit, LightYears IP, helped Ethiopia to register a couple of the regional growing names, Starbucks got wind of it and went and registered one of the names (Sidamo) as their own. Then they protested against Ethiopia’s registration of the other names.
A public campaign was mounted by Oxfam and others to pressure Starbucks to behave themselves and stop opposing Ethiopian coffee farmers right to own the intellectual property of the coffees they’ve been growing for at least a thousand years.
Wednesday, Starbucks finally agreed to recognize Ethiopia’s ownership of the names, and agreed to license the right to market coffees with Ethiopian growing region names.