Starbucks Ethiopia Gemadro Estate: Corporate greenwashing?

by JulieCraves on October 20, 2006

The new Black Apron edition coffee from Starbucks, Ethiopia Gemadro Estate, showed up in our local stores within the last few weeks. Despite our generally low opinion of the taste of many Starbucks coffees, C&C is happy to review them if they can be determined to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.  From the description on the web site, the Gemadro Estate selection seemed like a good candidate.  But as always, we research each source carefully, and in this case we found that the reality of this coffee is not exactly what Starbucks has indicated.

From the Starbucks description:

“In this nation of more than more than 300,000 small, family-run coffee farms, the expansive Gemadro Estate stands as an exception. With its pure water supply, near pristine growing environment and dedication to conservation-based farming methods, this 2,300-hectare farm on the banks of the Gemadro River is setting new standards for progressive, sustainable coffee farming.

At the Gemadro estate, high altitude coffee plants flourish in the protective shade of towering 50-foot ferns. With just 1,100 hectares under cultivation, the remaining estate is devoted to a natural, primary forest that supports the local ecosystem.”

According to my research, this is not exactly the case.

  • The plantation was started in 1998, and the Estate web site confirms the Starbucks information: “Between 1998-2001, a total of 1010 ha of the 2295 ha of its holding was planted with coffee. The remaining land is left for preserving the existing natural vegetation.”  Information indicates the site was written in late 2001 or early 2002. Last month an article in the Ethiopian Herald reported a spokeman said the Gemadro project “had developed coffee on 1,000 hectares of land, adding, the project has began activities to develop additional coffee on 1,500 hectares of land.” (Emphasis added.)
  • This results in damage to the ecosytem. A report on coffee growing in the region of the Gemadro farm (1) described how the expansion of coffee and tea plantations requires opening up of forests, thinning of large trees, and clearing of the understory vegetation.  This in turn exacerbates soil erosion and reduces habitat for wildlife. There is an Important Bird Area in this zone, the Bonga Forest, and the central Ethiopian Highlands are considered a biodiversity hotspot.Additionally, these forests are genetic repositories of wild strains of coffee. Another report (2) states that wild coffee strains are being endangered because montane forests are being cleared or thinned for coffee farms (with the Gemadro Estate parent company being specifically mentioned) and this type of intensively managed “forest” coffee replaces wild coffee with nursery-raised plantsNursery-raised coffee is what is planted at Gemadro.
  • Gemadro Estate is owned by the Ethio-Coffee and Tea Plantation and Marketing, PLC, a division of MIDROC Ethiopia, a MIDROC International Group company. MIDROC is a conglomerate that owns gold mines, hotels, construction and real estate companies, multiple oil companies, cement factories, and other interests that are not generally recognized as being environmentally friendly.
  • MIDROC is owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi Sheik Mohammed Hussien Al-Amoudi. I’ve seen some unflattering profiles of him, but even if he’s the cleanest-living guy in the world, his net worth of $6.9 billion doesn’t inspire me to line his pockets with his latest venture.

Gemadro Estate employs 250 regular and 650 seasonal workers, according to an article in African Business. Al-Amoudi’s companies are Ethiopia’s largest employers, and he is well known for his philanthropy.  Aside from the fact that good deeds don’t always come from wholesome organizations, you can benefit more Ethiopian small-holders and the environment by purchasing coffees that are organic, forest grown, and Fair Trade.

Consider the well-known and widely available Oromia Co-op, with over 23,000 members.  A number of other co-ops are listed at the  Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union site, which indicates which are organic and Fair Trade.  Novo Coffee has a great selection of Ethiopian coffees, including wild Kaffa forest coffee, and we will be reviewing some of their great alternatives soon.

I don’t hate Starbucks.  They have introduced the public to something akin to specialty coffee, and raised awareness to regular consumers that there is something beyond grocery store slop.  But whereas they have offered some Fair Trade or organic products, this Black Apron selection sounds like a corporate conglomerate sell-out, and calling it sustainable, or saying that it is preserving habitat, is misleading.

UPDATE: See this post for a follow up investigative report.

1. Vlek, P.L.G., ed. 2005. Forest conversion – soil degradation – farmers’ perception nexus: Implications for sustainable land use in the southwest of Ethiopia. Ecology and Development Series No. 26, Cuvillier Verlag GÁ¶ttingen, 169 pp.

2. Richerzhagen, C. and D. Virchow.  2002. Sustainable Utilization of Crop Genetic Diversity through Property Rights Mechanisms? The Case of Coffee Genetic Resources in Ethiopia. BioEcon Workshop, 24 pp. (PDF)

Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Retail and specialty roasters,Starbucks

Henry October 20, 2006 at 1:35 pm

great article!

Mark Sequeira October 26, 2006 at 5:01 pm

What do you know about this article? I have a response fromStarbucks but unfortunately I don't believe them.
I can post it if you are interested.

Starbucks under fire over Ethiopian coffee

LONDON, England (Reuters) — British charity Oxfam has accused Starbucks of stopping Ethiopia trademarking two of its coffee bean types, denying farmers potential income of nearly 50 million pounds.

Oxfam said the U.S. coffee shop giant, which had turnover of $7.8 billion in the year to October 1, prevented Ethiopia from securing trademark protection for two of its best-known beans, Sidamo and Harar.

Had Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, been successful, it would have allowed the country to control the use of the beans in the market, giving its farmers more of the retail price and securing an estimated extra 48 million pounds, the charity said.

Starbucks denied being behind the blocking bid by the U.S. National Coffee Association (NCA) at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

"We have not been involved in trying to block Ethiopia's attempts. We did not get the NCA involved — in fact it was the other way around. They were the ones who contacted us on this," the company's Dub Hay told BBC radio.

NCA head Robert F. Nelson backed Hay, Starbucks' senior vice-president in charge of procurement, telling the program the NCA was contacted by a third party.

But Oxfam said it believed Starbucks was the instigator of the blocking action.

"We have heard from a number of sources that actually Starbucks was involved in alerting the U.S. coffee association to block these applications," the charity's Jo Leadbetter said.

It "stinks of corporate bullying" she told the BBC.

The charity said Starbucks and other coffee companies should sign voluntary licensing agreements to acknowledge Ethiopia's ownership of the coffee names, regardless of whether trademark protection has been issued.

"Coffee shops can sell Sidamo and Harar coffees for up to 14 pounds ($26.29) a pound (0.45 kg) because of the beans' specialty status," said Tadesse Maskela, head of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in Ethiopia.

"But Ethiopian coffee farmers only earn between 30 and 59 pence for their crop, barely enough to cover the cost of production," Maskela said in a statement.

Copyright 2006 Reuters.

BirdBarista October 26, 2006 at 8:41 pm

The Specialty Coffee Association of America also issued a statement (PDF)regarding their opposition to the trademarking, supporting certification marks instead. The Ethiopian Herald newspaper published a reply (scroll down, I'm not sure how long it will be on this page).

I guess I don't doubt that Starbucks may have played a part in pushing for opposition to these applications. They have a Sidamo coffee, and at least one past blend (Gazebo) included Harrar. Interestingly, they have never, as far as I know, used Yirgacheffe beans, and the trademark application for Yirgacheffe was, in fact, approved by the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office.

I will add that this post on Gemadro generated a lot of interest at Starbucks corporate HQ, which showed up in my referrer logs, and then got passed around via email through the company. Too bad nobody wanted there wanted to post a comment!

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