In his three decades at the helm of the Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in Fort Bragg, California, Paul Katzeff has pioneered the process of buying coffee beans directly from Third World growers and funneling money back to them after sales to promote economic self-sufficiency and social justice.
But Katzeff had never helped Jewish coffee farmers, who don’t usually figure in the ranks of those growers.
That changed with the recent release of Mirembe Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace,” a Fair Trade — and kosher — coffee produced by a new cooperative of Jewish, Muslim and Christian coffee farmers from the Mbale region of Uganda.
“We think this coalition is unique in all of Africa,” said coffee farmer J. J. Keki, leader of the 700-member Abayudaya Ugandan Jewish community that is at the core of the project.
It started 18 months ago when Katzeff got a phone call from Laura Wetzler, the Uganda coordinator for Kulanu, a Washington-based Jewish charity that promotes community-empowerment projects around the world. Wetzler travels to Uganda every January to help the community maintain its projects.
She asked Katzeff if he would be interested in buying five sacks of coffee from a group of local growers that she was trying to help.
“I rolled my eyes and said to myself, ‘Oh, here’s another young person touched by the poverty,'” said Katzeff, a Bronx native who cut his organizing teeth in the 1960s working with the East Harlem Tenants Council and organizing black workers in Mississippi.
“Then she said, ‘I’m from Kulanu, and I’m working with a group of Jewish coffee farmers here,'” Katzeff continued. “I said, ‘Come on, you’re kidding,’ and she said, ‘No.'”
Katzeff thought Wetzler must have called him because he, too, is Jewish, but she said she was just working her way through coffee companies and his was 41st on the list.
Then she told him she represented a cooperative of 400 coffee farmers organized by Keki, who was going door-to-door asking his Muslim and Christian neighbors to join the Abayudaya Jews to improve their general lot. The co-op was trying to circumvent price gouging by local middlemen and was looking for a foreign market.
Wetzler told Katzeff about the Abayudaya, descendants of a Ugandan general who adopted Judaism in the early 20th century. Today the Abayudaya are helped by various foreign Jewish organizations; they have a school, a synagogue and several small-scale economic projects and the community raises money through Jewish tourism and selling crafts and CDs of its music.
Katzeff was intrigued.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll buy all you’ve got, every single bit,'” said Katzeff, who had changed his own business practices following a 1985 trip to Nicaragua, when he realized “that the coffee industry was living off the sweat and blood of the coffee farmers.”
He began guaranteeing what has become known as a “Fair Trade price,” which he said is “20 to 40 cents a pound higher” than the usual price coffee farmers receive from the major companies and which doesn’t change with market fluctuations.
The idea that he could use his company to help Jews in Africa — Jews who had joined forces with Muslims and Christians — impressed Katzeff.
“They made a conscious decision to increase the size of their pie and share it for a better life, as opposed to what governments all over the world want them to do,” he said.
Coffee growing is the main income-producing crop of the Abayudaya and their neighbors, Keki noted. But coffee prices had dropped, and the farmers were discouraged.
“I thought, ‘We all do agricultural work, so let’s form a cooperative and sell our coffee together,'” Keki said.
After Keki formed the co-op, Wetzler made the connection with Katzeff and located a nearby cooperative that already had Fair Trade certification. Keki’s group buys from the local farmers and funnels the coffee through that Fair Trade co-op, which processes it and sends it to California.
Katzeff visited Uganda to sign the contract, spending Shabbat with the Abayudaya Jews. He said he was astounded by the primitive equipment the locals worked with. It takes 100 tons of “cherries,” or raw coffee fruit, to yield 37,500 pounds of green beans, the amount the co-op managed to produce this past year.
Keki and Katzeff signed a three-year agreement guaranteeing Fair Trade prices for all the coffee the cooperative can produce. Eighty percent of the money is put in an escrow account to be plowed back into developing the co-op’s infrastructure, with the goal of doubling output by next year. A dollar surcharge on each pound sold will be sent directly to the cooperative — hopefully yielding a further $30,000 this first season.
“I hope it will help us buy food and clothes and send our children to school,” said Keki, who has spoken widely in the United States, and is aware of the significance of his interfaith effort.
“Here we are using religion in the name of peace,” he said. “We hope that wherever our coffee goes in the world, it will promote peace.”
Noting that the cooperative has a Jewish president, a Christian vice president and a Muslim executive secretary — and that one-third of its board is made up of women — Katzeff describes the venture as “a shining light for peace” in the region.
Delicious Peace coffee is available at www.thanksgivingcoffee.com.