Cafe aroma hides grower poverty, new film shows

Like millions of people around the world, British filmmaker Nick Francis starts his day in need of a caffeine jump start and hunts out a double espresso.

Unlike most of them, he spends the rest of his day trying to convince the rest of us to care where it comes from.

Francis touched down in Auckland on Sunday to promote Black Gold, a feature documentary about the international coffee industry which screens in four cities at the New Zealand Film Festival.

Within a few hours he'd found a coffee house which brewed him a fair trade-certified double espresso, but he knows millions of others don't make that effort.

The film, directed by Francis and his brother Marc, focuses on Tadesse Meskela, the general manager of the Oromo Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union in Ethiopia. His task is to find a fair price in the West for 70,000 coffee growers he represents.

Meskela's job is a tough one. According to Black Gold, for every US$3 cup of coffee consumed in the West, the coffee growers usually get US3c -- a price which, astonishingly given the huge increase in the world coffee trade, has fallen in the past 15 years.

"There used to be an international agreement from the International Coffee Organisation which guaranteed a better price," Francis says.

"But in the late 1980s the United States pulled out of the agreement, and it collapsed the market."

Now, prices are set in the New York and London markets, basically according to what multinationals like Nestle, Kraft and Sara Lee are prepared to pay.

With various intermediaries taking a cut, life has become much more difficult for many coffee growers around the world. In Ethiopia, the film shows farmers desperate for a decent living - which doesn't mean good housing or electricity but simply having enough to eat, clean water and sending their children to school, if they can afford to have one.

Many are now digging up their coffee to grow chat, an East African narcotic for which they get a better price.

Francis, who lived in Ethiopia teaching English about eight years ago, said it wasn't originally part of the plan to focus on Meskela.

"Originally he was just going to be an interview subject but after we talked to him he said he was going to London and the United States as part of his efforts to get better prices.

"He agreed to let us follow him and his story ended up being the central narrative.

"It wasn't part of the plan but by personalising the story I think it's made it a much better film."

Remarkably, Black Gold was made with very little secure funding. Francis says he's still fundraising, but an enthusiastic reception since the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January has made the job much easier.

"We've secured a distribution deal for the United States and I'm meeting some people while I'm in New Zealand who can hopefully help us get a commercial release," he said.

Francis says the aim of the film is to open the eyes of consumers, and hope they are prepared to take some action.

Drinking Fair Trade coffee - which has been certified as giving growers a fair price for their beans, the type of deal Meskela has been trying to secure - is a start, he says.

But working to get the multinationals which control a huge portion of the industry - none of whom would be interviewed on camera for the documentary - to change their practices is also important, and in that sense the film is aimed at shareholders as much as consumers.

"The businesses work for shareholders, and they can do two things to help change them; they can ask questions and speak up at AGMs, or (sell) their shares in the company until they pay growers for their labour.

"We would also like to see them involve the growers more. I asked Starbucks how many growers they had on their board and they said none."

The multinationals were even taking over the language of fair trade for business purposes, Francis says.

"We hear Kraft saying they have a coffee called Sustainable Development, which seems to have nothing to do with being fair to the growers, and similar things happen with the other major companies."

Francis said there was also debate about whether large companies should be allowed to carry the certified fair trade label for some coffees, as they believed the vast majority of their coffees were not fair trade.

"About 3.7 per cent of Starbucks coffee is fair trade, and you never know if the coffees they make are fair trade. For Nestle it's something like 0.2 per cent.

"In some ways it would be better if they just said they were a business and just wanted to pay as little as possible all the time."

For now, Francis hopes coffee drinkers inform themselves and are prepared to use the power of their pockets to help growers .

"One guy who contacted us from the United States said the biggest problem with many products with third world origins is what he calls a pathological indifference from consumers," he says.

"Our aim is to get as many people to watch this film as possible. Once you've seen it you have the information to make a choice. You can't claim indifference after that."

* Black Gold screens as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland on July 18 and 19, in Wellington on July 21 and 22, in Dunedin on July 29 and August 2 and four times in Christchurch from August 5.

Francis will take questions after the screenings in Auckland and Wellington, and also attends panel discussions at Auckland University on July 19 and at the Centre for Global Action in Manners Mall, Wellington on July 21.


* An earlier version of this story incorrectly used the phrase 'free trade' instead of 'fair trade'.

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