Dr Ernesto Lilly
Dr Ahmed Mahamadi
Hon. Sam Mpasu MP
Hon Irene Ovonji-Odida MP
A kilo of coffee produces approximately 80 cups, and these days western consumers pay about US$2.90 per cup - which is to say that, even if you factor in the cost of the exporting, the roasting, the service, the milk and the cardboard cup itself, as a commodity coffee is pure gold. Yet how much does an Ethiopian farmer get for a kilo of the world's best quality coffee beans? Currently, somewhere between 8 and 23 US cents - and this in a country where 15 million people depend for their survival on coffee production.
It is this awful disparity between the first and third worlds - and the way in which it is amplified rather than reduced by the trade-controlling mechanisms of globalisation - that brothers Marc and Nick Francis set out to expose in their quietly explosive documentary feature Black Gold. The film's 'star' is Tadesse Meskele, the manager of Ethiopia's Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, who both articulates the Fair Trade alternative to the prevailing international coffee markets, and who tries actively to redress the iniquities faced by Africa's coffee producers.
The David-and-Goliath nature of Meskele's struggle is perhaps best encapsulated by the scene in which he is shown in the vast exhibition hall for the Annual Coffee Trade Show, standing at his tiny stall surrounded by much larger, glossier corporate displays - or by the scene where he desperately scans the many coffee brands on the shelves of a London supermarket in search of his own Fair Trade range.
Ranged against Meskele and the farmers that he represents are the big multinationals (Kraft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, Starbucks) that dominate the international trade in coffee. Unsurprisingly these groups all declined the Francis' invitations to be interviewed for the film, but if this corporate silence has prevented the directors from presenting a genuine dialectic between both sides of the argument, they more than compensate with some brutally eloquent juxtapositions.
"We're in the people business serving coffee," states the current manager of Seattle's first Starbucks café, as she tries to explain the chain's phenomenal, world-conquering expansion since 1971, "so it's more about the connections we have with our people." It is a reassuringly touchy-feely piece of PR; but the film immediately cuts to a 'therapeutic feeding centre' for the rapidly growing number of malnourished locals in Sidama, the Ethiopian region that keeps Starbucks supplied with coffee. "This is the first time that Sidama has been involved in famine", a local woman states. The price of coffee, at a thirty-year low since the collapse of the International Coffee Market, is the cause. Evidently as Starbucks thrives, it does not regard the African farming communities which it exploits and on which its business depends as "our people".
Black Gold begins as a study of the West's favourite hot beverage and its origins, but by the end it has taken on the injustices of globalisation in more general terms. It is attractively shot, thoughtfully edited, provocatively argued, and might just have you turning its issues over in your mind late into the night - or is that just the effect of so much coffee?