How much for a latte?

Observations on Ethiopia

While travelling in Ethiopia last year, I spoke to members of the farming co-operatives which supply Progreso, a Fairtrade café in London of which I am a director. I found myself, fraudulently, sitting in a place of honour in a muddy village hall, at a complete loss to explain my presence. I was not a doctor or an engineer, and I hadn't come from the government to fix the trade rules. I'm an actor, I told them. Shoulders sagged all around. "I might be able to quote you," I offered. Ask them to pay a good price for our coffee, they said with some passion. Tell them it's some of the best in the world. Tell them how hard we work.

The message was not about the struggle to keep their children alive, or the doubt about whether they would earn the price of a cup of espresso that week; it was a plea on behalf of quality and effort.

Having received their hospitality, drunk their coffee, and seen the appalling conditions in which they live, I find it impossible to stomach the spectacle of Starbucks, a multinational with net profits of $494m and a professed commitment to sustainable development, standing in the way of a plan that would help Ethiopian producers add value to their trade.

Starbucks and the National Coffee Association of America oppose Ethiopia's plan to gain legal ownership of the names of the country's most famous coffees, Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe. Ownership would let farmers, who earn between $0.75 (40p) and $1.60 (84p) per pound for their beans - less than 10 per cent of the retail price - control the use of the brands in the market place and eventually take a bigger share of the retail value.

Oxfam claims that Starbucks, which sells Ethiopian speciality coffee for up to $26 (£13.70) a pound, prompted the NCA, of which it is a leading member, to lodge a protest at the US Patent and Trademark Office. This, it says, led to the rejection of Ethiopia's application to register the names.

Starbucks countered in a press release on 26 October that the trademark approach would hurt coffee growers, but denies that it made any representation to the NCA against the proposal. It favours a certification programme such as those protecting the names of other regional foods.

Occasionally, Starbucks makes public gifts to projects designed to help poor coffee farmers. It also sells Fairtrade coffee in its shops. But, if the company works to deny farmers a greater share of the profits generated by the global coffee trade, one has to question just how deep its commitment to change truly is.

Ethiopia is pursuing its trademark strategy, but has also presented Starbucks with an alternative: a voluntary licensing agreement which would recognise the country's rights to the coffee names immediately, while giving Starbucks permission to use them on its packs and in its shops. This idea, presented in September, has yet to be accepted by the company.

Experts estimate that the compromise could earn Ethiopia and its farmers up to $88m extra a year. The potential gains would go to the 15 million or more poor people who are dependent on Ethiopia's coffee trade. For a country where millions live on less than a dollar a day and where sickness, poverty and drought are wreaking havoc, this could change lives.