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July 21st, 2009
The Market Maker
Production Diary II: Coffee and Peppers

Humera, Ethiopia
May 31, 2009

Producer Eli Cane writes from the field.

Eleni Gabre-Madhin and her staff at the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) are struggling to free themselves from the complex and thorny world that is the international coffee industry, and to refocus their attention on domestic markets and food security for Ethiopia. As they do so, their entry into the sesame market has taken on a heightened importance. In December 2008, a law was passed requiring most coffee to be traded through the ECX, but no such legislation exists for any other commodity. With sesame, Eleni and her team will have to convince farmers and traders to accept the new modern market system, voluntarily. A successful entry into the sesame market will mean a major victory in the war of public perception, which Eleni sees as vitally important.

Lunch Meeting

Eleni Gabre-Mahdin at a lunchtime meeting with sesame traders in Gondar, Ethiopia

Yesterday, we filmed Eleni in Gondar, the ancient capital of Ethiopia and a sesame market hub. She toured the wholesale market, met with a small group of traders, and inspected warehouses for the ECX to rent. Eleni appears to be in her element in these situations; the vast majority of her graduate research was conducted in street markets all over Africa, and she has an uncanny ability to navigate an unknown market as if she’d spent years there. She seems totally at home chatting with these small and medium-scale traders, discussing problems of default, quality control and risk management. And although we’ve seen her doing it a lot throughout this production, she still seems to learn something new each time.

At one stall in Gondar’s wholesale market, a crowd grew around us. Listening through my headphones I heard a growing chorus of coughing and sneezing. I glanced over at Hugo and saw that his eye — the one not trained on the camera’s viewfinder — was red and watering. Giant sacks of hot red peppers surrounded us, baking in the midday sun. The heat must have been activating the oils in the peppers, and we were all enveloped in an unhealthy quantity of volatile airborne hot pepper oil.


Hot red peppers for sale at the market in Gondar

Eleni was encouraged by her trip to Gondar, but her optimism was measured. She thinks that some of the traders she met with are 70 percent convinced about the ECX, but it’s clear that she’s anxious they’re not going to get this going before the season is over.

Just before Eleni caught an early flight back to Addis, she spoke to the ECX’s head of business development, Ben Aschenaki, on the phone, imploring him to make progress on sesame: “Just one bag! Just get me one bag in the warehouse and we’ll sell it!”

Next, we’ll be traveling with Ben to Humera, the epicenter of sesame in Ethiopia. As we were checking out of our hotel in Gondar, the concierge inquired about my onward journey. When I told him we were headed to Humera, he issued a stern warning: “Humera is NOT a tourist destination!”

As we set off on the 185 mile off-road excursion to Humera, I began to think about what an important piece of the puzzle we’re witnessing here. If Eleni and her team in Addis can put the other pieces together and launch sesame trading this week, we will have captured the ECX taking a monumental leap towards accomplishing its original mission. That is, if our equipment survives this heat. This afternoon we had technical failure within the first 3 minutes of filming — a big TOO HOT warning flashing on our hard-disk recorder. What I’m really looking forward to is doing a full systems check while sitting poolside at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis tomorrow afternoon. But for now, one last night under the stars out here in the desert….

  • ESL

    In all honesty, there seems to be a lot of hype about Gabre-Madhin in the West. Back home she is known as someone who has created another market controlling tool for the tyrannical regime that does not allow businesses to compete with its more than 80 companies that are controlling the Ethiopian economy.

  • Bruck Fikru

    Dear Eli Cane –

    This is a very interesting article. It says more about you than either ECX or Ethiopia.

    You talk about “victory in the war of public perception” and refer to Eleni and ECX as “struggling to free themselves from the complex and thorny world that is the international coffee industry.”

    The references to war and struggle are highly misleading, and clearly show you have not done your homework for a balanced story on ECX and what it promises to deliver for Ethiopian farmers and what it is actually delivering to them now.

    If what Ethiopian sesame farmers need is “war on perception” rather than education, and if what ECX is doing is “struggling to free” itself from the international coffee industry, then Ethiopian farmers have little to expect from ECX.

    Was the coffee law passed in December? Do you have a copy of the law? Please look at the date printed on it. Please.

    You refer to Ben Aschenaki as Ben Astrangee.

    What’s going on?

    Bruck Fikru

  • hailu

    good job ECX and Eleni!! you are the real daughter of ethiopai

  • yohannes

    Aaron- I appreciate your effort to cover Ethiopia’s “exchange market” in progress.

    I am disappointed with your will full ignorance for failing to report on how the government jailed and confiscated coffee stock of piles from major coffee vendors to force them into the sham ECX. system.
    The People of Ethiopia are absolutely skeptical about the motive behind ECX. Because this is a government that stole election, massacred innocent protestors and embezzled millions of aid money collected in the name of the poor.

  • Christine

    Prior to reading the dissenting opinions, I couldn’t wait to gush my inspiration for Eleni and the ECX—even extrapolating the idea for a grassroots alternative energy exchange in the US—or small organic farmers exchange….maybe I need to do a LOT more homework. It was encouraging to see an effort at solution. I wondered if persuading the sesame farmers to participate could’ve have been failitated by offering to purchase a volunteer’s goods and then film the entire chain of trade and then show results to the farmers.

  • Sieru

    Why are people hell-bent on negating her work? She is doing a great job, making each of us proud. Give her credit where it is due, and stop pliticing her work. Don’t use her as a scape-goat for all your political oppinions about the regime. The fact is, she is doing something to make a difference for the better. She is using her knowledge to bring about a change. What are you doing? What is your profession? What are you doing with that knowledge you have other than criticising? Be the change you want to see! Walk your talk.


  • getinet

    I hope Dr. Eleni is well-meaning and trying to make a difference to the millions of poor Ethiopian farmers somehow.
    My question to Dr. Eleni is, however, whether she truly believes the ECX would work in a country where the state, which is run by a minority ethnic clique, controls every sphere of economic, political and social life. How can the ECX operate to help overcome starvation and poverty in a country where even the transportation of emergency aid to the starving poor had to be postponed – despite the WFP’s outcry – in order for fleets of trucks owned by the ruling clique would do the job at a later date, of course paid in foreign exchange by donors for their ‘dedication’? I found this mindboggling and feel sorry for the gullible outsiders who have become part of the fanfare.

  • sinudu

    By eliminating the middle men, the poor will benefit. This is per Getachew, a graduate student in Addis University. In addressing questions of how the poor are to benefit to this undertaking.

  • Bob Greene

    Dear Mr. Cane,
    Thank you for an inspiring documentary about dedication and vision, of which the world has too little.

    Of cynicism, the warehouses are full. In letters of comment on this series, there is a plethora of dark murmurings suggesting abuse of power, injustice, plots and counterplots.

    But what matters in the long term for Ethiopia is what happens for its farmers and their families. Justice for Ethiopia is justice for the smallest of farmers.

    And that is the focus of your documentary. Your understanding of this issue, and Eleni’s commitment to helping resolve it, filled the documentary with a drama all too rarely seen.

    As Pres. Obama has observed, already, Africa will take the course this generation of Africans gives it– for better or for worse. There will be roadblocks, but we will see Africans remake their continent into a thriving homeland.

    You and Eleni Gabre-Madhin have allowed us to witness part of this transformation.

  • babu

    It will be interesting to find out if TPLF companies who export thousands of tones of oil seeds trade through ECX. Do they?

  • zen geb

    I have a question for you. When are you going to tell kind people of the world, who do not know what is going on in Ethiopia the truth? The truth is first coffee coffee farms were confiscated by the previous government still under government control now coffee is confiscated from exporters.
    You know the farmers are not going to benefit from this. They do not have incentive to work hard. Why should they when they do not know if their farm is going to be confiscated and the businessmen do not know if their coffee is going to be confiscated.
    The Dr. Elini went Ethiopia to help the country. She had all the education needed and the desire to help, but now she is going to help Ethiopia by helping the government sell stolen coffee? It is time not to fool kind people by calling this coffee “Fair Trade Certified” This is stolen coffee. Let the world know that. Thanks

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