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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….


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