Around the Jewish World in Uganda, a New Cooperative Unites Religions to Grow Coffee

In his three decades at the helm of the Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., Paul Katzeff has pioneered the process of buying coffee beans directly from Third World growers and funneling money back to them after sales to promote economic self-sufficiency and social justice. But Katzeff had never helped Jewish coffee farmers, who don’t usually figure in the ranks of small Third World growers.

That changed with the recent release of Mirembe Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace,” a Fair Trade — and kosher — coffee produced by a new cooperative of Jewish, Muslim and Christian coffee farmers from the Mbale region of Uganda.

“We think this coalition is unique in all of Africa,” says coffee farmer J. J. Keki, leader of the 700-member Abayudaya Ugandan Jewish community that is at the core of the project.

It started 18 months ago when Katzeff got a phone call from Laura Wetzler, the Uganda coordinator for Kulanu, a Washington-based Jewish charity that promotes community-empowerment projects around the world. Wetzler travels to Uganda every January to help the community maintain its projects.

She asked Katzeff if he would be interested in buying five sacks of coffee from a group of local growers that she was trying to help.

“I rolled my eyes and said to myself, ‘Oh, here’s another young person touched by the poverty,’ ” recalls Katzeff, a Bronx native who cut his organizing teeth in the 1960s working with the East Harlem Tenants Council and organizing black workers in Mississippi.

Katzeff knew how complicated the international coffee trade is, and the idea of this young woman sitting in Uganda making cold calls to corporate executives made him shake his head.

“Then she said, ‘I’m from Kulanu, and I’m working with a group of Jewish coffee farmers here,’ ” Katzeff continues. “I said, ‘Come on, you’re kidding,’ and she said, ‘No.’ “

Katzeff thought Wetzler must have called him because he too is Jewish, but she said she was just working her way through coffee companies and his was 41st on the list.

Then she told him the complete story: She represented a cooperative of 400 coffee farmers organized by Keki, who was going door-to-door asking his Muslim and Christian neighbors to join the Abayudaya Jews to improve their general lot. The co-op was trying to circumvent price gouging by local middlemen and was looking for a foreign market.

Wetzler told Katzeff about the Abayudaya, descendants of a Ugandan general who adopted Judaism in the early 20th century. Nearing extinction during the reign of the dictator Idi Amin, the community revitalized itself in the 1980s and drew the interest of Kulanu, which sent a delegation in 1995 along with a Conservative rabbi, who formally converted the community.

Today the Abayudaya are helped by various foreign Jewish organizations; they have a school, a synagogue and several small-scale economic projects. Electricity was installed, 12 water tanks were built, and the community raises money through Jewish tourism and selling crafts and CDs of its music.

Katzeff was intrigued.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll buy all you’ve got, every single bit,’ ” recalls Katzeff, who says that the project “interested me as a Jew.”

Katzeff had changed his own business practices following a 1985 trip to Nicaragua, when he realized “that the coffee industry was living off the sweat and blood of the coffee farmers.”

He began guaranteeing what has become known as a “Fair Trade price,” which he says is “20 to 40 cents a pound higher” than the usual price coffee farmers receive from the major companies and which doesn’t change with market fluctuations.

The idea that he could use his company to help Jews in Africa — Jews who had joined forces with Muslims and Christians — impressed Katzeff.

“In the midst of so much strife, these people decided to cooperate instead of compete,” he says. “They made a conscious decision to increase the size of their pie and share it for a better life, as opposed to what governments all over the world want them to do — compete for a piece of a very limited pie.”

Reached at his Ugandan home, Keki describes the Abayudaya Jews’ good relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. Though Jews are a small minority in the region, Keki was elected chairman of the local council, which he says shows the lack of local anti-Semitism — and which makes him the only Jew elected to public office in Uganda, Wetzler says.

Coffee growing is the main income-producing crop of the Abayudaya and their neighbors, Keki notes. But coffee prices had dropped, and the farmers were discouraged.

“I thought, ‘We all do agricultural work, so let’s form a cooperative and sell our coffee together,’ ” Keki says. “Everyone agreed.”

After Keki formed the co-op, Wetzler made the connection with Katzeff and located a nearby cooperative that already had Fair Trade certification, which is expensive. Keki’s group buys from the local farmers and funnels the coffee through that Fair Trade co-op, which processes it and sends it to California.

Katzeff visited Uganda to sign the contract, spending Shabbat with the Abayudaya Jews.

“They picked me up at the hotel and said I didn’t look Jewish,” he quips. “Then they took me to their shul, with all the men on one side and the women on the other. They did the whole service in Hebrew. Afterwards, we ate only food that didn’t have to be cooked — fresh fruit and vegetables. No one worked all day.”

Katzeff says he was astounded by the primitive equipment the locals worked with. It takes 100 tons of “cherries,” or raw coffee fruit, to yield 37,500 pounds of green beans, the amount the co-op managed to produce this past year.

“They had one little, hand-cranked de-pulping machine to run those 100 tons through,” he marvels. “They were determined to get their first crop out. It was incredible.”

Keki and Katzeff signed a three-year agreement guaranteeing Fair Trade prices for all the coffee the cooperative can produce. Eighty percent of the money is put in an escrow account to be plowed back into developing the co-op’s infrastructure, with the goal of doubling output by next year. A dollar surcharge on each pound sold will be sent directly to the cooperative — hopefully yielding a further $30,000 this first season.

“It’s all about sustainability,” Katzeff says. “When they’re able to produce five times as much, they’ll be able to support all their own social programs.”

Keki is excited about the partnership.

“I hope it will help us buy food and clothes and send our children to school,” he says. “People are already planting more coffee.”

Keki, who has spoken widely in the United States, is aware of the significance of his interfaith effort.

“When we read the news, we see that most of the problems in the world are caused by religion,” he says. “Here we are using religion in the name of peace. We hope that wherever our coffee goes in the world, it will promote peace.”

Noting that the cooperative has a Jewish president, a Christian vice president and a Muslim executive secretary — and that one-third of its board is made up of women — Katzeff describes the venture as “a shining light for peace” in the region.

“This is the most important project I’ve ever done,” he says. “Everything I’ve done up to this point was leading to it.” Delicious Peace coffee is available at www.thanksgivingcoffee.com or by calling 1-800-648-6491.

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