‘Against all odds’

A new breed of African entrepreneurs are creating their own sucess story
Written by Vic Motune
08/01/2012 09:58 AM

HARD AT WORK: Oromo coffee farmers in Ethiopia

EVERY NEW Year is a leap into the unknown. But if Abiyot Kebede Shiferani succeeds in his goal of repeating the events of the year gone by, then the future will hold very little to worry about.

The former lawyer from Ethiopia was forced to flee the east African country in 2006 following clashes between the Oromo Liberation Front in southern Ethiopia, which wants independence, and government troops.

In the United Kingdom he joined 250 Oromo families who arrived in Tameside, Greater Manchester, as part of a United Nations resettlement plan.

Like many of the new arrivals who were also qualified professionals, Shiferani had high hopes for his new life in the West.

But any notions of continuing his work as a lawyer quickly faded. Like many of the new arrivals, he struggled to find work. He discovered, like many of his countrymen, that qualifications and experience gained in Ethiopia were not recognised in the UK.

However, there was a shared determination in the Oromo community that a dependence on benefits was not going to be part of their life here.


SUCCESS: Abiyot Shiferani (far right) with members of his team at a recent trade show event

“We weren’t satisfied with relying on government handouts,” Shiferani says. “The Oromo culture is one where the idea of living on benefits doesn’t exist. And as young educated people, we wanted to improve our lives. But there was little we could do because the qualifications we earned back home are not valid here.”

Two years after their arrival in the UK, the Oromos were thrown a lifeline. A local vicar who had played a key role in helping them settle in the area, Reverend Ian Stubbs, realised that many of them were experts in the production of coffee, which plays a key role in Oromo social life.

He put them in touch with the Lorna Young Foundation, (LYF), a charity aimed at helping farming cooperatives in developing countries make a profit on the food they produce.

It was at that meeting that the idea to create a business was born, one which would source, distribute and sell coffee beans directly from Ethiopia. Seven members of Tameside’s Oromo community came together to form a company in 2008. Now the Oromo Coffee Company sells its own brand of roast and ground coffee in the UK and Europe, sourced directly from smallholders in Ethiopia.

However, because it is purchased and imported by the company itself, they cut out the middle men and put more money in the pockets of Oromo farmers in Ethiopia.

Praise

This simple idea of creating direct trade between Oromos in Ethiopia and UK consumers has won praise from observers, who say it has created a new business model for fair trade organisations – one that has created a fairer deal for the country’s farmers, employment for people who have come to this country as refugees and funds for UK Oromo community projects.

Since its creation, the company has gone from strength to strength, with 2011 proving to be a very successful year.

The company now sells its coffee to community groups, individual shops and supermarket chains, as well as wholesalers, and has won the support of people like celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.

Profits from the sales of Oromo have allowed them to employ another five members of the community. And awareness and appreciation of the brand has grown.

“We often get asked to take part in different trade shows, fair trade events and community events,” says Shiferani.

“As a result of these events, people ask us where they can buy the products. We have a lot of customers in London as well as here in Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

“We’ve also been asked to work with a number of educational institutions to help people learn about the type of coffee they drink.”

“The success of the company has led to us being asked to do these events but, importantly, they have been able to help us better integrate with the community, which helps our confidence and skills and business ability.”

“The more that people know about the history of the Oromo community and how the company was set up, that’s helped us to integrate with the community.”

Shiferani is clear about how he wants the OCC to build on its success in 2012.
“Our mission and vision is to see an end to people who are exploiting farmers in Africa through the work we do. We want to cut them out.

“If we can use our success to educate people about fair trade then we can help guarantee a future for ourselves and guarantee a fair price for the farmer as well.”

The Oromo Coffee Company’s success story is part of a growing trend that business experts have been slow to recognise.

Increasingly, a group of adaptable and highly motivated new arrivals are using the resources available to them to create new opportunities.

Many highly motivated and adaptable doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals are amongst the thousands of refugees who arrive in this country every year as refugees from the African sub continent.

However, in many cases they cannot use those skills because their qualifications are not recognised. And even after winning the right to remain here, many struggle to find work.

Refugee

In recent years, media headlines have portrayed refugee communities as work shy benefit cheats, intent on exploiting the system at the expense of the indigenous population.

Organisations such as the Refugee Council and the Association of Community Business Advisors are among those that are helping former refugees turn their skills and experiences into viable enterprises.

Among the men and women who have found that running their own businesses provides an effective way of overcoming barriers to entering the professional job market are Somalian Hassina Yassin, who created Hassina Catering Services in north London, Dorine Nakuti, a refugee from Burundi who created the award-winning Centre for Enterprise, a resource centre for black and minority ethnic people in Yorkshire wanting to run their own businesses, and Kwame Ocloo, a Ghanaian refugee who arrived in the UK 20 years ago and set up Youth Dialogue, a media and arts project in south London.

And according to Penny McLean of the Basis Project, a Refugee Council initiative that assists refugee community organisations, their success is helping play a key role in creating social cohesion, as well as making a positive contribution to the country’s economy.

“Too often there is a negative perception of refugees as an economic drain,” says McLean, “when in reality they can provide great opportunities to boost output.

They naturally have some great international links because they are always in touch with their home countries, so it makes sense to help them explore those links on a business level.

“Many of these community groups can access funding from places such as the Department for International Development to do something they do already, such as linking up with coffee or clothes makers in African countries which can benefit people in Africa, but the UK also gains from those profitable business links.”

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