Building a Campaign for a New Way of Doing Business

Brewing Change Team PhotoIt was at a gathering organized by the American Sustainable Business Council in early 2013 where I had my first encounter with Tebabu Assefa, the charismatic and outspoken Founder and Chief Story Teller of Blessed Coffee.  True to his title, Tebabu took the floor towards the end of the meeting to tell the story of Blessed Coffee and the company’s mission to right injustices in the coffee industry where coffee farmers struggle to meet the needs of their families on the small amount of money they earn from the sale of coffee beans and consumers in the United States pay a high markup for a final product, which allows middlemen to generate higher profits at both ends of the value chain.  Although I was intrigued by Tebabu’s remarks, it wasn’t until a few months later at another event for socially responsible businesses where our paths crossed again and a connection was forged around our mutual interest in international development. 

Soon afterwards, Tebabu and I met to discuss his plans for launching a crowdfunding campaign that would take fair trade to the next level by sharing a greater portion of profits with coffee producers, supporting environmentally sustainable practices through the cultivation of premium organic coffee, and strengthening cultural and economic ties between Africa and the United States.  Although the initial intent was to generate a community-based fundraising campaign for opening a café in Takoma Park, Maryland that would invest in both coffee producing and consuming communities, the larger goal was to demonstrate a model for other social entrepreneurs seeking to transform an unjust status quo through the power of business, known as Virtuous Exchange.  Excited by the opportunity to support a new approach to doing business with the potential to grow beyond Ethiopian coffee to include other products, I signed Shifting Patterns up with a group of community activists and socially responsible businesses that Tebabu and Sara, his wife and business partner, were forming to launch the Brewing Change Campaign.

From our first meeting there was a high level of enthusiasm and excitement among Campaign members to contribute our special talents to a movement that we were committed to taking from a concept to reality.  While our connection to Blessed Coffee served as a common bond between us, we needed to transition from a group of individuals who had never worked together before to an effective team.  To begin with, the 16 Campaign members brought different skill sets to the table, including art, law, organization development, communications, technology, community activism, and real estate.  To facilitate this transition, Shifting Patterns took on the role of providing backbone support to the Campaign, which included facilitating meetings, establishing a project timeline, monitoring the achievement of tasks, and creating the space for interpersonal and sub-group interactions.  Soon after the group was formed, it became clear that a team charter was needed to clarify our goal and team member roles as well as set expectations for how we would work together.  Shifting Patterns facilitated the development of this charter and secured a commitment from each team member to abide by it.

After several months of hard work that included developing a Brewing Change web site, creating a crowdfunding page on Indiegogo, producing a video, reaching out to hundreds of contacts to enlist their support, and promoting the Campaign at local festivals, the Brewing Change Campaign was officially launched on October 23rd at an Ethiopian restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland.  While the main purpose was to introduce Brewing Change to Blessed Coffee friends and supporters and begin raising funds, this event also served as a community gathering where members came together to share a meal, participate in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and listen to a singing group.

With the Brewing Change Campaign well underway, the team paused to capture lessons learned, such as: the importance of establishing a clearly defined and achievable goal, clarifying team member roles and responsibilities, modeling open communication, having an accountability mechanism in place for completion of assigned tasks, balancing the need for structure with self-direction, and establishing a support system for the team as a whole and individual members.  Beyond the experience of participating in the transformation from a group of individuals with different backgrounds and talents into a collaborative team, I’ve also benefitted from getting to know an amazing group of people and participating in a movement that has the potential transform the way in which we engage in economic transactions.  

Thanks to Blessed Coffee, we have the opportunity to shift our perspective from passive consumers to active participants in a virtuous exchange where the relationships we create are as equally important as the dollars we spend.  To learn more about the Brewing Change Campaign or make a contribution, visit


Shifting Patterns is a socially responsible consulting firm that facilitates social change by working alongside social enterprises to mobilize resources for addressing today's most pressing challenges while developing the internal support systems needed for longer-term sustainability.  Kimberley Jutze is the firm's Chief Change Architect. To learn more, visit their website at


My Ethiopian Cousins

SAMSUNGOn a recent Saturday morning I ventured over to the home of my friends Sara and Tebabu in Takoma Park for brunch and coffee. I knew it would be an inspiring time, since meeting with them always gives me a new and refreshed perspective on life, not to mention nutritional and delicious sustenance.
I happened to get there while they were still out running an errand, so their daughter Helena let me in and chatted with me. As always she impressed me, this intelligent, mature, creative, caring ball of energy who clearly is the daughter of her parents.
We had a good time talking until her parents returned, and then gourmet chef Tebabu and I hung out in the kitchen while Sara ran to the store with Helena to grab a few extra groceries. Tebabu handed me a hot cup of Blessed Coffee and then began mixing and chopping, aromatic concoctions emitting delicious smells while simmering on the stove. I felt pleasantly comfortable and at home standing in the kitchen while he opened and closed cabinets and stirred pots on the stove. I asked about Ethiopian traditional breakfast foods as he worked, and as he prepared a few, our conversation meandered into what is going on in our lives which transitioned into stories from our child and adulthoods, situations that have made us grow, and inspiration from these situations. I already knew this, but it became more and more crystal clear to me how wise, perceptive, and in touch with feelings and energy Tebabu is.
Sara and Helena returned with the groceries and helped finish up preparations for the meal while we enjoyed more coffee and conversation. Helena asked her parents if I was staying for brunch, and when they said yes she cheered. That girl always has a way of making me feel even more welcome than I already do with their family! After awhile they called their son Yared to the table, and he led us in a blessing before we dug into a delicious family-style breakfast. Conversation continued throughout the meal and beyond, although we were pretty focused on the delicious food for a little while there!
2011EthFest - BlogSo let me explain how we know each other. I met Sara and Tebabu about six or seven years ago, doing community outreach in the Takoma Park and Silver Spring area.  I worked for a grant-funded program that no longer exists today (CSAFE) that often partnered with Impact Silver Spring, where Sara works. I got to know Sara first, during door knocking events and community meetings. While I did not get to know them both super well immediately, over time our friendship grew, and I would see them at events and activities in the community as well as at social events with mutual friends. Sara and Helena even joined a mutual friend and I a few times when we held a local yard sale to clean out junk and connect with our neighborhood.
When my community outreach job ended and I was no longer as deeply involved as I had been, I tried to find ways to remain involved and continuing to make a difference in the community. I heard that Tebabu and Sara were working on the first Silver Spring Ethiopian festival, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help. For a few weeks before the event I attended planning meetings and assisted with preparations leading up the event and some logistics the day of it. It turned into an annual event, and I continued to help as needed over the next few years. I would also show up at Blessed Coffee events to visit or help out as their business began to grow – various booths at community festivals, the Blessed Coffee Inauguration and first anniversary, and of course always telling my family and friends about their coffee (and purchasing and drinking it myself)!
This past spring I happened to listen to Tebabu speaking on a local internet radio show, and as always happens when I hear Tebabu speak, it energized me in a way that moved my spirit deep within. I sent him an email to let him know how much I had enjoyed the broadcast. Within hours he was emailing and calling me, asking if I would help out with the next steps in their project. It turned out he had been thinking about reaching out to me anyway.
That was the beginning of a summer and fall of Brewing Change meetings. Brewing Change was comprised of like-minded passionate individuals who met bimonthly over delicious healthy meals, converging to help Blessed Coffee arrive at the next level through a crowd-funding campaign to build a coffee shop in the area. I had only met a few of the people involved prior to the team coming together, so it was an opportunity to network and meet other individuals with similar values and ideals in life. Seeing each other regularly meant that we got to know each other fairly well, sharing things going on in our lives as well as our ideas and plans for the Brewing Change campaign.
The more I was exposed to Tebabu and Sara’s ideas for the campaign and their future coffee shop, the more I understood and embraced it. You see, I first learned about Fair Trade in college, when I started drinking coffee. I wrote for a bilingual (Spanish/English) newspaper and was assigned to research and write an article about the Fair Trade coffee trade in Latin America. That inspired me to make an effort to only buy Fair Trade coffee from then on whenever possible.
2012someevent - BLOGUpon learning about Sara and Tebabu’s Virtuous Exchange model, I was even more inspired. I love the concept of helping developing countries have fair wages and ethical treatment of their workers, creating sustainable environmental and business practices, being socially responsible, and not just giving more and improved jobs in the coffee producing countries but also here in the United States. Finally, since I enjoy learning about other cultures and traditions, I love it that Virtuous Exchange honors that aspect of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and the cultural roots and origins of coffee on the planet.
So thank you Sara and Tebabu for that magical and transformative time spent with friends over brunch and Blessed Coffee the other day. More so, however, thank you for all that you are doing for the communities here in the United States, in Ethiopia, and someday across the world. I am proud to call you my Ethiopian cousins, and I support you in all your hard work moving forward to help make this planet a blessedly caffeinated and better place to live!

Artist Dilip Sheth Donates Painting to Blessed Coffee Cafe

coffee-break-dilip-shethYour eyes are immediately drawn to their touching heads. That of a mother’s leaning in to gently rest atop her infant’s crown—a baby who rests swaddled by his mother’s side. The pair is seated in a room filled with boldly colored flowers, fruits, and clay pottery. One of the mother’s arms lies across her lap, the other holds a jebena—an Ethiopian coffee pot. The picture is titled “Coffee Break” and was painted by artist Dilip Sheth. Thanks to Dilip’s generosity, the picture will soon hang in the coming Blessed Coffee café.

Dilip says of “Coffee Break” that, “the picture is about East meets West. While the woman is in a modern, Western apartment, she also holds on to her Ethiopian traditions.”

Dilip Sheth is not so different from the woman in his painting. Today, Dilip is a celebrated local artist who is regularly exhibited and widely supported. And, for the past 19 years, he has also been the owner and operator of Artful Framing, a framing and gallery shop located in the heart of Takoma Park’s business district.

But, while Dilip has certainly made a name for himself here in the DC Metro Area–the HillRag newspaper described his work as, “burst[ing] out of intense, penetrating colors, and compositions that roll across the canvas”–he still has one foot firmly planted in his native country of Ethiopia.

Dilip was born and raised in Ethiopia to a half Greek, half Ethiopian mother and an Indian father. He attended the same primary school in Ethiopia as Abraham Verghese, the author of the best-selling novel Cutting for Stone. Dilip’s love and appreciation for his homeland can be seen and felt in his many beautiful paintings of its people and nature. One such picture depicts a single yellow Meskel flower—a ubiquitous Ethiopian blossom—popping out against a fiery red landscape. Another portrays a solemn parade of elephants as they go on an imagined journey representing their real disappearance from the countryside.

Artsit Dilip ShethDilip describes his painting style this way: “I am a colorist. But, I’d also like to think that I’m an Expressionist.” He goes on to compare his artistic sensibilities to those of Modigliani, the Italian painter and sculptor known for his asymmetrical compositions and elongated figures. “Do you see the long arm of the woman pictured in “Coffee Break”? That is a bit like Modigliani,” Dilip explains.

Dilip is largely self-taught, but he has taken courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He attributes his artistic abilities–those of drawing, painting, and framing—to good genes. “My mother’s father was an engineer who built bridges and flour mills. I think that’s where I got the training, the ability to be good with my hands.”

Dilip met Tebabu shortly after coming to the DC Metro Area from Los Angeles. “Ethiopians have a way of finding each other,” he tells me with a smile. Dilip has long wanted Tebabu to open a café in downtown Takoma Park. He tells me, “Takoma Park is the right venue for it. People here are very supportive of local businesses. They want something unique and that is for the community. And, what could be better than a café with the name Blessed Coffee?”

Thanks to his donation, Dilip’s “Coffee Break” will soon grace one of the walls of the Blessed Coffee café, a lovely reminder of the community support for Blessed Coffee that comes from both near and far.

To find out more about Artful Framing and to view a virtual gallery of Dilip’s work, visit his website at

Memories of Life on an Ethiopian Coffee Farm

Alem and BerhaneWhen I sat down with Alemayehu Boka Waggie to hear about his life as the son of an Ethiopian coffee farmer, he started by saying, “It’s a lot to tell.”  That was an understatement. After an hour and a half conversation, I felt as if we’d only scratched the surface.

Alemayehu is from the town of Ghimbi in Ehtiopia’s Wollega province.  From a very early age, he helped his father on the coffee farm.   “I was his right hand,” Alemayehu said of his relationship to his dad.  Alemayehu assisted on the farm after school, on the weekends, during school holidays, and especially during the winter, when coffee was harvested. 

Alemayehu, who has multiple degrees and certifications in Agricultural Development, Educational Administration, and Cooperative Organization, vividly recalled all of the activity that would burst to life during coffee picking season. 

“When the coffee berries turned red it was time for picking,” Alemayehu explained.   Picking season started in November and lasted for nearly four months.    “Seasonal migrants from different areas of Ethiopia would come to our farm during harvesting time.”  In those days, the 1950s, pickers were paid with a portion of the coffee that they harvested, which they, in turn, sold.  They were also provided with room and board.  An industrious picker could earn enough during picking season to go back home after the harvest and purchase his own oxen.

Alemayehu fondly remembered the taste of just ripe coffee berries, saying that when they were red and juicy, there were deliciously sweet.  “As a child, I would pick the berries and eat them.  I loved the taste of the juice in my mouth.”  Apparently, so did the local wildlife–monkeys and apes.  Alemayehu chuckled as he told me about their not-always-successful attempts to keep the clever primates away from the precious berries.    

Alemayehu’s father was an adept and prodigious farmer.  He was able to grow the best type of coffee, which they called Kuburi.  Coffee grows wild in Ethiopia and it takes a trained eye to detect the Kuburi variety for cultivation.  Alemayehu’s father also grew tef, corn, barley, beans, and peas.   

Alemayehu’s family farm was on hilly land with many slopes.  The land was terraced, with the upper elevation used for vegetables, grains, and legumes.  The lower portion, the valley, was where the coffee was planted.  Coffee is a shade plant.  Farmers would clear out the brush and bushes in the forest and leave the tree canopy.  This created a perfect spot for coffee growing.

When he got older, Alemayehu left the farm to go to Addis Ababa University.  It was while he was away at school that the Ethiopian Revolution began.  Alemayehu recalled that one of the popular slogans at the time was, “Land to the tiller.”  Ethiopia’s new socialist government nationalized all rural land and distributed it to the tenant farmers, the tillers.  Alemayehu’s wife, Berhane, was from a prosperous family that lost its land in this way. 

After finishing school in Addis and completing degrees at universities in the UK, Alemayehu came back to Ethiopia to work as a Co-operative Organizer.  He worked in the nomadic region of Ethiopia, helping small coffee farmers organize into co-operatives.  When small farmers banded together they had more leveraging power in the coffee markets.  They could also borrow money from the co-operatives to maintain and grow their farms. 

Alemayehu was one of the consultants who worked on developing the Oromia Cooperative Bank.  This is the bank of the 240,000 member Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative which is managed by Blessed Coffee friend and advisor, Tadesse Meskela. 

Today, Alemayehu and Berhane are the proud parents of five adult children and grandparents to seven.  Alemayehu has brought his love of farming to the US.  He works for the University of the District of Columbia in the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES).  Alemayehu spends much of his time at Muirkirk Research Farm in Beltsville, Maryland where he is experimenting with growing Ethiopian ethnic herbs and spices.

006Alemayehu brought some specimens from the Research Farm to our meeting.  He had me touch and smell the mossy green cuttings. The plant names were foreign to me—Rue, Besobila, Abish, Tikur Azmud.  According to Alemayehu, they are common plants in Ethiopia that are widely used in spice preparations.  With a twinkle in his eye, Alemayehu proudly said of his work:  “I’m showing people that we can grow Ethiopian plants right here.”

Talking to Alemayehu, I got a glimpse of Ethiopia’s proud agricultural heritage and the potential for that heritage to enrich the lives of those far beyond Ethiopia’s borders, all the way around the world.