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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 www.artfulframing.com.

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.  

 

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The Campaign Launched, So We Threw a Party!

The blood, sweat, and tears of months of work on Blessed Coffee’s Brewing Change campaign all led up to yesterday’s much anticipated campaign Launch Party. Nearly 75 guests packed into Silver Spring’s Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant to celebrate the official fundraiser kick-off.    

Supporters DiningThose of you who have been following the campaign know that the 16-member Brewing Change team has been meeting since May 2013 to plan the campaign rollout on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.  Well, yesterday, the site went live and it was time to party!

Tebabu and Sara issued an open invitation to the festivities and Blessed Coffee’s fans didn’t disappoint.  Supporters came out in droves to be a part of celebrating Blessed Coffee’s future.  For the evening, the top floor of Addis Ababa Restaurant became Brewing Change campaign central.

Guests mingled and enjoyed the Ethiopian buffet which included savory lentils, creamy sweet corn, spicy beef tibs, and of course, injera.  Campaign team member Kimberley Jutze served as the night’s emcee.  

A fun surprise came early in the festivities when guests Busy Graham, Molly Graham, and Greg Lewis serenaded the crowd with an impromptu folk song with some befitting lyrics that included, “All I want is a cup of Blessed Coffee made in an Ethiopian coffee pot.” 

Tebabu, Ike, SaraCounty Executive Ike Leggett took time out of an evening filled with multiple events to stop by the party.  He not only wished Tebabu and Sara success with the campaign, but he also congratulated them on Blessed Coffee's 3rd Anniversary, happening this month.    

Senator Jamie Raskin was the evening’s keynote speaker.  It was Jamie who initiated legislation in the State of Maryland to create a new corporate form called the Benefit Corporation.  Blessed Coffee was the second business in the nation to become a Benefit Corporation. Jamie is a long-time supporter of Blessed Coffee and his words on this occasion spoke of his admiration for Blessed Coffee’s founders and his optimism for its potential:

Jamie and Lady“You guys are visionaries.  You have captured this moment for us.  And, you are going to bring extraordinary credit and glory not just to you and your family, but to all of us, in what you’re doing with Blessed Coffee.”

Although he was unable to attend the event, Congressman Chris Van Hollen also made his support known by issuing a citation to Blessed Coffee, “In recognition of its efforts to develop partnerships in Ethiopia to improve the lives of coffee growers and to offer Americans the highest quality coffee.”

The evening wrapped up with what everyone had come for—the unveiling of the Brewing Change campaign on Indiegogo.  Campaign team member Adam Mendelevitz flipped the switch on the LCD projector and the video began.  The pitch video is just under 4 minutes long and features Sara’s melodious voice narrating.  The course of the story begins with Ethiopia’s rich coffee heritage, then speaks to the outrageous inequities in the global coffee market, and closes with the rise of Blessed Coffee and Virtuous Exchange. 

Group ShotAs the credits for the video rolled, Jamie Raskin stepped forward to become the first donor to the campaign.  Others eagerly followed his example and the last scene of the evening was of people taking out pens and checkbooks to, as Sara says in the video, “have a positive impact in the community.”

To give to the Brewing Change campaign, visit our page on Indiegogo.  Just click here!

2013 Africa Braintrust

Africa Braintrust Panel

Representative Karen Bass and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation hosted the 2013 Africa Braintrust on Friday, September 21st.  The event was held at the Washington Convention Center and had as its theme, “50 Years of Unity and a Future of Progress.”

Tebabu was part of an afternoon panel discussion entitled, "African Diaspora:  Untapped Engine."  Other esteemed panelists included:   Reginald Maynor, Director International Sales, Luster Products Inc.; Kendal Tyre, Partner, Nixon Peabody; and Julie Ndjee,  VP Sales and Marketing, Neilly's Foods LLC.

The panel was moderated by Semhar Araia, Executive Director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network.  Ms. Araia opened the discussion with these remarks:  “The African Diaspora totals approximately 150 million people in the Americas.  With over $40 billion in purchasing power, the Diaspora, if properly leveraged, can have a significant and transformative effect on the growth of economies and local communities throughout the continent.  Today’s panel provides tangible examples of this transformative effect and is another example of the driving force behind Africa’s rise.”

For his part, Tebabu talked about the Virtuous Exchange business model, the personal story behind the model, and the exciting possibilities for, “changing the international narrative,” as it relates to trade. 

Please watch the video below to hear the full panel discussion.

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Brewing Change at the 3rd Annual Ethiopian Festival

Coffee Ceremony Crowd Shot Blessed Coffee and members of the Brewing Change campaign team were among the more than 40 vendors at the 3rd Annual Ethiopian Festival held this past Saturday at Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.

The Festival slogan, “Celebrating diversity—promoting the joy of unity,” could be experienced everywhere at the event.  Festival attendees from near and far enjoyed Ethiopian food, shopped for arts and crafts, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Ethiopian performers.

Mannequin Kimberly and Gretchen Blessed Coffee’s tent was a popular destination.  A steady rotation of volunteers sold traditional and iced coffees as well as Blessed Coffee gift cards.  Seats were always filled for the coffee ceremonies that were held throughout the day. 

Multicultura Kids Statues Brewing Change campaign team members were at the event, in force.  They staffed a Brewing Change tent that was set up café style to promote conversation.  Team members answered questions about Blessed Coffee and the campaign.  They also managed to make time to sell specially designed “Ethiopia” t-shirts.

Family Lady in RedOf course, there were many people from the Ethiopian diaspora at the Festival.  But, downtown Silver Spring really embraced the event as well.  Many local leaders as well as individuals and families from the surrounding neighborhoods also came out to enjoy the culture and diversity.     

Mehbrahtu and Yared T-ShirtsPerhaps Dana Beyer of Progressive Neighbors Montgomery summed up the significance of the event best:  “This Festival represents what Silver Spring and Montgomery County have now become—people from all over the world are coming here and our community is being enriched by it.  . . .  Blessed Coffee and this Festival are part of the new way forward for a progressive economy.”    

Tadesse Meskela: The Inspiration Behind Blessed Coffee

Tedesse at Blessed Coffee InaugurationHave you ever wondered where inspirational people get their inspiration?  Well, for Blessed Coffee co-founders Tebabu and Sara you need look no further than fellow Ethiopian Tadesse Meskela. 

Tadesse is the founder and general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union (OCFCU).  The OCFCU was founded in 1999 and today represents some 240,000 small coffee growers from Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia.  Blessed Coffee gets its Arabica coffee beans from the farmers of this co-operative.

Tadesse was featured in the 2006 documentary Black Gold.  The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was a nominee for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.  The film captures the paradox between the enormous sums of money generated by the global coffee trade and the meager existence of many of the farmers growing that coffee.  The film follows Tadesse’s efforts as he travels the world working to obtain better prices for OCFCU farmers than those set by the international commodities exchange.

The trailer for Black Gold opens with the startling statistic, “For a 3 dollar cup of coffee, the farmer earns 3 cents.”    It was this type of gross inequity that compelled Tadesse to develop a co-operative union system that allows farmers to retain much of the money that would otherwise be paid out to middlemen and exporters.   

The world has taken notice.  Shortly after the release of Black Gold, Tadesse met with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to screen the documentary.  Britain’s then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Ed Balls, said, “Delivering trade justice is not just morally right, it is an economic necessity for Tadesse and the farmers.”  Also taking notice has been Oxfam America, an OCFCU partner and sponsor of a 7-city US tour that gave Tadesse a platform for continuing to raise awareness about the inequities in the global coffee market.

Perhaps most significantly, in 2012 Tadesse traveled to Washington, DC to participate in talks related to the 38th G8 Summit and to sign the “Private Sector Declaration of Support for African Agricultural Development.” It was the first time that the G8 Summit included private sector leaders in these discussions.

Tebabu and Sara met Tadesse in 2002 at a forum organized by Oxfam International and Global Exchange.  It was through this meeting that Blessed Coffee and its business model Virtuous Exchange were born. 

Tadesse has become a friend, mentor, and business advisor to Tebabu and Sara.  During a recent visit to the US, Tedasse stayed at their Takoma Park home and met with members of the Brewing Change campaign team.   His words to the team echoed his earlier message at Blessed Coffee’s inauguration event: 

“Anyone who has based their business on the hope of finding a permanent loser has [an un]sustainable business.  I’m always telling business people that in order for them to have a viable, prosperous, and sustainable business, every company needs to incorporate human dimensions.  Tebabu and [his] associates are one of the few who respond to the need of the farmers in returning $1 USD from a pound of roasted coffee.”

Want to be inspired yourself?  Click here to read the full text of Tadesse's inauguration remarks which are posted on Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s website.