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March 2007
The True Cost of Coffee
Film Review by Kymberlie Adams Matthews


Black Gold
Directed by Nick Francis and Marc Francis.
78 minutes.

Like many Americans, my morning does not truly begin until I have had my first cup of coffee, albeit three. I prefer it straight up. Rich, bold and black. I love the smell, the taste and the way it makes me rise to the morning. I am hooked, an addict, a compulsive coffee guzzler. And I am not alone. An estimated 100 million other Americans need their morning brew too, and together we drink a total of two billion cups of java every single day.

While a cup of coffee can range anywhere in price—from 69 cents to $6 and change—we remain oblivious to the true cost of this black gold.
In their documentary, filmmakers and brothers, Nick and Marc Francis take us on a poignant journey to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia. We are introduced to the plight of farmers who grow coffee beans, a commodity traded in quantities second only to oil. We witness the outstanding disparities between the profits raked in by global coffee distributors and the prices paid to the growers.

While coffee beans account for 67 percent of the country’s foreign export income, an Ethiopian coffee farmer makes on average less than 10 cents a kilo. Who would have thought Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee are the world’s largest coffee buyers? Despite over $80 billion annually in global sales, the growers live in poverty. They are malnourished and their schools are unable to afford basic supplies.

When the price of coffee hit a 30-year low in 2001, some farmers quit, others switched to growing chat, a local narcotic banned in the U.S. and Europe. Some saw no option but to bring their families to government feeding centers. Film watchers cannot help but feel for a family of 15 who live together in a small hut and cannot afford to send any of their children to school. The filmmakers’ stance is clear: Over 15 million Ethiopians depend on coffee, not to wake up in the morning, but for basic survival.

Meet Tadesse Meskela, the handsome, kindhearted and hard-working manager of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, representing over 74,000 Ethiopian farmers. Tadesse is on a crucial mission to save his farmers. We journey with him as he travels the world searching for buyers willing to pay a fair price for his top grade beans. This is no easy act, being up against the low prices established by New York and London commodities exchanges. We watch as Tadesse struggles with the power of multinational companies, commodity traders, international coffee exchanges and the trade ministers at the World Trade Organization.

But Tadesse has more than power on his side—he has compassion. He identifies with his farmers. He understands that they need an increase of 57 cents a kilo in order to improve the quality of their lives. He knows an extra 57 cents would allow his farmers to send their children to school, buy new clothes and have clean water. And while we see him generate the ripples and waves needed to turn things around, moments of his silent disappointment are painful to watch.

In short, coffee isn’t fair. While the cost of a cup at Starbucks continues to rise, wages paid to farmers drop. And while the WTO may mumble about the need for poor nations to make their own way rather than relying on foreign aid, the richest countries deny them a place at the bargaining table.

Black Gold hurts. It is as uncomfortable to watch as it is compelling. As a coffee aficionado, I was moved to reconsider my morning habit. And while I honestly don’t know if I can kick it, you can be sure I will be ever more conscious of where my beans come from. And drink only that of which I know have been fairly traded. It’s clearly the very least I can do.

For more information visit To learn more about Tadesse’s and his coffee farmers’ cooperative visit


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