I met Dukale, a small-time coffee grower, while on a trip to Ethiopia as an ambassador for World Vision, I was deeply impressed by his strength and his dignity. Despite overwhelming obstacles, Dukale supported his family and produced high-quality organic coffee. I also sensed a kinship with Dukale. Like me, he was a worker and a father who wanted to thrive and provide for his family. Only one thing had been holding Dukale back: his circumstances. He needed tree cover to grow his coffee beans, but he also needed to harvest his trees for fuel. He was able to produce the highest quality coffee, but he had no access to markets that would offer him a fair price.
When, 30 years ago, aid organizations came to Africa, they focused on emergency relief. In our conversations, Dukale made it clear that he did not want to subsist on the generosity of others. He wanted what we all want: to realize the fruits of our own labor. Having shifted away from relief to development as a way of preventing emergencies, World Vision had recently partnered with Dukale to construct a methane gas system that converted cow manure into lamplight and cooking flame. This simple innovation spared his family prolonged exposure to smoke, enabled his children to study for school after dark, and allowed Dukale to spend more time developing his farm so he could grow more coffee. The methane burner also meant Dukale no longer had to cut down the trees that provided necessary shade for his coffee plants and oxygen for the ozone.
The methane gas system convinced me of what I already knew: simple innovations could transform the lives of millions of people, allowing them to be more resourceful and independent. But, as I spent the day following in Dukale’s footsteps on his family farm (shoveling, managing livestock, planting trees) and listening to his story, I realized that no one could succeed alone. Like millions of other men and women in countries all over the world, Dukale was isolated with limited access to the markets and opportunities of the developed world. In simple terms, he could not sell his coffee for a fair price.
When I first arrived home from my trip to Ethiopia, I spoke at the UN as a World Vision ambassador about the need to work with farmers like Dukale so that they can realize a Fair Trade price for their coffee. At the time, I thought I could make a connection between Dukale and existing distribution. I didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be relatively simple. Coffee distributors funneled coffee from all over the world to stores and cafes all across the United States. I immediately discovered, however, that the coffee business–cafes, patrons and distributors–was not set up to benefit the small farmer.
But when I traveled back to Africa, I saw that the coffee exchange in Ethiopia could not offer Dukale a Fair Trade price for his coffee. Dukale needed partners, but no partners or infrastructure existed either in Africa or the United States to allow Dukale to build a bridge to a future for his family and his farm. Like many people, I had thought I could strive to change the way the world does business while maintaining a personal distance from the details. Though I wanted to see Dukale thrive, I had never thought of going into business myself. Now I questioned my assumptions. During the day that Dukale and I had worked together on his farm, we had formed an easy bond, and now I wanted to continue working with him.
Once I realized that I would, in going into business, have to create a new model to bring Dukale’s coffee to the world, I had trouble at first understanding how we would reach our goal. I loved coffee, and I knew Dukale grew the best coffee in the world, but I didn’t know how to serve as a distributer or a café owner. Paul Newman had set an impressive example of how to harness the power of commercial branding into a philanthropic engine. Though a powerful tool (and one I had used before in philanthropic contexts), branding alone would not prove strong enough to overcome the obstacles Dukale and I faced.
We were not starting a charity. We were in the coffee business. I needed to start a business that could partner with farmers like Dukale in order to gain access to markets. Where no infrastructure existed, I had to find a way to create it through distribution and cafes in New York that would introduce Fair Trade coffee by Dukale and others directly to consumers. The business Dukale inspired, Laughing Man Worldwide, reinvests 100% of its profits in its partnerships with farmers. Laughing Man Worldwide approaches farmers as equals in pursuit of a shared dream. Working together, we learn from each other, and slowly we begin to redefine what it means to do business and what it means to be happy.