It was a sobering moment when Mekonen, the Ethiopian farmer we had been interviewing, said that he hadn’t heard of the Commodity Exchange. Mekonen was, in a sense, most emblematic of those we had come to film—more so than the coffee traders, who exported their goods to large, international clients. And yet his admission that he did not know of the Commodity Exchange was an invalidation of our efforts, and a reminder that the system that was designed to help him—the system we had come to Ethiopia to document—was at the mercy of political and economic demands.
I had recently been inspired by the idea that the access to enough food, as well as to variety and quality, were fundamental rights that these demands placed under constant threat.
I was first introduced to this idea by a charismatic Ethiopian economist named Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, and in a short talk she described her efforts to solve Ethiopia’s persistent food-shortage problems by implementing an agricultural commodities exchange. Documentary director Hugo Berkeley and I became convinced that we had found someone whose understanding of the problem was as visionary as her proposed solution. Famine, she said, was not so much about lack of production, but lack of entitlement––lack of access. This concept was not hers alone, but she was unique in her ability to translate theory into practice.
From an agricultural perspective, Ethiopia is a land of opposites. While much of the country yields bumper harvests year after year, other areas are perpetually dry and dusty, and about once every decade, the seasonal rains fail to arrive. Thus, the country is faced with the recurring problem of too much food in some places and not enough in others.
Dr. Gabre-Madhin’s research on the problem pointed toward the country’s inefficient markets. Ethiopia’s agricultural system was broken up into hundreds of local regional markets that didn’t seem to “talk” to one another. Without reliable networks for trading, information about the price of goods in other markets, or a mechanism to move food around the country, people tended to trade in small, established networks. The result? The country’s farmers essentially became penalized for having a good year, because the local price of their goods would plummet—sometimes so much that it wasn’t feasible to pay people to harvest it—and those who lived only a few hundred miles away in drought-afflicted areas might starve.
The most striking example of this problem was the famine in 1984. Like most people, I remembered the haunting images of the famine and the massive international relief effort which, like so many of its kind, delivered aid only after catastrophic damage had occurred. What I didn’t know until I met Dr. Gabre-Madhin is that in the same year that one million people died in the north of Ethiopia, surplus crops lay rotting in the fields of the south. This staggering fact propelled us to document one of the most ambitious and historic attempts to solve Ethiopia’s recurring famine problem, which eventually turned into a film that aired on PBS’s Wide Angle in 2009.
Dr. Gabre-Madhin’s solution was simple: Fix the markets, and you’ll fix the supply problem. She would set up a trading platform that addressed Ethiopia’s specific problems by uniting buyers and sellers, acting as neutral third-party guarantor of quality and quantity, and by broadcasting market activity and price information to rural areas so farmers would know the national price of their goods. The film, if we were lucky, would stand testament to the moment when a truly innovative idea mixed with awe-inspiring dedication to combat an age-old tragedy. And yet, the film we made ended up being about something very different.
Coffee exports are the lifeblood of Ethiopia’s economy, amounting to half a billion dollars annually when times are good. In the midst of the financial crisis of 2008, coffee export orders plummeted, and the government moved quickly to mandate that coffee be sold on the newly formed Commodity Exchange. They hoped the mandate would incentivize farmers to produce more, and stem the flow of revenue lost to illegal or unreported sales by shifting the trade to a 100 percent transparent system. In principle, this development was great for Dr. Gabre-Madhin and her team—it meant volume, participation, legitimacy, and a foothold in a massive industry. Yet their capacity was strained to the breaking point, and suddenly they were not working to fix Ethiopia’s grain markets or solve problems of food security, but tending to the country’s biggest cash crop.
When Hugo and I arrived to film, the fledgling exchange had been trading coffee for about six weeks and was already buckling under the weight of this burden. Over the subsequent months, the story that unfolded became less about food and more about addressing the economic emergency at hand. The system that Dr. Gabre-Madhin had designed was a good one—but it had been engulfed by the economic demands of the country. Here, finally, was a solution that worked, delivering reliability, affordability, and choice, yet it was not being used to fix the food markets for which it had been designed, and the film became more about her struggle to return to her original mission.
As usual, the losers in this dynamic are subsistence farmers like Mekonen, who live under constant threat of famine, and for whom the rain, not the market, is everything. When the elements of an organized market were introduced, they were immediately usurped by the powerful and the privileged elite. This was the concept we set out to portray, and in the most unexpected way, we did.
Dr. Gabre-Madhin and her team are making great strides now toward transforming Ethiopia’s grain markets, and are aided by many valuable lessons learned from the coffee industry. Our experience documenting the first year of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange served as a sobering reminder that powerful and systemic forces may conspire to deny disenfranchised people their right to food unless a commitment to protect that right is maintained at the highest level.