Assefa brewing a market for Ethiopian coffee farmers
Emigré using state's new benefit corporation law for Takoma Park company
At the tender age of 15, Tebabu Assefa fled his well-to-do home in his native city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, disguised as a peasant boy.
He sought to escape the chaos, executions and imprisonments that followed the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie's government by a military junta in the mid-1970s.
"A lot of students were talking about going to the jungle and organizing a violent rebellion," said Assefa, 50, one of the first business owners to incorporate through Maryland's benefit corporation law that started in the fall. "People were being arrested and killed. I lost some friends but not family members. ... It was just too crazy of a time."
So without his parents' knowledge, he and a few friends made it out to Kenya, where he stayed with a friend and finished high school. Assefa assumed he'd return home in a year or two, but he said the situation in Ethiopia deteriorated. He later moved to the Netherlands and Italy, finally immigrating to the U.S. in 1980.
On a trip home in 2003, he befriended coffee farmers, who he said are poor and are paid in pennies while some coffee brands sell for $13 or more per pound in local stores.
"They work so hard, but they live in huts in the mountains. They are at the bottom of the chain," Assefa said while sipping Ethiopian coffee in his Takoma Park apartment's dining room. "I wanted to help create a more fair system."
About a decade ago, he quit a marketing job to work on the idea for a company to help his countrymen by cutting out the middlemen. But the timing wasn't right then, he said.
For this round, with Maryland's B corporation law in full swing, supporters of Blessed Coffee have been easier to land, Assefa said. He displayed letters from supporters that include state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who sponsored the original B corporation legislation, the Old Takoma Business Association, university professors and Congress members.
"There is a shift now," Assefa said.
He also has met with area business owners such as Seth Goldman, CEO of Bethesda organic beverage company Honest Tea, another company that started in a local home.
"I am studying businesspeople who grew their companies from scratch to very large enterprises to learn how they did that," Assefa said.
Through his business, he hopes to provide a market for some 180,000 small coffee farmers in Ethiopia through a cooperative union. He also hopes to open a coffeehouse next year in the Takoma Junction business district, as the area becomes more of a community center with poetry readings, music and day care. He wants to buy supplies from local farmers and businesses, and return a portion of proceeds to local community groups. He also is working on opening a roasting factory in two or three years.
"One program I want to see there is to offer a free dinner of Ethiopian food to 10 families each week," Assefa said. "I believe that business can be a catalyst for change."
Socially conscious coffee
Assefa has not only an incredible dream for socially conscious coffee, but a compelling business plan and a lot of community support, Raskin said.
"If anybody can pull it off, it's Tebabu," Raskin said. "You're talking to a guy who started off his race for the state Senate with 6 percent name recognition, so I believe in people's dreams."
Assefa also won over Philip B. Zipin, a Silver Spring lawyer who helped him incorporate and continues to provide legal assistance.
"I believe in his vision and sincerity. He is truly the poster child for B corporations," Zipin said, referring to the law that allows for-profit companies to incorporate social-good and environmental principles into their charters.
The corporate charter of Blessed Coffee requires the company to return 50 percent of profits to Ethiopian coffee growers, which is unheard of for startups, Zipin said.
"I don't believe that could be done under any other incorporation model," said Zipin, who has talked with Montgomery County officials about them helping in the formation of a private company that would certify B corporations in the state.
Assefa wants each Ethiopian coffee farmer to annually contribute the equivalent of one bag of coffee beans, valued at roughly $3 per year, for three years as a $1.6 million investment in this partnership. He plans to offer stock to community members.
When Assefa immigrated to this country, he first landed in Minneapolis, earning a bachelor's in individualized studies with an emphasis on communications and studio arts at the University of Minnesota. He started his own company and marketed festivals and artists. He now does media and marketing consulting work, with clients that include Ethiopian restaurants and a filmmaker.
He and his wife, Sara Mussie, met in the Washington, D.C., area in 1991, shortly after they both moved to the region. They now have two children, and she is active in local PTAs and other groups, such as Impact Silver Spring, where she is empowerment coordinator.
"I support what he is doing 100 percent," said Mussie, who also is an Ethiopian native and is helping with the business. "When I met him, he always talked about wanting to go back to Ethiopia and help people there."
Assefa, who moved to Takoma Park from Silver Spring in 2003, was a founding member of the Takoma Park Community Action Group, which works on neighborhood improvement issues. He is active in other organizations, including the Maryland Governor's Commission on African Affairs.
"It feels like home here," Assefa said. "Takoma Park has such a rich cultural diversity and community feeling. I hope Blessed Coffee can do for Takoma Park what Starbucks did for Seattle."
Assefa first returned to Ethiopia in 1989 for a personal visit. Both of his parents have died, but he still has some relatives there. He left last week for a month-long visit to solidify business plans there.
His business plan projects $350,000 in sales in the first year and $2.6 million the second year. He plans to start selling the coffee this year through marketing employees in grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, individual buyers and small coffee stores, online and other venues.
Assefa said he has investors, including one from Takoma Park, and he has invested about $250,000 himself on research and development, travel to Ethiopia, marketing, printing and other expenses.
The company's name, Blessed Coffee, is taken from a tradition-rich Ethiopian ceremony in which numerous people sit in a circle drinking coffee and elders bless the last cup, Assefa said. Coffee was discovered in that country centuries ago, reportedly by a goatherd, he said. Not surprisingly, coffee is Ethiopia's top export.
"In Ethiopia, coffee is like wine is to the French," Assefa said. "It's a ritual."