What’s wrong with Ethiopia’s exchange – Wondwossen Mezlekia
The Economist magazine describes the Ethiopian government as “one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world.” This portrayal, albeit contentious, is not without truth. But, the government’s recent meddling in the coffee trade has to do more with the government’s socialist-inspired economic policies than economics per se. As if to prove this, Venezuela’s Chavez, another diehard socialist, just took actions similar to what Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did earlier this year. Last week, President Hugo Chavez accused the country’s largest coffee producers, Fama de America and Cafe Madrid, of smuggling coffee out of Venezuela to circumvent government coffee controls and vowed to nationalize they refuse to heed. Chavez was quoted as saying “if they give me an excuse, I’ll nationalize them.”
This must be why some critics questioned the viability of a free commodity exchange in Ethiopia. But, technically, commodity exchanges can exist as viable institutions even under tyrannical governments. In fact, the only successful cash commodity exchange with spot delivery in Africa was the one in Zimbabwe. Studies show, Zimbabwe Agricultural Commodity Exchange (ZACE) was a viable exchange, until it closed in 2003 due to monetary instability, and operated successfully with its total costs covered by member subscriptions of brokers. The former coffee auction system in Ethiopia is another example. So, what went wrong with the USAID funded Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX)?
Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin says the exchange is a response to the paradox of “bumper harvest one year and severe shortages the next, or surpluses in one region and famine in another.” If so, what’s coffee got to do with famine? Is ECX delivering on its promises?
The bumper harvest-famine paradigm
Ethiopians who watched the state owned Ethiopian Television programs in years 1995 through 1997 vividly recall the infomercials about Sasakawa Global 2000 (SG2000) and the video clips of Meles Zenawi and the former US President, Jimmy Carter visiting certain corn fields.
SG 2000, a joint program of Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) and the Carter Center’s Global 2000, is an agricultural growth program that promotes the potential of improved food crop technologies through field demonstration. SG2000′s success stories in other countries were so appealing that the government adopted it right away. Increasing food production was a top priority for the government, so it was anxious to see SG2000 do its magic. The massive campaign to convince farmers to use fertilizers and improved seeds paid off pretty quickly and many farmers were provided with the inputs on a credit basis to be repaid at the first harvest. During the following season (1996/97), food growing regions saw a record high production due to the favorable rains and use of improved farm inputs. But, the excitement lasted for barely a few weeks as prices plummeted with supply surpassing domestic demand. Many farmers, deep in debt, defaulted on their credits. On the other hand, the rest of the country was in dire need of food and millions of people starved during the same year.
It turns out, ones bumper harvest won’t mean food to the other if the people cannot afford to pay for it. In Ethiopia, millions die of hunger not because they didn’t know where to buy food, but because they didn’t have the means to buy with. In any case, these are the historical events that Dr. Eleni talks about when selling the idea of a commodity exchange.
According to her, ECX will help eradicate famine by facilitating the distribution of commodities in an efficient manner. She argues, event at times like during 1996/1997, grain traders are unwilling to transport stocks to drought stricken regions because of lack of price information and/or the inherent high risk of doing so; those traders who braved to defy all the odds have realized net losses. In brief, by reducing marketing risks and providing merchants with real time price information, ECX can help facilitate ease of transaction and enhance competition. By so doing, commodities can be distributed across regions, reaching a larger consumer base at competitive prices. Further, says Dr. Eleni, ECX can double the value of the domestic market over five years assuming it captures 40% of the domestic market that is estimated at $l billion in value and adds a mere 25% value to it.
ECX came into existence in May, 2008 with able experts in the field and an aim to trade more than 25 agricultural commodities, mainly grain and pulse. The exchange was off to a rough start, as its commencement coincided with an unexpected sharp rise in domestic and global prices for commodities. There was a shortage of grains flowing through the exchange. The shortage persists to date.
After a series of interesting events, in December 2008, ECX evolved into a coffee exchange, no explanation given. Today, the most traded commodity at ECX is coffee, not grain. ECX has replaced the old coffee auction center, not to conduct a forward trade which would have been an improvement, but to do the same old spot auction with an electronic warehouse receipt system.
ECX, there’s a slave in my coffee bag!
With ECX taking over the coffee auction, the government emerged out as the main player in the market for the first time in the history of the coffee sector. All of the successive governments (the imperial, the military regime, and the current one) depended on coffee for export but only the current government dared to control the marketing system for coffee. This arbitrary move exposes the dark side of coffee trade in Ethiopia and ECX’s role as a facilitator.
For so long, the government has been oblivious to the fact that coffee farmers are hurting because of the mandatory export. In Ethiopia, it is illegal to sell export grade coffee beans in local markets; only second and third grade coffees are sold locally. Global prices for export grade coffee are determined at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and are generally less than domestic prices. For example, last week (Sept 19), a pound of coffee was sold at Merkato Buna Tera, the central coffee market in Addis Ababa, for 27 Birr or roughly $2.20 whereas the same volume of export grade coffee was traded at ECX for an average of 18 Birr or roughly $1.47. Coffee farmers and traders would better off selling their coffee stocks in domestic markets. The difference between local and export prices (in the above example, a difference of 15 Birr or $.73 per pound) is an obligatory duty imposed on participants. The governments (past and present) have never felt obliged to compensate farmers or traders for the benefit they forgo due to this export regulation.
In one of her interview on Voice of America’s Amharic Service, Dr. Eleni said, a market is deemed free if people can sell their produce whenever, where ever, and to whomever they want at whatever price they please. In that sense, she said, the coffee trade in Ethiopia is free. If so, since it is now known that the government is actually dictating the coffee trade, shouldn’t it compensate exporters and farmers for the money they lost due to the mandatory export? That is exactly what the governments of Colombia and Brazil did in 2007 . These governments subsidized coffee growers for the price differential when the rally in the local currency eroded export profits. After all, why should citizens be responsible for the government’s inability to create favorable sources of foreign exchange or limit its needs for it? This legal exploitation of poor farmers is exacerbated by ECX’s new system because the system eliminates direct trade – the only system that pays farmers extra pennies for their hard work – and gives the government more power and means to control the value chain.
In recent years, the increased demand for Specialty coffee opened up opportunities for farmers that grow the finest coffees. Importers sourcing single origin coffee often pay farmers premium prices over NYMEX prices for the highest quality. Specialty coffee importers make direct contacts with growers to ensure the highest possible level of quality and integrity for the coffee beans they want to buy. The introduction of ECX’s hasty coffee trade system, however all but eliminates this direct trade between importers and farmers. The only farmers that are allowed to bypass the exchange are cooperatives and commercial farms. Since only less than 10% of the farmers are organized in cooperatives, the new system subjects the individual farmers to adverse competition. These farmers are now allowed to sell their produce at the NYMEX commodity prices only.
On top of this, the government commands the majority sit in ECX’s Board of Directors. Currently, only 18% (2 out of 11) of the directors are private business owners; the rest represent government interests. The parastatals, Guna Trading and Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise are now the most influential forces in the market as they enjoy preferential policy treatment over their competitors. Granted, these parastatals will use their leverage to lower their purchasing prices in order to maximize their profits.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how ECX maintains synergy and serve as a fair and free marketplace to all.
Commodity exchange for coffee
The former coffee auction system has been functioning very well and successfully operated in three successive governments. It would have been wise to enhance the existing system rather than starting one from the scratch. For that matter, the auction was prepared to make gradual upgrades to an electronic warehouse receipt system and eventually to a forward trade. The decision to replace the auction by ECX was completely political and not in the best interest of the sector. The government’s allegation that some of the suppliers and exporters had diverted coffee beans meant for export to local markets or that they hoarded coffee stocks in search of better prices is an excuse. Smuggling will continue to be a problem as long as there exists price disparity between local and export markets. Replacing the auction centers by ECX won’t solve the root causes of the problem.
In countries where coffee is traded in a commodity exchange, coffee trade is conducted separate from other agricultural commodities. In Uganda, the operation of electronic warehouse receipt system and coffee exchange are supported by a two independent institutions: the Uganda Commodity Exchange (UCE) and Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA). These institutions work together to promote a fair and transparent exchange. In Kenya, the coffee exchange is an independent operation that is managed by an association of direct stakeholders. The Kenya Coffee Producers and Traders Association (KCPTA) owns and manages the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE). Another unique feature of the NCE is that it has a separate and smooth direct sale operation for Specialty coffee where marketing agents directly negotiate with foreign buyers. This system, also known as the “Second Window” is separate from bulk commodity trading.
To fix the problems with ECX, first, the coffee exchange needs to be separated from ECX’s broader functions as an agricultural commodity exchange and it should allow full participation of the stakeholders (from farmers to exporters.) Second, to take advantage of the price differential for Specialty coffees, and until most of the farmers are organized in cooperatives, the exchange ought to allow individual farmers to transact freely and directly with ultimate buyers who will enter into agreements with farmers and limit ECX’s role as a third-party certifier to coffee stocks that are not associated with such a direct buyer. Lastly, to do away with the problems associated with coffee smuggling and to encourage the production of high quality coffee, the government ban on domestic trade that requires selling export grade coffee at a loss should be lifted or accompanied by monetary incentives from the government.
1. A charity falls out with a coffee chain, November 7, 2006, Economist.com
2. Venezuela prepares to nationalize coffee companies, September 17, 2009, Forbes
3. Brazil to aid Arabica coffee growers as price drops, June 1, 2007, Bloomberg