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Former refugees help the jobless create businesses

GIVING BACK: Abiyot Shiferani (far right) and members of his team at a recent event promoting OCC

A GREATER Manchester company run by former refugees from Ethiopia has launched a scheme to help unemployed people in the region create their own social enterprises.

The Oromo Coffee Company, (OCC) set up in 2008 by imigrants from the Oromo region in Ethiopia, started a series of workshops aimed at helping people with a range of skills turn their ideas and knowledge into sustainable businesses. Every week, 12 unemployed people with expertise in areas such as bag-making and baking attend workshops where they learn how to write business plans, marketing, goal setting and the legal requirements of running a social enterprise.

The scheme will run until August and is backed by the Lorna Young Foundation, a charity that supports the foundation of community-owned ethical trading social enterprises.

Abiyot Shiferani, co-founder of the Manchester-based company, told The Voice: "We had been asked by a lot of people in the area how we had managed to create a successful business after coming to the UK with nothing and not being able to find work. So we thought it would be a good idea to create these workshops to help people in the local area who had specific skills and ambition but no idea about how to turn them into a business or a social enterprise. The main idea behind the course is to teach what we've learned by bringing our business experience and insights to help others so that they too can enjoy success."

OCC’s origins were similar to those of people attending it’s workshops. Around 250 Oromo families arrived in Greater Manchester between 2006 and 2008 from Kenyan camps under a United Nations resettlement plan. Although many of the new arrivals began to take English classes in a bid to settle into their new environment, finding work proved a struggle.


Despite the fact that many in this new community were educated professionals back in Ethiopia, their qualifications weren’t recognised in the UK.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, many in the Oromo community were adamant they didn’t want to live on benefits.

“Our culture is one where the idea of accepting government handouts doesn’t exist,” said Shiferani. “We wanted to work and improve our lives. We weren’t satisfied with depending on benefits. But because the qualifications we earned back home are not valid here, there was nothing we could do.”

In a bid to find work, Shiferani and seven others came up with the idea of creating a coffee distribution company. Coffee is central to Oromo life and is often present at social gatherings. The idea behind the company is simple. By trading directly with farmers, supply chains are reduced and thus profits for both Oromos in the UK and in Ethiopia are larger, enabling them to put the money back into their communities and create employment and training opportunities.

It’s a business model that is unique in Fairtrade, attempting to find a way around the structures that block farmers from being paid a fair price.

VALUES: Members of Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghanaian farmers' co-operativewhich owns Divine Chocolate

And the company’s story has won them a loyal customer base who value ethically produced goods and support from celebrities such as chef Jean-Christophe Novelli and Chocolat author Joanne Harris.

“It is about giving control over more of the supply chain to coffee producers,” said Abiyot Shiferani. “Ethiopian coffee, though some of the world’s best, is usually sold cheap to middlemen and the big profits are made by roasters and sellers in the west. The success of the company has led to us being asked to do these events but, importantly, they have been able to help us better integrate with the community, which helps our confidence and skills and business ability."

The Oromo Coffee Company’s success story is part of a business trend that has been growing over the last decade.

In a report published earlier this year from research company IGD for the Fairtrade Foundation found that more than a third (35 per cent) of UK shoppers said they have specifically chosen to buy Fairtrade in recent weeks, compared with 9 per cent who said this in 2006. Over 37 per cent said they would buy more Fairtrade products if they knew where the money is spent or how it made a difference to people in developing nations.

Fairtrade Foundation’s Chief Executive Michael Gidney .said: “The IGD research shows that momentum is building in terms of how significant consumers regard the ethics of the Fairtrade supply chain to be. We believe smart companies should respond to shoppers’ concerns by showing their increasing support for Fairtrade and communicating about their partnerships with producers. Fairtrade has always said that consumers do care and Fairtrade’s success in the marketplace shows more and more people are enjoying the more personal touch that Fairtrade brings.’ said Michael Gidney.

Companies are increasingly taking note and following the example of major corporations like Nestle whichin 2005 launched its Nescafe Partners’s Blend made from beans bought under the Fairtrade system. It was a huge u-turn from it’s previous position where it argued that artificial Fairtrade premiums made the plight of farmers worse by attracting more of them into the market and causing oversupply.

However some critics claim that there is a danger that some companies may simply enter the ethical sector to simply cash in on a growing market with little guarantee of long term commitment.

Charlotte Borger of Divine Chocolate, a fair trade chocolate company that is owned by Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghanaian farmers' co-operative, believes that such motives could prove disastrous for businesses.

“There’s a difference between companies saying this has got to be part of our marketing and them saying this is what we are” she said. “The two are quite often different things. If you’re going to talk about values, you’ve got to hold those values. You can’t simply just talk in the right language. Consumers are very savvy so if you are making claims about ethical values in the marketing arena, they’ve got to be true.”

According to Borger, recent cases like the collapse of garment factories in Bangladesh which killed more than 1,000 workers, some of whom were making clothes for western companies and the recent horsemeat scandal has put pressure on companies to respond to consumers who increasingly demand higher ethical standards.

“The horsemeat scandal told people they have no idea where their food comes from” she said “The supply chain is completely non transparent to them. The Bangladesh disaster created a sense of outrage that people just aren’t cared for within a supply chain. Incidents like these put a lot of pressure on companies and governments to ensure that social responsibility is much more at the heart of business, not just in it’s marketing. Consumers are increasingly demanding that this is the way that a business makes it’s money not just on what it spends it on after it makes some.”

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