Perched on a stool in a white gauze dress with gold, green and red embroidery, Sara Mussie burned frankincense as she roasted green coffee beans over a flame in her Takoma Park home.
As the scent of the roasted beans wafted from the pot, her husband, Tebabu Assefa, asked everyone to make a wish.
Mussie and Assefa see coffee — which they sell — as a medium to tell stories and business as a medium for change. In 2011, they founded a company, Blessed Coffee, to change what they see as a deeply unfair form of international trade.
Their next goal is to open a cafe and small roasting facility in Takoma Park, and they’re using crowdfunding to do it.
With crowdfunding, small companies or individuals raise money for a project through websites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter. People pledge to invest, and depending on the site, fundraisers may receive any amount of money pledged by the end of their campaign, or may only get money if they reach their fundraising goal. If the funding goal is met, investors often receive a benefit, like the new product they helped fund. In this case, investors might receive free coffee, art, or a dinner, depending on their investment level.
Mussie performed a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony as the couple explained their work.
Assefa said neighbors in Ethiopia gather daily after lunch in each other’s homes for coffee. They discuss community concerns and bless one another.
This legacy guides Blessed Coffee’s efforts as much as the tangible goals of creating more equal markets for coffee producers and high-quality coffee to customers. Assefa and Mussie call this concept of promoting positive social change through business the “virtuous exchange” model.
The pair became involved in efforts to empower farmers in the global coffee market after meeting Ethiopian activist Tadessa Meskela in 2002. They learned that farmers might make 50 cents for a pound of coffee beans that sells on the retail market for more than $10.
These farmers often can’t afford to send their children to school, or eat three meals a day, Assefa explained as Mussie brewed coffee over the fire in a long-necked ceramic kettle.
Initially, Assefa and Mussie wanted to make a documentary about the farmers’ struggle. Instead, they decided to spread their message and help more directly by starting a company to pay farmers living wages for their product.
“We’re using the business to come up with the solution,” Assefa said, “It’s not only a business — it’s also a movement; it’s a way of life.”
Blessed Coffee buys from Meskela’s Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union through a wholesaler in New York, as the local company is not big enough to buy directly from the co-op. The co-op is made up of 240,000 Ethiopian farmers and is built on the same values of fairness and quality from the producers to the consumers.
Blessed Coffee sells shade-grown coffee from the co-op to local restaurants and shops and at farmers markets. Shade-grown coffee is widely considered more environmentally friendly and, many argue, has better flavor.
The virtuous exchange model goes beyond the fair trade model by offering producers higher profits and investment opportunities, and focusing on the relationship between producers and consumers, Assefa and Mussie said.
As of Tuesday, Blessed Coffee’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign had raised $5,235 from 26 investors, toward a goal of $226,274. The campaign has about 30 days remaining. Blessed Coffee will receive all of the money pledge through the site even if the company does not reach its goal.
Part of the reason Blessed Coffee’s owners turned to crowdfunding, Assefa said, is their focus on community. They want neighbors and customers to take part in the company to show how a community can pool resources for change.
They also plan to use small business loans, community development grants, and investments and loans from community members to reach their fundraising goal.
The company turned down an offer of $3 million from an investor several months ago, Assefa said, because the point is not expanding the business in the traditional sense. The point is showing Takoma Park how many resources it has and the power of social connections.
“This thing was conceived and fostered” in Takoma Park, Assefa said. “It was possible because of the sense of community we have.”
Blessed Coffee is the nation’s second benefit corporation, under a law enacted in Maryland in 2010, Assefa said. The designation, now available in 20 states, gives social entrepreneurs who are pursuing public benefit along with profit added protection from lawsuits by shareholders. It also gives an official recognition of companies’ socially conscious efforts.
For Assefa and Mussie, coffee is a means for empowering farmers in Ethiopia and strengthening community in Takoma Park. Profits serve to further those goals.
Once Blessed Coffee becomes large enough to buy directly from farmers, Assefa and Mussie want to let farmers invest in and own a piece of the company. They’ve set a goal of expanding the company to 15 major cities.
In other industries, particularly in Africa, some of the world’s poorest people supply markets from resource-rich environments, Assefa said. Applying the virtuous exchange model could make a difference for cocoa producers in Ghana and gold miners in the Congo, to name two.
“The international commodity market has locked them in poverty in the Garden of Eden, and that’s very offensive, especially when the consumer doesn’t want that,” Assefa said of the coffee farmers. Shortening the distance between the producer and consumer is critical to making the virtuous exchange model a reality, he said.
Once its cafe opens, Blessed Coffee plans to donate 50 percent of profits to 15 local community organizations. The owners hope the café will be a gathering space.
“It’s community in a cup,” Assefa said.