Tebabu 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.

Tebabu-Assefa
"I hope Blessed Coffee can do for Takoma Park what Starbucks did for Seattle," says Tebabu Assefa, with wife Sara Mussie.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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