Hugh Jackman explains how coffee and a technology that burns manure can help change the world

By Hugh Jackman , written on September 10, 2013

From The News Desk

Most PandoDaily readers, I assume, accept the idea that technology can make our lives better. We lionize companies like Google, Twitter, Intel, Apple, and Microsoft. We applaud CEOs as celebrities, and, as was the case with Steve Jobs, mourn their passing. We carry devices in our pockets packed with more computing power than the computers onboard Apollo 11, when man first stepped foot on the moon. We greet new product launches like our grandfathers and great grandfathers welcomed conquering heroes in the 1930s, with relentless blog and media coverage the equivalent of ticker-tape parades up Broadway.

All of this is, of course, a decidedly first-world attitude and philosophy. But what about the majority of the world’s people who live at either subsistence levels or in poverty? Half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 80 percent get by on less than $10 a day. More than 1 billion people live without adequate access to water, and in Africa alone people devote 40 billion hours every year walking for water. Meanwhile deforestation is crippling the environment in large tracts of the continent, as well as Asia and Latin America, partly due to the burning of wood for fuel, as well as grazing cattle.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Can technology help?

Yes, as long as it is combined with smart implementation and planning. I learned this firsthand when I began investing in fair trade coffee from Ethiopia, the place where coffee was first discovered and which remains a large part of the nation’s trade.

You might think of Ethiopia, as I did, as a place of famine, when in 1984 haunting images of starving people were broadcast into the living rooms of millions of Americans. When I recently traveled to the coffee-producing Kochere district, however, I was struck by the beautiful countryside. And as we ventured south, it became even greener and lusher.

I learned that 30 years ago, aid organizations focused on emergency relief. Since then, there has been a profound shift. Now the emphasis is on preventative measures, to support community development so that aid may not be needed when the next crisis hits. Indeed, it could help avert it. Among other things, what was needed was a way to help the ecology of the region.

On my journey, I met Assefa Tofu, a World Vision Community Development Specialist, who has made it his mission to find out what a community needs and help them achieve their goals. It sounds simple, but it’s not. He’s had to confront massive problems like deforestation, which you might think would be beyond the ability of one man. But Assefa is not just any man.

From him I learned that 84 percent of the country burns wood for energy, and this has stripped bare vast sections of Ethiopian countryside. Yet in the south, where there is coffee farming, the land is lush and beautiful.

That’s because there is an economic imperative to saving trees.

Why? Because coffee requires shade.

And this led to the implementation of a special kind of technology – and not the kind that you’ll find on your iPhone.

I’m talking about an alternative fuel to wood and a system to transform it into energy, something that is plentiful, so it is cheap and burns relatively cleanly.

No, not cold fusion or hydrogen fuel cells. I’m referring to manure.


In this coffee-rich section of Ethiopia, they are converting livestock manure into clean methane gas for cooking and lighting, which has not only helped small farms but also reduced respiratory illnesses in children who otherwise grow up in smoke filled huts.

I was struck how this single innovation has resulted in radically better circumstances, lifted the hope and happiness of families, and found expression in the quality of the coffee. The resilience, efficiency, and excellence of the farming were truly inspiring. I began to see how their quality of life is linked to the quality of their coffee. I found it remarkable how a little investment in sustainable practices could make lives, the environment, local economies, and products better in tangible ways.

I witnessed such a transformation firsthand, through a 27-year-old coffee farmer named Dukale. I watched as he shoveled cow manure into some kind of underground cistern. The methane gas built up and was piped into a hut and powers a gas-like burner. Because he no longer must depend on wood for fuel or ship in petroleum products over badly rutted roads, Dukale is able to farm more acreage to devote to coffee farming. This allows him to have more crop, which means he can buy more land, hire more help, which provides employment opportunities, and his kids can go to school instead of toiling in the fields. And make no mistake. The coffee is very good, because Dukale can be a successful entrepreneur and invest on growing the coffee the right way instead of doing whatever is expedient.

And one community, Humbo Village in southwester Ethiopia, by restoring thousands of hectares of land, has reaped the benefits of a carbon-exchange program, selling carbon credits to industrialized nations to fulfill their obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

And all of this because of a methane burner.

Now that, to me, is the greatest gift that technology can offer.

For me, meeting Dukale was during a busy part of my life, and it stopped me in my tracks. It made me reassess everything that I was doing, why I was doing it, and what was really important. It doesn't matter where we come from. I'm from Australia, and I live in New York. If you ask me what the most important things are to me, I'd say my family and my ability to look after them. If you ask Dukale, he'd say the same thing. We’re really not that different.

So I couldn't just watch or talk about it. I had to do something. Although there are numerous grant and commercial options available, none provide the structure, access to markets, and long-term support necessary. It seemed that the best way for me to be involved was to start a coffee company. But my hope is that such a business will be part of something bigger.

Coffee in its ubiquity may seem a trivial matter. In fact, it is something that can tie us together and create a conduit to help us tackle some of the biggest issues the planet is facing – from the environment to global poverty.

Remember that the next time you savor a cup.

[Image courtesy furtwangl]