01/08/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2012

Abyssinian Baptist Church In Harlem Lays Hands On Ethiopian Village

The Rev. Nicholas Richards, an assistant minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y., has traveled to the village of Chaffee Jenette in the eastern highlands of Ethiopia five times in less than two years. And each time he is as uplifted as he is heartbroken.

Life in the highlands can be extremely tough. Chaffee Jenette is a remote, coffee-growing village where women and young girls routinely walk four hours to fetch fresh water to cook and bathe. There are no paved roads, and during the rainy season the place fills like a soup bowl, keeping the children from school for weeks on end. Pregnant women sometimes die while walking along the long, dusty road to the nearest hospital.

The average annual income is only about $400, most of which derives from farming or is squeezed from the prized coffee beans that grow throughout the region.

And it is coffee, the second-most traded commodity in the world behind oil, that keeps bringing Richards back to the village. Richards is the president and co-founder of the Abyssinian Fund, the church's international aid and development arm. The Abyssinian Fund launched in 2010 with a mission to improve the quality of the farmers' lives by helping them to improve the quality of their coffee beans. While Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and its beans are among the most prized on the world market, the farmers make little more than $1 a day.

The Abyssinian Fund is the only non-governmental organization in Ethiopia founded by an African-American church, according to Ethiopian officials. The connection between the church and Ethiopia runs extremely deep: Abyssinian takes its name from Abyssinia, a historical name for Ethiopia. The church was founded in 1808 by free blacks and Ethiopian merchant seamen who formed their own congregation rather than worship as part of a segregated one.

The fund has teamed with a co-op of 700 coffee farmers in the region to purchase equipment and offer specialized training. By helping the farmers produce a higher quality product, the hope is to make them more competitive on the global coffee market. As the co-op's income increases, some of the money will be directed to a fund that will support local development projects like health clinics, roads and schools.

"People are struggling, but they are also trying to better themselves," Richards said. "They are people who are worth investing in. They really are on the cusp of development, what we see ourselves as doing is giving them just that extra push."

"Very satisfied with the progress we've made. The ball has definitely moved from a concept to us actually on the ground training the farmers," said Rev. Calvin Butts III, the head minister at Abyssinian.

But fundraising continues to be a concern. The fund has relied largely on its own congregation for financial support. They have also held Ethiopian art sales and received some funding from Unicef, as well as the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which awarded Richards a Hidden Heroes Award for his work with the fund.

"I think it's just getting them to know about what we are doing," said Butts. "I think the more that people understand what we are doing, the more they will invest."

So far, the Aby Fund, as Richard calls it, has spent about $150,000 in Chaffee Jenette. Most of that money has gone into establishing the ground operation there, hiring Ethiopian staff and conducting trainings.

The trainers teach planting and harvesting techniques and teach farmers how to select only the choicest coffee beans. Often, the value of the farmers' product is diminished by picking beans prematurely, and poor storage and harvesting practices. In March, the organization plans to build a coffee bean nursery for about 50,000 seeds, to protect against a disease that is killing off much of the local crop.

The fund will also provide equipment, including scissors, shears and mechanized pickers. Many farmers still pick their crops with their bare hands, the way their ancestors have for centuries.

Richards said he hopes to marry charity with capitalism and eventually to brand and sell the co-op's coffee to major coffee companies.

The early training sessions were mostly filled with lifelong farmers, men in their 50s whose families have been harvesting the prized, green coffee beans for hundreds of years. But Richards, who spent two weeks in November and early December observing the sessions and checking on the project's progress, said that more young people, about half of them women, have attended the recent training sessions.

"Now it's a younger group of people being taught, and the impact can be that much more lasting," Richards said. "They probably will be able to bring another level of sophistication, and will be able to go to more trainings and have the energy to really apply what they've learned to practice."

Richards said what they hope to pull off in the village, and with those farmers, is anything but charity.

"It's not just good will and never-ending charity," he said. "We strongly believe that with just a little support from us, these farms can take total control of their future."

Demeke Hailu, the Abyssinian Fund's project coordinator in Ethiopia, said that 85 percent of the population is directly dependent on agricultural work. He said the resources and technical knowledge the farmers are getting through the fund has been life-changing.

"It is like being reborn," Hailu said.

During Richard's trip, he said he rose early and wandered the village before the training sessions for the day began. He said more than anything, he had to balance his appreciation of the beauty of the place and the people with their poverty.

"They're not looking to have all the things that we have and that we value. They have their own quality of life and their own way of life," he said. "But the thing about poverty is that you can become numb to it because it's so much in your face in Ethiopia. But you have to fight against that: You can't ignore the children or women begging in the street, you have to see them and do something about it."

Richards continued: "It's not just charity and raising money to do something, it's how do we bring investments and infrastructure to Africa to develop the local economy."

All photos courtesy of Abyssinian Fund.