Skip to content Skip to navigation

Nicholas Richards

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."

Abyssinian Pastor's New Fund Helps Lift Ethiopian Java Farmers Out of Poverty



Ethiopia gave the world coffee, one of the greatest cash crops of all time.

Yet the East African nation's beans are not among the world's elite, surpassed by Jamaican Blue Mountain, Kenyan, Philippine and Brazilian-grown brews.

A Harlem church named after Ethiopia's former name, Abyssinia, is hoping to change that.

The effort is the brainchild of the Rev. Nicholas Richards, a 27-year-old assistant pastor at Harlem's famed Abyssinian Baptist Church (

The church was founded in 1808 by American and Ethiopian seamen who left First Baptist Church in lower Manhattan to protest segregated seating during worship services.

Richards, assistant minister for Global Outreach, has been with Abyssinian since 2007. He's a 2005 graduate of Morehouse College and earned a master's in Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2009.

"I started here as an intern," Richards said. "I was the youth minister for two years. What has kept me here is everything about the church. It's a ministry that focused outside the church walls, on the lives of the people of this community, Monday through Saturday."

Shortly before he graduated from Union Theological, on a Saturday while Richards was preparing to preach at a funeral in the church, Abyssinian Pastor Calvin Butts asked him what he wanted to do over the long term in his ministry.

"I told him I wanted to start a nongovernmental agency in the church to head development projects to fight poverty," Richards said. "I knew it was an ambitious goal, but I told him Abyssinian was the most-prepared church institution to do it."

So was the Abyssinian Fund born. Run by an 11-member, volunteer board, it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) agency in June, 2010.

Hearkening to church history, Richards selected Ethiopia as the fund's first beneficiary. He was intent that whatever project was selected, it would mirror Abyssinian's development projects in the city by benefiting more than the benefactor.

"I spent a year after getting the green light writing the business plan and researching development in Ethiopia," Richards said. "I didn't want to do anything piecemeal, especially in the place where the church got its name."

Agriculture is 80% of Ethiopia's gross domestic product, according to U.S. State Department statistics, with coffee one of the main crops. About 17% of the land in Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, is suitable for raising crops.

A Gift in Harlem Helps Farmers in Africa



Harlem commercial real-estate manager Eugene Giscombe has donated a year's worth of rent to a new nonprofit devoted to reducing poverty in Ethiopia.

The president and founder of Giscombe Realty Group LLC, a commercial sales, leasing and management real-estate firm, isn't charging the Abyssinian Fund $17,500 in rent.

The Abyssinian Fund has a three-year lease for 542 square feet of office space in Mr. Giscombe's Lee Building at 1825 Park Ave. in Harlem. Established in October, the Abyssinian Fund hopes to provide economic assistance to impoverished communities in Ethiopia, but its main focus now is helping coffee farmers increase production and gain access to international markets by providing equipment and training. Coffee is thought to be indigenous to Ethiopia, yet the country has only a small share of the world's market.

"With additional training, they can produce some of the finest coffee in the world," says the Rev. Nicholas Richards, president of the fund and an assistant minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a Harlem institution known for its activism where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his son both ministered. The Abyssinian Fund is affiliated with the church but is a separate entity.

Mr. Giscombe, 70 years old, has traveled to Africa for 17 years to hunt game. His first trip to Ethiopia was in March 2008. Though he didn't interact with the farmers directly, his observation of their skill in agriculture left an impression.

"They had very well-kept farms in comparison to what I've seen in southern African countries," he says. "I've seen neglect as far as equipment and farm machinery throughout the countries I visited."

Up until this month when the Abyssinian Fund moved into the Lee Building, Mr. Richards and five volunteers were working out of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. He approached Mr. Giscombe a few months ago about leasing office space.

"Mr. Giscombe was the first person that came to mind," says Mr. Richards. "He said yes right away."

While the office space has helped the fund take on a more professional stance, it still has challenges recruiting donors and informing people about its mission. The group hopes to raise $300,000 by the end of the year to start training and purchasing equipment for the farmers.

So far, Kraft Foods has donated furniture for the office, and the Paley Center for Media donated space for an art event the fund held. Both donations were worth $15,000 and $40,000, respectively, estimates Mr. Richards.

Harlem Helps Raise Coffee in Ethiopia


The Abyssinian Fund will pay for specialized training and equipment to help the co-op's farmers produce a higher-quality product so they can be more competitive on the international coffee market. Once their income has increased, part of what they make will then be set aside in a fund to support local development projects, like much-needed roads, schools or clinics.

Mr. Richards, members of the fund's board of directors and congregants of the church said the mission was as much about social aid and economic development as it was about the church's desire to reach back and reconnect with its spiritual and ancestral homeland.

Well woven into the fabric of Harlem, the Abyssinian Baptist Church has a connection to Ethiopia that goes back to the church's founding in 1808 by free blacks and Ethiopian merchant seamen who refused to worship where blacks and whites were segregated. (Abyssinia is a historical name for Ethiopia.)

Just a year and a half ago, the Abyssinian Fund was a dream that had sprouted from a simple seed planted after Mr. Butts led a group of congregants to Ethiopia in 2007 to celebrate the church's 200th anniversary.

The fund was inspired by the group's reaction to the struggle and resilience of the impoverished Ethiopians they had encountered.

"Ethiopia touches your heart," said Dori Brunson, a donor and congregant who made the journey. "The villages were so simple, so lacking in the amenities that we are so used to, and at one point I just had to walk away, and I stood there and cried.

"Even though we were born here in America, we are part of that African soil. And because of what Africa has given the world and what they stand for, we must give back."

So far the organization has raised about $130,000, only slightly more than a third of its year-end goal. Mr. Richards has not yet hired any salaried employees or opened a field office in Harrar. Not a single training session has been held or piece of equipment shipped.

Yet Mr. Richards said there was a sense among supporters and congregants that they had crossed a threshold, having succeeded in formalizing the fund's status in less than a year to a recognized charity with a nongovernmental organization in Ethiopia and an office in New York.

"To see our plan being transformed from just some pages to actual brick and mortar is amazing," said Mr. Richards, sitting in the sparsely furnished, seventh-floor office, where Ethiopian art hung on the mustard-colored walls and leftover bottles of water and wine from an opening reception a few days earlier were scattered on uncluttered desktops.

The organization will operate as an independent but affiliated body of the church, much like the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which has helped create housing and prompt commercial development in Harlem, including a supermarket, schools and homeless shelters.

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and the green beans the farmers grow there are prized on the multibillion-dollar international coffee market.

Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil, yet these farmers earn an average of $1 a day, less than $400 a year, according to aid organizations.

There has been no shortage of aid money pumped into Ethiopia from international organizations and other nations, including the United States, which, according to the State Department, gave $4.7 billion in assistance from 1999 to 2009. But Mr. Richards said the Abyssinian Fund would not function as a traditional charity, as the farmers would share the responsibility for the project's success.

"We are going to try to the best of our ability to provide the highest level of training and the most necessary equipment that the farmers need," he said. "But it will be the farmers' responsibility to reinvest. Reinvestment is going to be critical."

Instead of providing financial aid or food to the farmers, the Abyssinian Fund will hire coffee experts who are specialists in the processing and quality standards of companies like Starbucks that are the chief buyers of Ethiopia's beans. Substandard processing has vexed the farmers' efforts to command higher prices.

The trainers will also teach planting and harvesting techniques that help farmers grow and select only the choicest coffee beans, and the fund will provide equipment like scissors, shears and mechanized pickers to ensure that the beans are properly harvested. Many of these farmers still harvest their crops with their bare hands, Mr. Richards said.

Mr. Richards said the goal was for the farmers to double their income in five years. Helping to improve the livelihoods of the 700 farmers in the co-op, he said, could result in better conditions for as many as 3,000 people.

The fund has had to tread delicately in Ethiopia, where the government has been skeptical of the motives of some foreign aid groups.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world, and has come under the scrutiny by human rights groups, the American government and the World Bank for what has been described as a leaky aid system, with accusations of governmental manipulation of food aid to reward political allies.

Reta Alemu Nega, a minister counselor with the Ethiopian Consulate in Manhattan, said the criticisms were the work of political enemies of the state. Nongovernmental organizations operating in Ethiopia "are not always what they present themselves to be," he said.

But Mr. Nega said the Ethiopian government supported the work of the Abyssinian Fund. "We know the Abyssinian Church," he said. "We know who they are."

Mr. Richards said he had to assure the Ethiopian government that the fund would not operate in a political capacity or meddle in local politics. If so, he said he was told, the organization would be kicked out of the country.

"There's very little concern for us about corruption because we have a direct relationship to the farming community that we are working with," Mr. Richards said. "We know the farmers. I've visited the farmers. I've talked to them, and I've talked to their leaders. We don't provide any cash. And that's a huge way that we mitigate our exposure to corruption, because there is no cash that is being provided."

So far, most of the money raised has come from Harlem, with donations ranging from $25 a week to one for $10,000. Other money has come from an art sale and gala featuring work by Ethiopian artists.

"Most of the people doing development work in Africa are not of African descent," Mr. Richards said. "To have a group of African-Americans concerned about a particular nation in Africa, and doing something about it, is tremendous. This is black folk helping black folk, and it is tremendous to me."