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From bean to brew: a new challenge for cooperatives

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High-up in the mountains of South-West Ethiopia the mist mingles amongst the tree-tops. At ground-level, rich green foliage is abundant and plump red berries are ready for picking. This is the Oromia region of Ethiopia, and here thousands of families are dependent upon Ethiopia’s native crop: coffee.

Coffee beansDubbed ‘Black Gold’ in a 2006 film, coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world after oil. But in Oromia and across Ethiopia, smallholder coffee growers find this hard to believe: “What I understand is that people in your country drink it, but I receive nothing,” says one farmer. Coffee growers rarely get a fair deal and Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Union of co-operatives

Just over ten years ago, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) was founded and today, under the leadership of Tadesse Meskela it represents over 100,000 smallholder coffee farmers and their families. This union of cooperatives has turned around the fortunes of coffee growing communities in the Oromia region.

“Our members are benefiting from the profits made by the cooperative,” says Meskela. “Schools have been built, farmers earn a guaranteed price for their coffee and the cooperative can provide enhanced food security to farmers and their families.”

Such is the success of the OCFCU, more coffee cooperatives haven been founded in Yirgachefe and Sidama. Both of these regions grow unique, world-renowned coffee.

Fair Trade for co-operative Union members

Cooperatives have brought Ethiopian farmers direct access to global markets. Miju Adula is the Chairman of the Kilenso Mokonsia Cooperative: “We used to sell our coffee to exporters who would cheat us and sometimes they did not pay us at all. Now we know the value of our coffee and we receive profits from the coffee sold by the Union”. Coffee growing in Ethiopia doesn’t just provide export revenue; it is engrained in the cultural life of rural communities, who have been growing coffee for centuries.

Climate change and variable weather conditions

Access to world markets and a fair price for the coffee that Ethiopian farmers produce isn’t the only determining factor to the success of a coffee growing community. Like all agricultural producers, coffee farmers must hope for good climatic conditions each season; not too hot, not too cold and perfectly timed precipitation. Without these conditions, yields decrease, coffee quality is poor and the incidence of plant disease increases. Cooperatives have given their members access to fair market prices but can they support growers in the face of climate change?

For fairtrade coffee company Cafédirect, a recent winner at the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards, waiting to see how climate change affects their small holder cooperative farmers hasn’t been an option.

In 2007, Cafédirect launched a Public-Private Partnership programme known as Adaption to Climate Change for smallholders (AdapCC), with the German Technical Cooperative, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit. Together they have worked with cooperative tea and coffee produces in Latin America and East Africa to identify the threats from climate change.

“I have never known the weather to be so unpredictable,” says Willington Wamayeye, the General Manager of the Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative in Uganda which supplies coffee to Cafédirect.

“The coffee plants are badly affected – flowering is stopping. Last year alone we lost about 40% of our coffee production because of climate change.” With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicting rising temperatures and increasingly erratic precipitation across East Africa, coffee growers are at an increasing risk of crop failure and declining yields.


Through the AdapCC partnership project, small-scale farmers worked with experts to recognise changes in climate that threaten coffee production. Growers were involved in identifying low-input technological and management changes that can mitigate the actions of climate change. Such steps can hugely reduce the vulnerability of communities and ensure that they keep on producing coffee, no matter what the weather does. The ethos amongst AdapCC farmers is “the climate changes and I adapt to it!”

Adaptation can be simple, but knowledge about the changing processes is required. In the instance of climate change and predicting the weather for each growing season, meteorological data is needed, but according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), East Africa has one of the lowest densities of weather stations anywhere in the world. This lack of information makes predicting weather and climate in some areas almost impossible. But this needn’t be the case.

In a partnership between the mobile phone company Ericcson, the Global Humanitarian Forum and the WMO, it is hoped that by 2012 large areas of East Africa will be covered by weather stations hosted on mobile phone masts. This much-needed information can then be used to monitor trends and changes in the weather and climate. Companies developing partnerships with developing world communities and actively pursuing corporate social responsibility programmes can bring solutions to problems that have big results.

Partnership between small co-operatives and global companies critical for future

Back in Ethiopia, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union has successfully transformed the lives of thousands of coffee farmers over the past twelve years. Tadesse Meskela has huge ambitions for the cooperative, but he also faces new challenges as he strives to support over half a million Ethiopians who are dependent upon the profits made through the selling of its coffee. The answers to these challenges don’t just lie in smallholder farmers working together in cooperatives; partnerships with global private sector companies and non-governmental organisations will be critical.


The Wales Co-operative Centre offers support and advice to Welsh businesses looking to adopt a Fair Trade policy or start a specialist Fairtrade business.


Written by C Kenzie

July 1, 2011 at 9:08 am

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