Author: Jess Pernsteiner, Farmer Relations and Outreach Coordinator
Continued from Part 1
Day 2: Devling Into SCFCU
Fellow members of my group discussed Ethiopian coffees and SCFCU the next morning as we gathered our bearings to discuss the agenda for the week. Since 2009, Coop Coffees has been sourcing from SCFCU. With a current total of 82,000 farmers, SCFCU is the second-largest coffee producing cooperative union in Ethiopia. This trip was arranged to continue our partnership and collaborate in a workshop with managers and committee members from 6 of the 47 member cooperatives of SCFCU: Fero, Bokaso, Hunkute, Taramesa, Telamo and Shilicho.
Supply Chain: Coop Coffees purchases from SCFCU → SCFCU purchases from Fero Cooperative (along with the 46 additional grower-cooperatives in SCFCU) → Fero Cooperative purchases cherries from the farmers.
We met at the office of Fero Cooperative, with 3,913 male and 257 female farmers, is the largest cooperative in SCFCU. Totalling 4,170 farmers, and 33,360 beneficiaries (family members) the entire cooperative produces 2,500,000 kg (5,511,556.555 lbs) of coffee cherries annually. Fero itself is impressive, with 26 staff and many more on hand during the harvest season. The main assets of the coop are: 4 washing stations (referred to as pulperies by the members of the coop), 3 vehicles, 4 warehouses and 1 office. For farmers to join, they make a one-time payment of 120 Ethiopian birr (equivalent of about $5.5.0 USD). According to 4 staff members of Fero, also farmers themselves, Tadessi (Secretary) Argiso (Committee Member) Bakele (Accountant) and Hatya (Accountant), this price for membership in the coop is fair for the farmers.
As part of the cooperative, farmers sell their whole cherries (weighed in kg) to Fero. The coffee, if processed as washed, will have the pulp from the coffee cherry- performed at 1 of Fero’s 4 washing stations, and the bean is then dried with only the parchment skin remaining. After washing and processing, Fero Cooperative then sells the parchment to SCFCU. Of note, Fero only sells coffee to SCFCU, and all of the coffee produced by members of Fero is organic. If processed as natural (also known as unwashed or sun-dried) the coffee will be left in the sun to dry for weeks with the fruit of the cherry still intact. While this provides a delightful light, fruity and often floral cup, this process is less common, as this process takes more time, requires most of the space for drying and leads to a longer time for farmers to receive payment for their coffee.
Coffee will actually first be sent first to the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), which is a government entity that scores all coffees and regulates the process so that only the highest rated coffees will be exported. Once rated by ECX, the coffee will then be sent on to SCFCU for export. From conversations with my fellow travelers, this rating system by a government body is actually not common practice in other coffee-producing countries. However, as the 4 members of Fero Cooperative informed us, coffee is the country’s largest export, and the government strictly monitors to ensure the quality and reputation of Ethiopian beans.
According to Dame, who is a SCAA Q-grader, and responsible for Coffee Quality and Control with SCFCU, just this year, SCFCU has begun paying a premium price for the highest quality coffees (grade 1) to encourage the 47 member coops to emphasize the importance of quality.
SCFCU is able to track which of the 4 washing stations within Fero provided grade 1 coffees, but after that, it becomes nearly impossible for SCFCU, and even Fero, to track exactly which farmer’s cherries are coming from which particular washing station. While often based on proximity, if a washing station is full, farmers will continue on to the next station, in order to ensure their coffee is processed as soon as possible, to receive payment. Farmers will sometimes carry to multiple stations, so that tracking further down the line becomes much more complex.
Fero, as a cooperative, is arranged to share profit amongst its members. Within the cooperative, 70% of the dividend is returned to farmers and 30% is reinvested in the cooperative, for the purpose of expansion, investment and social services. In regards to social services, members explained that it may be used for schools and roads, but nothing involving health care, and when asked, it didn’t appear that had been considered for the near future.
This led to a conversation with the members of Fero, and further discussed with Matos, a producer, and Treasurer of Fero Cooperative. Stating, “you are buying our coffee, so we are happy,” he went on to inquire about plans and the expectations for farmers for the future. This led to an in-depth conversation about pricing and payments. Farmers receive an initial payment for the cherries they sell to Fero, and, if the cooperative is profitable, the farmers will receive a second payment. Receiving the second payment from Fero is directly dependent on the profit Fero receives from SCFCU.
We briefly discussed the price that Coop Coffees pays for green beans- including listing the difference for countries, ranging from $3.30/ lb for Ethiopia Sidama, $2.95/ lb for Rwanda, $2.60/ lb for Sumatra, $2.20/ lb for Honduras, $2.50/ lb for Guatemala, $2.25/ lb for Peru, and $2.00/ lb for Laos. Florent and Ellen were very direct and open about the prices paid for beans, recognizing that while the amount that Coop Coffees pays for Ethiopia Sidama is among the highest of all coffees, we shared with the farmers that we hope to be able to do more. We left the conversation open, and to be continued after the workshop on Thursday.
After completing the presentation with Fero, we visited a coffee farm across the road from the Fero office. Aberrash, the farmer’s wife, and 2 of her children were present. We were told that she and her husband have about 3 hectares (~7 acres) primarily dedicated to coffee, and that they have 6 children. She explained that they will be harvesting in about 3-4 weeks, likely in Oct. and will probably be hiring for help during the harvest. While visiting the farm, we were also able to observe the harvesting of an enset tree. Enset, or false banana, a plant endemic of South Ethiopia and is a food staple crop in the Sidama region. Nicknamed “false banana,” enset does not actually produce any fruit, but instead, it is the stem that is prepared and eaten. We observed the stem being shaved off, which will then be pulped, fermented and buried for 3-6 months to produce “kocho” which is sometimes compared to a heavy type of bread. Enset is also used to make “bula” which is essentially a porridge made from powdered enset, mixed with water. After the farm visit, we thanked the members of Fero for meeting with us and we traveled back to our lodge.
Upon returning, some of us decided to take a tour of the grounds of the lodge with Alamayo, a guide who works for the lodge. Alamayo explained that aside from being a staple food of 20 tribes, enset is a plant that can survive an extended period of time without water. It also provides necessary shade for coffee trees, and is found in abundance in the Sidama region. As we further explored the area surrounding the lodge with Alamayo, he remarked, “coffee is like a child,” referring to the time, care and effort farmers put into their plants. I found this a very intriguing comment, as I’ve heard a similar comparison from some of the incredible women of Las Diosas Cooperative, in Northern Nicaragua. Seedlings need at least 3 years to take root and successfully produce their first harvest of cherries. We had asked Alamayo the names of the coffee varietals in the region, and he said that he wasn’t certain, and that there’s a wide range in the varietals of coffee that are found within Ethiopia. He explained that the government has been working to develop hybrid plants, and some of the new hybrid varietals may be known by their identification number, but he was unable to give particular details of the particular types we had seen.
After the tour, we worked to finalize plans for the workshop for Wednesday & Thursday. Deborah from Coop Coffees, and myself were instructed to ask our hosts for a few ripe & unripe fruits, to be used to assess sweetness and acidity during the cupping portion of the workshop on Thursday. Afterwards, we were able to observe a coffee ceremony, performed at the lodge. Nearly always performed by a young woman, the ceremony is a strong cultural tradition that involves roasting the beans on a pan over a small charcoal stove. The scent of roasting beans is intermixed with the unexpected scent of incense, which is part of the tradition. Although the group of roasters in our cohort observed that the beans appeared almost too dark, the smoky, rich flavor of the coffee combined with the beauty of the ceremony made for some of the best beans I’ve had.