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Coffee growers earn a better price, protect the environment

By Doe-e Berhanu
Berhanu Beyene (left) and his wife Aster displaying coffee cherries they picked from one of their family plots.

Berhanu Beyene, a soft spoken 45-year old coffee grower in Werka, Yirgacheffe, says what is good for the environment is also good for business. He calls the giant sycamore trees and the many other indigenous trees that so gracefully loom over his coffee field the guardians of his family's livelihood.

Ethiopia's finest coffee is grown in the shade of native trees, which allows the coffee cherries to retain their moisture until they are ready to be picked. Without the shade of these generations-old trees, the coffee bushes would produce bitter tasting, inferior quality beans.

Berhanu says he knows it pays dividends to protect the environment. "One of our family plots had its natural shade deforested and so the coffee beans that particular plot yields are not of the expected high quality," says Berhanu. "Our cooperative union will not accept lower-grade coffee to be sold in the international specialty market, so we sell it for local consumption and make less money from it."

To remedy this problem, Berhanu is getting technical support from experts at the local agricultural bureau to reforest the plot with indigenous trees. The agricultural bureau is providing Berhanu and others in the area with tree seedlings.

With the mid-day sun peeking through the canopy of trees and the birds calling in the distance, Berhanu says he is at his best when he is hard at work on his family's coffee plots. "You see, it is not just the coffee bushes that enjoy the shades," he chuckles as he makes himself comfortable under a giant sycamore tree. "After a long day's work, a little rest under the shade of these old trees rejuvenates my soul."

Parents to 12 children, Berhanu and his wife Aster have been growing coffee for the past 10 years. They depend on the income they get from growing world renowned Yirgacheffe coffee to support eight of their children that are still living with them and are attending school.

Berhanu and Aster were new to the coffee business when, in 2001, the price of coffee sank to a 30-year low and the global coffee crisis hit Ethiopia—the birthplace of coffee. Rather than giving up in despair, Berhanu and his family were determined to ride out the storm and come out stronger than when they started. Oxfam America was by their side as it led a global campaign to bring the plight of Ethiopian coffee growers to the attention of national and international policy makers, consumer governments, international coffee roasters and consumers.

The couple says they have come a long way since the coffee crisis, which threatened their livelihoods and caused a shock to the country's coffee economy. Gone are the days when they had to sell whatever meager assets they had to put food on the table. "Our living conditions have improved significantly," says Aster. "As a mother, I dream of even better things for my family, but right now, I am secure knowing that my family is well fed, healthy, and that my children go to school".

New Partnership

It was just a little over a year ago that 238 coffee growers in Werka came together to form a primary cooperative under the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. Soon after Werka joined the Union, membership shot up to 300 when word got out that Oxfam America was launching a project to support coffee quality improvement by funding the purchase of an eco-friendly coffee washing station.

As a natural extension of its global campaign and advocacy work to help Ethiopian coffee growers earn better prices, Oxfam America is increasingly investing in coffee quality improvement, focusing on eco-friendly coffee processing. This is one component of Oxfam America's effort to help cooperatives produce quality coffee and generate additional premium by selling their beans on the international specialty coffee market. The Werka project is one of three such projects that Oxfam America has funded in three different coffee growing regions of Ethiopia.

The funding for Werka and the other two cooperatives was made available as an interest free revolving loan of about US$ 150,000 each to be paid back in five years to be re-invested in another cooperative, yielding much higher returns on initial donor investment. Financing the equipment with a loan makes cooperative members accountable for the loan repayment and solidifies the fact that they are the real owners of the investment.

By utilizing eco-friendly coffee processing, the cooperatives will not only increase their income as a result of selling washed coffee but also address environmental pollution related to the conventional coffee processing method. In the conventional method the coffee pulp and mucilage are removed from the beans and get discharged into nearby streams and ponds where they decompose and deteriorate the water quality of ponds and streams that the local community uses for household consumption. The eco-friendly method of processing reduces the amount of organic waste from the washing process and cuts water usage by 98.5 percent.

Two Birds, One Stone

Members of Werka cooperative are eagerly awaiting the next coffee harvesting season to begin using their newly installed eco-friendly washing machine. They say having such a facility on site will allow them to kill two birds with one stone—increase their income by selling washed coffee and also in the process conserve the environment that is so crucial for their ability to continue producing high quality coffee. With minimum additional investment, the accumulated pulp and mucilage, which are organic by-products of washed coffee, can be converted into bio-fuel, fertilizer, and animal feed to boost the income of coffee growers; Oxfam America has plans to invest in such a pilot project in 2008.

"Producing high-quality coffee will give us the legitimacy to demand better price in the international market," says Berhanu, his fingers moving nimbly as he carefully picks the ripened coffee cherries and places them in a basket. "So, the way I see it, the Werka project represents the best combination of solutions—earn more for our hard work, while at the same time preserving the environment that we depend on for our livelihoods."