The residents of Bersoma kebele in the Gomma district of western Ethiopia are descendants of the old Gomma kingdom. A kingdom that existed in this region until the latter half of the nineteenth century before becoming part of modern-day Ethiopia. One of the five kingdoms of the area surrounding the mighty Gibe river, the residents of Gomma had a reputation, even then, of being good farmers.
Looking back at the history of the Gomma, it is no surprise, that some of western Ethiopia’s carefully tended coffee comes from these talented farmers. But, perhaps surprisingly, this was not always the case. Despite this land of gently sloping hills and high altitudes being perfect for coffee – and home to many native varieties in the region – lack of training and proper post-harvest processing meant that the coffee that was exported from the region was quite low-quality.
Then a devastating epidemic swept through the coffee trees in the 1970s, making things even worse for the farmers. Unlike large farms in the area, smallholders were at the mercy of private traders and suffered the most. “We used to transport our harvested coffee cherries on horseback to markets 10 or 12 km away just to get paid a birr or two for each kilo”, says Yazid Amabecha, the chairman of Biftu Gudina Cooperative.
Luckily for the farmers of the area, a non-profit was working on a program in East Africa to help train smallholders and support them in setting up cooperatives and their wet mills. One hundred and fourteen smallholders from Bersemo kebele came together to form Biftu Gudina; a Cooperative whose name means “ray of development”.
Work began from the ground up. The farmers started by planting new seedlings that were resistant to disease. They learned industry best practices; the importance of shade trees; how to maximize the yield of their trees; when to harvest for the best flavor; and most importantly, how to process the coffee after harvest. Taking out a loan, Biftu Gudina set up its first wet mill with an Eco pulper capable of de-pulping 1500 kg of coffee per hour.
When they first started in 2012, the smallholders sold one container of coffee. Now, this group of hardy smallholders has increased sales to eight containers of coffee a year. Biftu Gudina has also added a second machine with a greater processing capacity (2500 kg per hour). Taking note of how things were improving, other smallholders in Bersoma kebele joined the cooperative, growing its numbers to 296 (almost a third being women).
Biftu Gudina takes the following steps to ensure that its coffee is of the highest quality possible. 80 percent of the cooperative’s produce is Limu grade-1 coffee and the rest is grade-2; The mill only accepts coffee from members (who are all trained in industry-standard farming practices); its pulpers are modern; coffee is never soaked longer than necessary; a skin-drying table prevents damage to the seeds from too much exposure to UV rays from the sun too soon; and finally shade nets are used so the beans dry slowly, preserving as much flavor as possible.
The ray of development that is Biftu Gudina has already brought much change to the smallholders of Bersoma. “It is good for farmers to be part of the cooperative as the community benefits as a whole”, says Yazid. Besides the cash, they make when the mill buys their coffee (which is bought at a premium), they also receive a second payment in the rainy season when the cooperative’s profits are shared out. The cooperative paid out 3.4 million Ethiopian birr last year.
In addition to the premium, they have seen improvements to their community’s infrastructure in the form of better roads, schools, and medical facilities. As a result, more people are planting coffee now. But there is a disconnect between demand and supply. Combined with the drop in global coffee prices, this is a big challenge that Biftu Gudina faces.
The solution to this is twofold. First, Biftu Gudina plans to maintain the quality of its coffee, never compromising on that. Second, the Cooperative is working together with the Keta Meduga Union to market itself and its coffee at coffee exhibitions both in the country and around the world. The members of Biftu Gudina are confident in the quality of their coffee and trust that if more people know about them, they will find a market for it.