The forests in Limu Kossa are dense, covering almost 40% of the district. You will find large specimens of acacia, African teak, Sudan teak, and other indigenous trees, including the native coffee of the region. The farmers of the Debelo Cooperative harvest their forest coffee from these local varietals on plots of land ranging from half a hectare to five hectares in size.
The Debelo Cooperative’s 828 smallholders are spread out over three neighboring kebeles: Debelo, Mendera, and Chakaw, all found in the Limu Kossa district of western Ethiopia. The district is home to several rivers, lakes, and forests, at altitudes ranging from 1200 to 3020 meters above sea level. The Debelo farmers grow their coffee at just below 1800 meters. Whether it is the soil, the air, the forest, or a combination of all three, the coffee from this area is rich in flavor.
The Debelo Cooperative came to life in 2011. Solomon W/Gabriel, the financial head of the cooperative, explains, “We started the cooperative because, at the time, there were only a few privately-owned mills in the area. They would buy farmer’s coffee at low prices. We formed the cooperative because we did not have a way to sell our coffee at a decent rate.”
Even with good coffee trees and ideal growing conditions, much of what determines coffee’s quality happens after the harvesting stage. This was something that the Debelo Cooperative initially struggled with. When they began operations, their coffee was only grade three or grade four in quality.
Realizing their coffee had vast untapped potential, the cooperative decided to invest in training and quality control. The cooperative purchased a vehicle to transport cherries from farmers’ fields to the wet mill, ensuring picked cherries made it to the mill as soon as possible and saving farmers an arduous trip to the mill.
They hired experts to train farmers and temporary help during harvest season. Then, they started using only fresh spring water at their wet mill and began monitoring its cleanliness and quality. The cooperative also formed a committee of trained personnel tasked with overseeing the picking at farms and the processing at their wet mills.
Because of the tighter control ensuring that everyone involved adhered to the essential quality control steps, there was a vast improvement in coffee quality. Now, instead of its previous grade three or grade four quality, Debelo’s coffee is grade one or grade two, commanding a higher rate in the market.
The Debelo cooperative began operations in 2011 with a pulper and a debt to pay. Two years later, they had paid off the initial debt; and in the two years that followed, the cooperative purchased another pulper. Two years ago (2018), they sold 500,000 kilos of washed coffee.
“We would like to increase our sales to 600,000 kg of washed coffee and beyond”, says Solomon. But to make that a reality, the Debelo cooperative must overcome a few hurdles.
Firstly, there is a shortage of shade nets and this can lead to coffee over-drying. The cooperative is working with the Limu Innara union (a union of several of the coffee cooperatives in the Limu Zone) to arrange sufficient shade nets for future harvests.
Second, the cooperative has a shortage of manpower at the wet mill, so drying takes longer than strictly necessary because there are not enough people to rake all the beans at a faster pace. The last issue the Debelo cooperative must overcome is a shortage of liquid cash.
Because it takes some time for coffee sales to finalize and cash to flow in, they have to pay more interest on loans. Solomon believes this is the biggest challenge the cooperative faces right now, saying, “If we find a solution to this problem, we can overcome our financial struggles.”