Deep in western Ethiopia’s Jimma zone, past the town of Agaro, lies Genji Challa. A small administrative zone that took its name from a person called Challa – once the governor of this area. The farmers who first established Nano Challa – one of the most successful cooperatives in the area – chose this name as a sort of challenge or goal for themselves. Challa meaning is “we’ll do better than the rest of Challa”.
It’s easy to see why Nano Challa’s farmers set their sights high. Many of them are second or third-generation farmers in the area – the children of hardworking farming pioneers. Their parents and grandparents came here from more arid areas of the country years ago when the land around Genji Challa was still covered in untouched forest.
Used to tougher farming conditions, these tireless men and women first grew other crops – such as maize, sorghum, and teff – but found that it was difficult to make a living from their farms’ produce. They slowly moved to other cash crops such as khat (an herbal stimulant) and coffee. “Coffee pays you back for your work,” says Taddesse Worku, an octogenarian who has farmed in this area for close to four decades. But this was not always the case.
While most of the Nano Challa farmers have 2 to 3 hectares of land, a few have smaller plots, and some have larger ones. The land – being close to the cradle of coffee – is perfect for growing coffee trees, with most plots at altitudes between 1850 to 2100 meters above sea level. Before the Nano Challa cooperative came to be, farmers sold natural sundried coffee individually to traders. But they did not make much from their coffee.
“Education and training are the best ways to help someone”, says Tilahun Mamo, the current chairman of the cooperative, as he talks about TechnoServe, a non-profit that helped the farmers of the area come together and form the cooperative. The organization advised the smallholders to set up a washing station and sell washed coffee. TechnoServe offered training – covering everything from farming best practices to information on how to run a wet mill and a business – offering the farmers a way out of their low-income predicament.
People were skeptical. It would cost 400,000 Ethiopian birr for the cooperative to set up their first wet mill. At the time (2010), that was an astronomical sum for the farmers. They would have to take a loan, put themselves in debt, and hope everything would work out. They decided to take the risk.
Sixty farmers grew coffee that met the higher standards of the cooperative’s new mill. They started with that, and in the first year paid back the loan and even made a profit. Almost a decade later, in 2019, things could not be more different. The skepticism is gone and there are now over 600 farmers in the Nano Challa cooperative spread over five Limu kebeles – Gure Dako, Gara Naso, Chira, Gendi Challa, and Kecho Anderaso.
The farmers get paid twice – first when their coffee is accepted by the mill, and again when the profits are divided amongst members. Their coffee is renowned by roasters and coffee lovers around the world. The newfound return for their work has given them even more reason to care for their coffee. Even those with smaller plots of land have been able to upgrade their homes from thatched-roof huts to more permanent structures and invest in other ventures, such as small stores.
Nano Challa is still debt-free and well run. The cooperative only has one major challenge facing it, and it is a good one to have. The Nano Challa coffee farmers have improved their farming and harvesting techniques meaning more coffee from the area meets the cooperative’s high standards.
Despite having set up a second wet mill, they now find themselves in need of a third one to handle the increased amount of coffee while still maintaining quality. Having seen their hard work bear fruit, the cooperative and the farmers are confident they will overcome this challenge.