According to Ethiopian legend, coffee was first discovered in Kaffa, western Ethiopia. In the distant past, this area was home to several kingdoms, including Limmu Ennarea, whose people settled in the fertile and deeply forested lands watered by the mighty Gibe River and its tributaries.
Only a faint memory of these ancient kingdoms remains – such as in the name of the Limmu Kossa woreda. It is here, in the gently rolling forested hills of Limmu Kossa woreda, that one can find the three kebeles (small administrative areas) – Dire Togo, Dembi Gebena, and Gena Dembi – that are home to the Shegole Cooperative’s farmers.
Many of the people who live in this area today are descendants of people groups that have lived here for generations. Another significant portion of the population includes those from other areas of Ethiopia that were prone to drought a few decades ago. The government helped relocate these farmers to more fertile areas during the 1970s, and today, you’ll find both the old residents and the relatively new ones working together side by side.
The 846 men and women who make up the Shegole Cooperative started working together in 2007. Like many of the farmers in the area, they had access to some of the country’s oldest coffee varietals and beautifully forested land perfect for coffee farming. However, they were crippled by a lack of training and processing facilities, resulting in coffee that was not of the best quality.
Also, traders would pick up the coffee at low rates, mix it up with other coffee from the area, and it would eventually make its way to the market, losing a bit of its unique flavor at every stage. The farmers were making a very small profit from their coffee, leaving them demotivated and financially insecure.
All this changed once the farmers formed the cooperative and took a loan to purchase their first pulper and set up a washing station. Understanding that proper training and care could help raise the quality of Shegole coffee to much greater heights, the cooperative paid attention to training its member farmers and continues to do so by arranging regular training sessions with expert agronomists. Once trained in how best to care for their trees and harvest their coffee crop, the farmers set to work.
With proper care and harvesting techniques, farmers soon saw improvements in both yield and quality. However, much of coffee’s quality depends on what happens to it after the cherries are picked. Here too, the Shegole Cooperative takes extra care to ensure that no outside scents and flavors affect the coffee.
This starts from inspecting the rented vehicle used to pick up the freshly picked cherries and continues to the washing station where workers are taught how perfumes and oils they use can negatively impact the coffee’s flavor.
Today, Shegole coffee is one of Ethiopia’s better-known specialty coffees. In the 2018/2019 harvest season, the cooperative and its farmers produced 60,000 kg of grade one and grade two washed coffee. The farmers now get paid almost four times what they used to get for their coffee.
Despite the cooperative’s incredible steps forward, there are still challenges that Shegole’s farmers face. The first is that the cooperative does not own a vehicle and has to rent one to collect coffee from its many farmers spread out over three kebeles. “Since it is not our own vehicle, we can’t control its movements completely”, says Seifu Khalil, Shegole’s chairman. If the vehicle tarries, there is the possibility that part of the harvest will not be suitable for washing.
Secondly, while the cooperative has much more control of its coffee production now, most of its sales are handled by the local coffee union. This can result in delays in getting paid – and that can be demoralizing for the farmers. Thirdly, the cooperative does not have space dedicated to processing natural dried coffee.
Lastly, many of the coffee trees in the area are starting to age. To counter these challenges, Shegole’s management is planning to purchase a vehicle, set up other sources of income for the cooperative and its farmers (such as a multi-use building in Limu that can earn income from rent), and establish a nursery for coffee seedlings.