We - Keswick and District Fair Trade Campaign - have had a friendship link with Choche Coffee Farmers' Multipurpose Cooperative, a Fairtrade certified producer organisation in Ethiopia, since 2006.
Choche is the legendary birthplace of coffee. It lies in the western part of Oromia Region, in the old kingdom of Kaffa, about 1 hour’s drive north of Jimma. Jimma is a bustling university city of about 150,000 people (121,000 according to the 2007 census). It lies about 300km, that is, 4 to 5 hours’ drive, southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Choche Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative is made up of farmers from 3 kebeles or peasants associations: Andode, Choche and Bulbuloo. In the early years our friendship with them grew slowly, but now it is a very significant aspect of our activities and also of our lives. Just about every year since our first visit in January 2006, we have been to Choche. To begin with our visits were made possible through the Oromia Coffee Farmers' Cooperative Union, whose General Manager, Tadesse Meskela, is known to millions around the world through the film, Black Gold. Our friendship with Tadesse started when he presented us with our Fairtrade Town award in March 2005. In 2008 Tadesse made it possible for two farmers to come from Choche to Keswick (see press release 4th June, 2008).
On two occasions when we visited Choche we had with us photographer Richard Human. Following each of these two visits, photographic exhibitions were held at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick in 2008 and 2009, and in 2008 a third exhibition was held in Choche itself. Many of the photographs in our picture gallery are from these visits.The story of Keswick Rotary’s involvement in the link goes back to 2008 when during a routine meeting in Choche we learned for the first time of the huge problem of household debt. Every year a significant number of farming families run into debt when the money from their coffee harvest runs out a few months before they receive any income from their next harvest – a period known to some as ‘the hungry season’. To enable them to get through these difficult months farmers borrow at 100% interest from private coffee traders to whom they then mortgage their next season’s crop.
Sharing our findings with John Howell, one of Keswick’s Rotarians, in 2009 sparked the germ of an idea, which was for Rotary to fund a micro-finance scheme to enable Choche’s farmers escape the burden of private debt. (Rotary International is committed to micro-finance as an important development tool.)
Thus it was that on our next visit to Choche in March 2010, John Howell was included. Over lengthy discussions, Shek Mohammed, the Cooperative’s Chairman, and members of his committee, were very receptive. What they liked about the proposal was that not only would it enable farmers to get out of the cycle of debt, but it would also enable them to sell their coffee to the Cooperative and thus benefit from the Fairtrade price. The community would also benefit from a larger Fairtrade premium. In addition the scheme would help to generate a savings culture.
About half way through our discussion, however, a second element to the proposal emerged from a group of women who, until this point, had had no part in the conversation. They proposed that the scheme should also benefit them by making some of the funds available for loans to set up small businesses.
After agreement was reached on both elements (advance loans for farmers and business loans for women), we then needed the Rotary Club of Jimma Central to be involved before we could raise it with Keswick Rotarians. This was necessary because any project funded by Rotary must have a local Rotary group to act as 'host'.
On our return, Keswick Rotary committed themselves to raising £10,000 from local, district and international sources. And they also accepted a £1000 contribution from Keswick and District Fair Trade Campaign.
Thus was established Daratu Muduga Savings and Credit Cooperative, run by the Cooperative, into which participants would have to save before they could borrow. Overseen by the Rotary Club of Jimma Central, the scheme has now been running since September 2010. It has benefited 64 farmers and 51 women. The businesses undertaken by the women have included the fattening of animals, the establishment of high yielding coffee seedling nurseries, and the development of honey production. One woman has set up a very successful shop.
Now more farmers are selling their coffee to the Coop, and benefiting from both the Fairtrade price and the Cooperative dividend. Cooperative membership has increased fivefold; the community as a whole has benefited from a greatly increased Fairtrade premium; and a savings culture has developed.
Over the years we have seen the increasing impact of Fairtrade on the community. In the early years there were improved water supplies and a simple mud plaster and wattle classroom extension at Choche Elementary School (grades 1 – 8). More recently a health post has been built for one of the outlying communities in Andode kebele. And most recently a new kindergarten has been built at Bulbuloo and a staffroom block in Choche High School (Grades 9 – 12) which is to open later in 2013.
Having said that we were quite shocked in 2008 to discover how little the community, including the coffee farmers and their families, knew about and understood Fairtrade. So in 2009 we funded three women to act as Fairtrade 'animators', whose job it was to visit every household to help them learn and understand more. We also encouraged the establishment of Fairtrade Clubs in both Bulbuloo and Choche Elementary Schools which are still going strong. (The Bulbuloo School club has over 70 members.) We have developed quite close relationships with both schools and have bought a computer for Choche and textbooks for Bulbuloo. Oxfam Keswick has also given microscopes to both schools and we have provided teaching materials and textbooks to both. Keswick Rotary are now planning to ship 30 reconditioned computers to Choche High School.
In spite of our close relationship with the people of Choche and the Rotarians of Jimma, we have twice been thwarted in our attempts to bring more of them to Keswick following the successful visit of two farmers in 2008. In 2011 we invited Sisay Alkassa, Director of Choche School, Shek Mohammed Abafita, Chair of the Cooperative, and Dagne Feyera, Chair of Jimma Rotary to visit us, but the UK Border Agency thought otherwise and their applications for visas were turned down. In 2012 refusal was repeated and we are extremely frustrated.
At the time of writing a new Rotary funded proposal is being developed. We have known for some time that even for those farmers who sell to the Coop their incomes are small, because their farms are tiny and their coffee bushes are old and give low yields. To earn more what they want to do now is to replace their old bushes with new high yielding stock, or to 'stump' their old bushes so that the yield improves. High yielding bushes can produce up to 5 times more than the old ones, and stumped bushes up to 2 times more.
But to do either of these would mean that some of their land would be out of production for between one and three years, while the new bushes or the stumped bushes are growing. And this would mean a loss of income which they cannot afford without help.
Keswick Rotary's 'One Million Birr (£35,000) Project' is aimed at solving this problem. Amongst other things, it will make loans available to farmers to tide them over until their new and stumped bushes start to produce; it will fund training for them in coffee bush management; it will support a programme to help unemployed young people become coffee farmers in their own right; and it will extend more loans to women to help them diversify their incomes further.