Standing at Fero Cooperative’s collection station, a steady stream of people with sacks of red coffee cherries perched on their backs lines up at the scales. A dignified man with tattered clothes carefully weighs the bags as another notes the weight and the farmer’s name. He tears off the receipt and hands it to the farmer, keeping a copy for the cooperative, and the bag gets added to the pile.

December is high time for the harvest in Yirgalem, Ethiopia, and farmers from the Fero Cooperative struggle to keep up with the ripening cherries. All hands are on deck as men and women make for the fields. Some of the children also lend a hand after school.

At the cooperative washing station, pulping machines are cranked up and workers are busy into the evening as the bounty washes in on trucks. A sweet smell fills the air as the cherries run through the mill and out the other side as slippery, golden beans.

It’s a scene typical in most coffee communities from October-December. But things are different here.

A different story

In 2011, when coffee prices approached US$3 a pound, nearly double the previous year. Money for pre-financing the harvest was scarce, and a number of cooperatives that lacked experience in managing risk in a volatile market were unable to buy coffee from their members, leaving them and their buyers exposed.

The effects of the volatile coffee market have not been as extreme for Fero Cooperative or its members.

“Last year people were getting 13 birr per kilo, right now it’s down to 7 birr, but people are still delivering their coffee to the cooperative,” says Hanto Hayesso, the deputy accountant at Fero. “People trust the co-op and deliver their coffee here because they know they will be paid a fair price.”

“They have transparency between members and the cooperative. The producers know the price and what they’re going to get and why. Management is also open to the members for discussions, which boosts morale among all members.”

The cooperative averted problems during the recent highs and current lows in the market through a combination of active risk management and providing services to their members, building trust and dedication over time. Strong relationships with their buyers, like Bean There Coffee from South Africa, helped too.

A model cooperative

Fero is a member of the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, a second-degree cooperative that brings together 39 primary cooperatives to market their coffee. Fero Cooperative was established in 1975 with 53 farmer members and at last count they stood with over 3,500l.

The rich volcanic soil and local heirloom coffee varieties cultivated in the region attract specialty coffee buyers from around the world. Most farmers in the co-op manage roughly four hectares of coffee with vegetables, fruit and grains interspersed. Their processing methods and management also attract visitors from other cooperatives in the Sidama Union who come to learn about performance and quality improvements.

Fero Cooperative became Fairtrade certified in 2003 and the cooperative, already known for its high quality coffee, attained new heights. In 2005, cooperative members used Premium funds to bring electricity to the city of Yirgalem for the first time. Premium funds were also used in part to build the co-op headquarters and washing station.

writing-header-ethiopia-profileThe democratic governance and environmental awareness, encouraged by Fairtrade Standards, have changed the way the community approaches coffee.

“Things are different with Fairtrade. It brings a big difference; we have a school, electricity. Before then, we didn’t have any of that. Before the cooperative, I had to sell to private buyers. Back then it was better to throw the coffee on the ground than to the private companies,” said Tadelech Gizaw, a coffee farmer and mother of 4.

Back at the cooperative headquarters, Hanto explains that the word ‘Fero’ comes from the word for a strong metal, iron. It shows in the cooperative where coffee farmers, united and working together, form a strong face making a big difference for their entire community.