Participatory Forest Managing Coops

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

By: Chris Davidson

In the mid-1990’s, UK based NGO Farm Africa launched an initiative in Ethiopia guided by their fundamental principles: to “help farmers grow more, sell more and sell for more.” Sustaining natural resources and helping to end Africa’s need for aid are some other core goals, along with boosting harvests and market engagement. The mission of teaching coffee farmers how to produce more volume wasn’t new to Ethiopia at the time, but Farm Africa’s approach was innovative on several levels.

One example of Farm Africa’s progressive approach is the integration of active resource management with capacity building in coffee production, specifically relating to forest conservation. Coffee farmers are taught to protect and conserve natural forest ecosystems while cultivating coffee under the forest canopy. Farmers commit to sustainable farming practices in exchange for the instruction they receive. Through this commitment, valuable forest resources are preserved and farmers realize the benefit of elevated incomes from improved coffee production volume and quality.

Farm Africa’s program involved organizing smallholder farmers in groups they dubbed Participatory Forest Managing Cooperatives, or “PFMC’s.” By collectively producing commercially viable volumes traceable to small communities, the PFMC structure allows small farmers greater access to specialty coffee markets. Premiums from coffee sales help to fund the construction and maintenance of a central office, store house and drying beds for each PFMC. While there are 112 active PFMC’s in Ethiopia, most are self-sufficient and no longer working with Farm Africa. Eventual autonomy is one of the goals for each nascent PFMC, so this graduation is absolutely seen as a positive event.

In early 2016, Farm Africa approached UK based trade and development organization Twin about a possible collaboration. Working together, Twin and Farm Africa could develop concrete market export opportunities and advise on coffee processing with a selection of PFMC’s in the Illubabor and Kelem Welega zones of western Ethiopia. Farm Africa found that the quality from 22 PFMC’s showed particular promise. Twin carried out more detailed coffee quality analysis and advised on ways to improve the processing. Fortunately these groups also showed impressive dedication to the systems and methods taught by Farm Africa’s engineers, with willingness to do even more as resources allowed. This all led to a production of very high quality natural processed Arabica coffees.

In late 2016, Twin reached out to Atlas with a proposal to partner on importing and promoting PFMC coffees in the U.S. market. In early 2017, Twin and Atlas together visited a dozen of the PFMC’s in Illubabor around the town of Metu and in Kelem Welega around the town of Dembi Dolo. We were extremely impressed by the cleanliness and organization at each PFMC we visited. At each site, we were met by the managing board of the coop, given a tour of their facilities and spent half an hour talking with the board and farmers about what they want most from their coffee business. Not surprisingly, their comments sounded very similar to what roasters seek in a traceable coffee. These PFMC farmers are looking for long-term, sustainable relationships with buyers who value their hard work and will pay a fair premium for exemplary quality.

As of late 2017, all of the PFMC’s are producing natural dry processed coffees, no washed coffees so far. During our visits we saw cherries drying on raised beds just a couple of inches deep and being turned several times each day. The store houses were immaculate and odor-free except for the sweet raisin and tamarind scent of dry cherry. We’re finding the cup profiles from the Illubabor PFMC’s to generally have more citrus and tropical fruits, lemon, guava, mango and papaya, with syrupy body a bit of ginger and lemongrass. The coffees from Kelem Welega consistently have shown more ripe cherry, dark plum and prune flavors, with some dark rum and oak character that could be a factor of the cooler weather and extended drying times in the area. The spectrum of profiles from these neighboring PFMC’s has been really exciting to explore. We’ll have samples ready to send, so you can get to know them for yourself!

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