November 9, 2011
From a team email sent on November 9, 2011 about one of the most challenging coffee farmer cooperatives we assisted at TechnoServe Ethiopia.
Busa Bechane was first identified as a client in 2009. They completed the client selection process and prepared a business plan, only to have it held back and then canceled at the last minute because of concerns over the wet mill site’s accessibility. It was 20 km off road and would be completely inaccessible during the rainy season, making wet mill construction virtually impossible.
In 2010, Senior Business Advisor Ansha Yassin proposed that we resume with Busa Bechane but start the client selection process over again. The first two attempts to achieve sufficient turnout of farmers at the “launch” event failed; but on the third try, quorum was achieved. A new business plan was submitted and they received a loan for a large wet mill.
One fearless Business Advisor, Natnael Andachew, accepted the assignment to work at Busa Bechane. Through Natnael’s hard work, a wet mill was constructed at Busa Bechane during one of the heaviest rainy seasons in history. To get to the site, Natnael had to walk on foot for 10 km, swim across a river, and then walk another 10 km over rugged terrain. He would swim the river holding a bag of dry clothes over his head so that he could change on the other side. It was a very difficult commute to work each day.
The wet mill was constructed after four months of hard work. An amazing accomplishment. It is one thing to get a bag of dry clothes across such a river – it is another thing to bring a 500 kg machine across it. But they did it somehow.
They were ready to start processing in October 2010. Then, disaster struck.A farmer – Abaznab – whose land bordered the wet mill site, refused to let the water channel pass through his farm. He had not objected earlier, when the site was chosen, but when it came time to open the wet mill, he put up a fight and made it impossible for the cooperative to get water to run their wet mill. (It is rumored that traders of unwashed coffees were behind him, paying him to block the wet mill.) The alternative would have been to get a large pump and piping system which was well beyond the cooperative’s financial means. A major dispute ensued. He was not willing to accept any reasonable financial compensation for his land. And so the wet mill remained closed. The cherries ripened, dried up, and eventually dropped to the ground.
The cooperative and farmers tried various ways of conflict resolution with Abaznab. He remained resolutely opposed to letting the cooperative bring water across his land. Eventually the community took a very harsh action and decided to ostracize him and his family. No one spoke to them; they were not allowed to participate in market days or other social events; even his children could not play with other children. This local form of punishment had little effect, however, and eventually the matter went to the court system.
The local court was able to detain him, briefly, and during this time the wet mill opened and processed about 2000 kg of cherry – about 80 minutes of pulping. The harvest was finished though, and 2000 kg was nowhere near enough coffee to cover their costs. As result, Busa Bechane was unable to pay any of its loans and had to raise money from members and other means in order to make its interest payments. But they did this, determined to stay in business despite all the challenges.
The case remained in the courts all year. Abaznab refused to accept any form of peaceful resolution. Finally, several weeks ago, the courts ruled against him and ordered him to allow the cooperative to bring water across his land. With this news, Abaznab turned red and assaulted the village chairman. The village chairman had to be hospitalized and the police came to arrest Abaznab. But Abaznab anticipated this. He took his family and a shotgun, left his house and fled into the woods. He vowed to kill the cooperative chairman, the leaders, and even our BA, Natnael. He remained wild in the woods for several weeks.
During this time, Natnael did not visit the site. The cooperative leaders stayed at their homes, afraid to venture out. The entire community was waiting in fear, hoping for his apprehension. The wet mill stayed closed and again the cherries ripened and began dropping to the ground. A police force and posse were called in to Busa Bechane to search for Abaznab and arrest him.
Today, they succeeded. And, tomorrow, we hope, Busa Bechane will finally open its gates and begin processing coffee.