When the wet mills are in operation and scores of people are working washing, drying and sorting the coffee beans it’s easy to forget that there must be an owner behind the scenes, and that person is generally not the ‘Industry Manager’ who is overseeing the workers.
The wet mills in the Sidama coffee region are either owned privately or even as large PLCs, or have been established by a cooperative. The mills in the Water Wise Coffee program are a mixture of both privately owned and cooperative wet mills. For the coffee farmers there are some important differences between the two.
The cooperative wet mills are owned by their members and governed by an executive committee. The committee is made up of officials who have been elected by the coop members and are expected to operate with the members best interests at heart.
Farmers within the cooperative usually sell their coffee cherries to the cooperative wet mill, but they don’t have to if they can get a better price elsewhere. The advantage for cooperative members is that at the end of the season, once the mill’s profits become apparent, the members are paid a dividend based on how much coffee cherry they contributed.
The cooperative members are drawn from the local area and large, successful cooperatives may have more than one wet mill in different locations. Dobena Wicho for example, one of the cooperatives that features in the Water Wise Coffee documentary film, has two wet mills on the Kola river and a membership of about 2,600 famers.
It’s usually obvious from a cooperative’s general assembly meeting – which gives a chance for members to hear from the committee officials and ask questions of them – that the majority of cooperative members are men. But women can join most cooperatives too, and TechnoServe, the NGO partner on the Water Wise Coffee program, encourages female participation at all of the cooperatives it works with.
Private wet mills are typically owned by one or two individuals and are usually named after the owner. The owners can be quite wealthy – some even live abroad and leave the management of their wet mill to a relative or trusted employee.
Private wet mills usually offer farmers a higher price for their coffee cherries than that paid by the cooperatives, to entice them into a sale, but unlike the cooperatives they do not pay a dividend to the farmers once the profits are counted.
Whether owned privately or by a cooperative, the wet mills not only buy coffee cherries from the farmers, they are also employers. They bring in large numbers of day laborers during harvest season and typically also employ an accountant and guards to keep animals and thieves out of the wet mill. The wet mills are an important part of the local economy.
At the Water Wise Coffee wet mills the mill guards often earn some extra income tending the Vetiver grass wetlands that have been installed to deal with the wastewater produced by the mills.
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