ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (ILO Online) – When an ILO mission arrived in Ethiopia in 1993 to introduce a newly-launched cooperative reform and human resource development programmes, it found a country with hundreds of thousands of displaced people and demobilized soldiers, a weakened economy, food insecurity and rampant unemployment and a cooperative movement.
This movement was among those bearing the scars from the previous 14 years. Based on past experience, cooperatives were perceived as socialist institutions and instruments of state oppression. Fourteen years later, all that has changed.
On the top floor of an office block in the centre of Addis Ababa, Tadesse Meskela, General Manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union is working. As his farmers strive to harvest some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, Tadesse travels the world to find buyers who will pay his farmers a fair price.
Tadesse represents 115 cooperatives and the livelihoods of over 100,000 coffee farmers. Including family members, this group amounts to more than half a million people. His relentless determination and drive to help them comes from his upbringing.
The manager comes from a poor family outside Addis Ababa. For many years, his family couldn’t afford to buy him a pair of shoes or give him a packed lunch for school. Determined to find a way out of poverty, Tadesse worked hard at school until he won a place at university. By the early 1990s he was working as a senior expert in the state Agricultural Bureau and after a two-month co-operative training placement in Japan, developed a co-operative union system as a way for farmers to retain the huge sums of money being paid out for the services of middlemen and exporters.
The Cooperative Union was established in 1999 named after the Oromia region in Ethiopia: 65 percent of the country’s coffee production is from this region. So far, nearly 102,950 farmer members have organized into 115 cooperatives.
The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union exports coffee to the European Union (EU), the United States and Australia. It has negotiated fair trade deals with coffee dealers in some of the EU countries, set up coffee shops in the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Canada and is vigorously promoting organic coffee farming for added value. Now, it is promoting eco-tourism in the coffee growing areas as well.
By working together, farmer members are able to pool their resources. This democratic system benefits individual farmer members and their communities. Since 1999, the Union has facilitated the building of four new schools, 17 additional classrooms, four health centres and two clean water supply stations.
The experience from Oromia is being replicated in the rest of Ethiopia where a rapid development of the cooperative movement is taking place. Primary cooperatives societies are multiplying the coffee farmers’ experience in practically all sectors of the economy.
“Cooperatives in Ethiopia have come a long way from that day in November 1993 when an ILO mission went to the country to discuss the promotion of cooperatives”, says Hagen Henry, chief of the ILO’s Cooperative Branch. “Working closely with the responsible government institutions, the ILO organized study visits and training, including special programmes for women and youth.”
In 2001, the ILO received an award from the Government of the Regional State of Oromia in recognition of the support given in promoting cooperatives in the region during the previous seven years.
Ethiopia’s cooperative programme reflects a wider process of reform internationally as cooperatives recreate themselves through member empowerment and increased commercial viability. The ILO’s promotion of Cooperatives Recommendation No. 193, agreed in 2002, provides the global framework for this reform.
Today, cooperatives range from small-scale to multi-million dollar businesses across the globe, employ some 100 million women and men and have more than 800 million individual members. Cooperatives play an important role in integrating unprotected workers in the informal economy into mainstream economic life.
“Cooperative enterprises worldwide help to make fair globalization a reality”, says Mr. Henry. “Issues like gender equality, HIV/AIDS, child labour, youth employment, conflict resolution and crisis response, poverty reduction, and formalizing the informal economy are addressed by cooperatives in ILO programmes. It is therefore not surprising that among international organizations the largest programme worldwide for the promotion of cooperatives exists at the ILO.”