Forestry cooperatives for smallholders – Field research experience in Ethiopia

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Field work (©Hintz)

Selam!” (‘hello’ in Amharic). I am Kendisha, a PhD student from Indonesia and a research assistant of the WoodCluster project. After participating at the WoodCluster Field School end of July, I remained in Hawassa, southern Ethiopia, to carry out the first phase of my data collection until October. My research is about the potential role of forestry cooperatives in linking smallholder tree farmers to a more structured market in Ethiopia. Despite being there during the height of the rainy season, it was in the end chigir yellem (‘no problem’ in Amharic).

My research builds up on the previous MSc theses done under the WoodCluster project in Ethiopia, especially the value chain analysis of Eucalyptus products from Chefasine village, Sidama Zone. The status quo is that farmers sell their woodlots to middlemen or traders at farm gate as standing trees. Not every farmer is equipped with market price information. Farmers as individuals have less bargaining power when confronted with a middleman. This implies the need of a more transparent way of selling tree products, so as to create an incentive for tree growing in the long run.

Hence, it begs the question: What about a forestry cooperative which can facilitate small-scale tree farmers for production and marketing purposes? My field work focused on two main themes: 1) factors affecting the willingness of small-scale farmers to participate in a forestry cooperative, and 2) the capacity of an existing farmer’s organization to implement the tasks of a forestry cooperative (e.g. information sharing and collective marketing of wood products). I think, alongside with the UN Decade on Family Farming and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, cooperatives or farm forestry organizations in general -as an instrument to mobilize actors and upscale tree growing practices- are gaining their momentum.

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Field work team (village facilitator, a farmer, myself, and interpreter) (©Hintz)

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A Focus Group Discussion in Belamo sub-village (©Hintz)

During the field work, together with my interpreter and village facilitator, we began with Focus Group Discussions in each of the six sub-villages in Chefasine to get a feeling of their social fabric, and their thoughts and perception on forestry cooperatives. I then figured out a semantic issue: The community associated ‘forestry cooperatives’ with managing a communal forest land. A cooperative where members collectively share market information and market tree products would be for them a ‘tree marketing cooperative’ – pretty straightforward.

We continued with household interviews. When seeing a potential respondent, we’d first ask “Kereho selamete, Abab/Ima! Bahir zafe ey no?”, which is Sidama (the local language) for “Hello Sir/Mam, do you have Eucalyptus trees?”. We interviewed 185 farmers and purposively sampled those who have sold their Eucalyptus trees in the past. Key Informant Interviews were also conducted with actors from enabling institutions (e.g. Cooperative Development Agency), actors from wood trading (e.g. pole and timber traders), and actors from an existing farmer’s organization who claimed to be a cooperative and is interested to implement tree marketing.

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Interview with a female-headed household in front of her woodlot (©Hintz)

About three-quarter of the farmers claimed to be willing to participate in a tree marketing cooperative. However, there are challenges to start it; for instance, the lack of skills in silvicultural practices, lack of knowledge and qualified people to run a cooperative, and difficulties to get land in nearby towns as market places. Less than 20% of the farmers claimed to have received training in silvicultural practices. Two of them in fact acknowledged the WoodCluster PIP Workshop, where they learned the importance of weeding and pruning.

Farmers in Chefasine indeed have very small-scale Eucalyptus woodlots, which average 370 m2, while their total landholding averages 1.3 ha. Beside Eucalyptus trees, farmers also started growing Grevillea robusta, which is an increasing trend. Indigenous trees, e.g. Cordia africana, are also commonly found and are an integral part of the agroforestry system, as has been covered by previous research under WoodCluster. Farmers in Chefasine have learned from the agriculture extension, however, that to cut an indigenous tree is like “killing a baby of a family member”. Also, they mentioned that they have been trained to separate their Eucalyptus plantation from food crops, due to the effects of Eucalyptus on soil fertility.

Together with a local farmer’s organization, which stated interest in tree marketing activities, we discussed their experiences and their organization’s characteristics. The organization is relatively new, but with a defined structure. To my surprise, it already consists of 61 farmers from Chefasine and 3 other neighboring villages! Member farmers from Chefasine, comprising about one third, are from one particular sub-village. This was an interesting finding because throughout the household interview, farmers stated that they would prefer to cooperate in smaller groups and with those living in the same sub-village. They are the people they trust or can reach in a short time. It left me now with the big question I have yet to analyze: Does this farmer’s organization have the capacity?

After 2.5 months in Hawassa, I continued my journey briefly to Bahir Dar, Amhara Region, and the capital city, Addis Ababa, where I got to know actors from the “Zenbaba Bee and Natural Resources Products Development and Marketing Cooperative Union”. The union, established in 2003, has diversified its portfolio to market forest products, such as charcoal and poles, and is the first of its kind in Ethiopia. My next step is to learn more about them and their primary cooperatives in the second phase of my field work.

The most memorable experience about conducting interviews with household heads is the interaction with them and their family members or neighbors. Most of the time, the interview took place in their home garden, close to their woodlots. However, we have interviewed a household head while he was on an avocado tree harvesting (spot the farmer in the picture below!), or while he was transplanting Eucalyptus seedlings. Often they offered us grilled maize, coffee, or Kocho (fermented false banana). We were always surrounded by curious children, who would be surprised and giggling when they heard me say in Sidama “Shima, sukmiki ayati?” (‘little kid, what’s your name?’).

 

The main challenge during data collection was perhaps how the field work took place during the rainy season. However, growing up in Bogor, also known as Indonesia’s rainy city, it made me feel like home. In Chefasine, it used to rain mostly in the late afternoon, from 3 or 4 PM onward. When it rains, the road gets muddy and motorbikes cannot pass safely. Thus, this limits our window of opportunity to maximize daylight hours to do interviews. But in the end, it was doable to conduct field work in the rainy season by maximizing the dry hours between 8 AM and 3 PM.

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Interview with the manager of a cooperative of timber traders in Hawassa (©Koch)

To the farmers and the village administration staff members in Chefasine village who have kindly integrated me as a family: Galatema, Magano masiro (‘thank you, God bless you’). The field work would not have gone as smoothly without the discipline of my field work team, Deginet and Mamo. My interpreter, Deginet, has not only supported me language-wise, but he has also enlightened me on the culture and farming practices of the people in Sidama, as he is an MSc student at Wondo Genet College of Hawassa University and also a researcher at the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute in Hawassa branch. I’m also grateful for the key informants for their time and expertise.

I thank Prof. Tsegaye, Dr. Menfese, Dr. Dong-Gill from Wondo Genet College for the guidance and support. Gratitude extends to Prof. Pretzsch for the supervision, and colleagues at the Chair of Tropical Forestry for the support and feedback during the elaboration phase of the research concept. It was an enriching experience to have spent the field work stay with Alexander Koch, who conducted his MSc study on the downstream actors and thereby enhancing the understanding of the wood market. Also thanks to the guesthouse family and friends in Hawassa and Bahir Dar who made the stay very enjoyable, and the WoodCluster project for the funding of the field research.

Galatema for the people in Sidama, and betam ameseginalew, Ethiopia!

By Kendisha S. Hintz

 

 

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