Head south on the Addis Ababa-Moyale highway, keep going past Yirgacheffe and drive through the otherworldly cloud-crowned mountains of the area, and you’ll eventually make it to the bustling little town of Bule Hora. Snaking away from Bule Hora are older roads – strikingly different from, and much more challenging than, the new highway that leads to them – that carry you on muddy paths to verdant hills and green fields. It is around this fertile area of Kercha district that Tsegay Hagos Tesfaye, founder and owner of Sasaba, has established two washing stations and mills that Trabocca sources from – one of which is Sasaba. Equipped with a large pulper and over 600 African drying beds, Sasaba processes coffee received from over 500 smallholders working in the hills surrounding the wet mill. Like much of Kercha, the small plots of land around Sasaba sit at high altitudes around the 2000-meter mark.
The Sasaba smallholders are a mix of Gedeo and Guji farmers, many of whom have lived here for generations, growing coffee next to each other. Similar to the rest of Kercha district, most of the farmers identify as Protestant Christians in this area. Their coffee grows on the slopes of the hills around Sasaba shaded by a mix of existing forest trees and those planted by the farmers, such as enset (false banana) trees.
The Sasaba mill makes it a point to work with the more experienced farmers in the area. These are farmers that have been well-trained and have proven that they consistently produce high-quality coffee. Working alone, it would be harder for these farmers to market and sell their coffee. In the past, they would have sold their freshly picked red cherries directly to private traders in the area at low rates. Now, the Sasaba washing station pays them a premium for their coffee (as long as it meets the quality standards of the mill). In fact, the coffee from ten of these farmers was individually processed by Sasaba and auctioned through the 2018 Operation Cherry Red Auction, earning the farmers even more for their produce.
Tsegay Hagos knows that the success of the Sasaba mill is closely tied to that of the smallholders. “Sasaba does not grow alone”, he says, adding, “We support our farmers and train them, so they can one day export their own coffee.” The company has a very close relationship with the farmers who it works with, always ready to lend a helping hand – whether it means transportation for medical emergencies or loans during the lean months of the rainy season.
“We are by their side, whatever happens”, says Tsegay, “and because of that, they are by ours”, he adds. This leads to a positive spiral, with both smallholder and mill benefiting from better coffee and better sales.