Wata Dara is one of the primary cooperatives belonging to the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (SCFCU), one of Ethiopia’s largest and best-known exporting organizations. SCFCU is robust; there are 53 member cooperatives in the union and over 80,000 member households throughout the Sidama Zone. Harvest in Sidama occurs slightly earlier than in the more southern zones of Gedeo and Guji, and as a result the fully washed lots from here are usually the year’s very first top quality arrivals from anywhere in Ethiopia. Wata Dara carries out activities that often go unnoticed but are crucial for small producers, including training producers in best organic practices and investing in basic infrastructure needs like road improvements and establishing local warehouses. SCFCU focuses on establishing a certification process for local cooperatives, creating micro-credit for producers and investing in social programs on a larger scale. Environmental training programs, healthcare initiatives, life insurance, and educational opportunities are just some of the ways SCFCU strives to improve the quality of life for coffee producers and their families. There are 2574 farmer members belonging to the Wata Dara cooperative, one of the union’s largest in both membership and output, along with the mighty Fero cooperative. Together these larger coops are some of the few sources of natural coffees from Sidama. Farmers in this area are truly smallholders, averaging less than a hectare of coffee cultivation each, in which they also produce vegetables for the household and local sale. Dara is one of Sidama’s sourthernmost districts,and shares its lower border with Gedeo Zone (also known as Yirgacheffe).
In processing, unlike in most of Sidama, Wata Dara emphasizes top quality naturals, and willingly invests in the necessary resources to pull this off. One of which is drying space: full coffee cherries are greater in volume than the seeds alone, not to mention naturals need to dry slowly in a single layer, which, when combined, necessitate many more raised beds for an equal output of coffee. The other is labor: Wata Dara employs over 150 people at the station to oversee the constant maintenance of large-scale parchment and cherry drying. Wata Dara was founded in 1975 and functioned independently, as did many coops and processing groups back then, for lack of a greater export network. This lasted until the late 90s and relied largely on a system of local collectors and buyers, who would then deliver consolidated cherry to processors or export auctions. The formation of cooperative unions in Ethiopia allowed for voting power and higher farm returns from the direct exportation that unions would be capable of. Certifications, as well, easily earned through the organic methods of Ethiopia’s smallholders and a conscious business plan, could be secured for price protection and marketing purposes, helping vast populations of smallholders gain small but meaningful leverage in the global marketplace that remains to this day.