There are few entrances to Guji--a distant and heavily forested swath of land stretching southeast through the lower corner of the massive Oromia region--and none of these routes are short, or for the queasy, in any way. Guji is heavy with primary forest thanks to the Guji tribe, a part of Ethiopia’s vast and diverse Oromo nation, who have for generations organized to reduce mining and logging outfits where they can, in a struggle to conserve the land’s sacred canopy. Compared to other coffee-heavy regions, large parts of Guji feel like prehistoric backwoods.
Ashenafi Woressa’s processing station, called Derikocha, is in Derkidame town, in the district of Hambela Wamena, which starts at the border of Gedeo zone (also known as Yirgacheffe) and runs southeast toward Shakiso. Historically even this part of Guji could be a full day’s walk from the nearest trading centers of Gedeb or Dilla to the west, which left many coffee farmers debilitated by lack of access to market, and cherry prices often less than half of neighboring Gedeo or Sidama zones.
Coffee farms in this part of Guji begin at 2000 meters in elevation and tend to climb from there. To exit Hambela Wamena district to the west, as nearly all the coffee must do to begin the trek north to Addis Ababa, one regularly reaches heights of 2600 meters or higher, and yet the scenery remains as fertile and bustling as anywhere. The highland farming communities in this part of the country can be at turns Edenic in their natural purity, and startlingly remote.
The gorgeous arabica genetics of this area, blessed by some of the country’s healthiest biodiversity, could be easily ruined in transit, or commodified and blended into lower grades as a result of the difficult geography. One way for farmers to survive these disadvantages was by having larger, more diversified parcels, sometimes 20 acres or more, with equal emphasis on livestock or other crops for local markets as on coffee. But the vast majority have always been small—2-4 acres only. Notably as well, cooperative unions, Ethiopia’s hallmark exporter organizations for small farmers, have little to no presence in Guji. Were it not for private washing stations like Kercha, local growers would have as their only option the sporadic, rogue coffee collector from Gedeo or farther, bringing rock bottom prices and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
Processing of naturals at Derikocha is a simple but painstaking process: fresh cherries are delivered to the processing site throughout the day, inspected upon arrival for uniform ripeness, size, and cleanliness, and then transported to raised drying beds for approximately 3 weeks. Throughout the drying period the coffee cherry is kept in a single layer and continuously raked to ensure uniform dehydration and prevent moisture from gathering on the outer skin and potentially molding the fruit. On most days the cherry is covered between the hours of 12pm and 3pm to protect the thin skin from the intensity of the mid-day sun. Beds are also covered each night, and during any sporadic rain fall.