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Cooperative Economy Works for Ethiopian Village

  • Marthe van der Wolf

The Ethiopian village of Awra Amba differs from other rural villages when it comes to beliefs, education levels and general development. Some think the cooperative economic approach of the village could be applied to other rural areas in Ethiopia.

Only about 500 people reside in the tiny village in northern. The community was established in the early 1970s by Zumra Nuru, who was seeking another way of life.

Four decades later, the community is being examined by government institutions and development organizations. The way of life there is based on equality and working for the good of the community.

Zumra Nuru, founder of Awra Amba, said the village is doing so well because everyone works for each other. He said they harmonize their work efforts, and that all the members of the cooperative believe they are working toward the same point, and that is why they are succeeding.

Growing economic base

The village cooperative was established in the early 1990s. Every member of the community earns the same annual salary. Last year the amount was 6,200 birr [about $300] per member.

While that seems low, 10 years ago there was only 50 birr [about $3] for every member. Incomes are generated mostly from farming, textiles, tourism and selling goods in neighboring villages and cities.

Members of the community work six days a week. Five days of work are for the cooperative, one day of labor is to support elders, orphans and those who are weaker. The last day of the week can be spent as individuals like.

Semenesh Alemu weaves textiles for the cooperative. She said the money that members of the community share, though, is still not enough. She said the money is good if you compare it with how she used to live before. But she works extra on her personal day to subsidize her family.

Cultivating younger generation

Another way Awra Amba is trying to develop the village is by actively trying to create jobs for the younger generation of university graduates.

Gebreyehu Desalo studied agricultural-economics and returned home to work in the financial office of Awra Amba.

“I don’t want to have a life that’s different from my community. I grew up here and they teach me throughout my life, and I'm working with them," Desalo said. "And I'm sharing equally as a member.”

Staying in the village means it is unlikely Gebreyehu will ever be able to purchase a car or a personal laptop. There is one laptop for the community, but one day the village hopes to be able to afford more.

Ethiopia ranks 173 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. But since the standard of living in Awra Amba is better than in other rural areas, efforts have been made to investigate how and if the approach of Awra Amba can be applied on a bigger scale in Ethiopia.

Efforts are underway to establish similar cooperative communities in different parts of Ethiopia. But this is happening without consultation with Awra Amba members and its founder Zumra, and it is unclear what the results will be four decades from now.

Interventions by outside development organizations in villages have mostly failed, as the needs of the community do not always coincide with what external players provide.