As our car moved from the congested Kampala towards the countryside, countless small villages, unobtrusive green vegetation and crops were spreading in front of us. Although Uganda is a developing country, there is no shortage of food or water: thanks to heavy rainfall, its location on a plateau and surrounding mountains, the climate is slightly cooler than the equatorial average, and its soil is very fertile. It has been said that any seed can be thrown into the ground here, and it will yield a harvest.
In addition to gold, coffee is Uganda’s most important export product, making Uganda the world’s 8th largest coffee producer. It invests heavily in the coffee industry by, among other things, supporting the increase in productivity and quality on farms and by developing the management of the coffee industry.
In Uganda, coffee is grown mainly on family farms. There are a staggering 1.7 million small coffee-producing farms in the country – about 42% of all Ugandan households grow coffee. The farms are small; on average only 1-6 hectares in size, and they are often located in families ’own backyards.
During our trip, we will be visiting three destinations: Kiboga, the main growing area of Robusta, the export hub in Kampala, and the Sipi area on Mount Elgon, where the prestigious and high-quality Sipi Falls coffee comes from.
Coffee is an important source of income for families
In addition to coffee, bananas, sugar cane or corn are grown on the family farms. Most of these so-called food plants are used by the farmer´s family. From the sale of the coffee harvest, the families receive money for compulsory expenses, such as children’s school supplies and tuition fees for secondary and tertiary schools.
Poverty is concretely visible during our journey, and many Western criteria prove absurd in this environment. For example, the farmers take care of all the work themselves, with little outside labor. The revision of employment contracts is therefore not very relevant. Our host Emmanuel Egaddu Amocha from the export company Kawacom, also gives an example of how an outsider had called for the use of safety shoes in an industrial plant:
“The employees had already been given several pairs of safety shoes, but every time, they sold them.”
Certification is encouraged
Obtaining certificates for the coffee farms is a multifaceted thing. Only about 2% of all coffee exported from Uganda is certified. In practice, however, many farms are already so-called organic because the farmers cannot afford fertilizers. However, official certification is encouraged because, although it brings some additional work to farms, for example in accounting, it clearly raises income from coffee because of the higher price. The certifications guarantee, among other things, better traceability and consideration of environmental issues on farms and in the processing process. The certification requirements determine, for example, the location of the toilet on the family plot: it must be kept separate from the cultivation area. During our visit, we saw great versions of the outdoor toilets, outdoor showers and hand washing facilities, as well as advanced water filtration methods at the treatment plant. At Kawacom’s mills, coffee beans are also dried with renewable energy – with dried coffee berry waste.
More productive farms and better coffee quality
We visited the Sipi area by Mt. Elgon, where high quality Arabica is grown.
Our partner Kawacom has a failrly new processing plant and thousands of partner farms here. Kawacom educates committed family farms in the area to better farming practices and, for example, sells tested coffee seedlings to farmers for a formal fee. Good cultivation practices aim to make coffee bushes more productive, and in many places the results are already visible. The coffee bushes grow in fine rows and shade plants have been left to protect them. Soil erosion is protected, among other things, by the leaves of the banana tree, and coffee bushes are regularly pruned to increase their productivity.
Some of the families we met are already very aware of efficient farming practices, while others are not so much. The difference is easy to notice from the coffee bushes: on some farms there are coffee berries only at the ends of the branches, while on other farms the branches of the bushes in are full of deep red berries. One organic farmer was very proud of her productive farm and told us that she had been able to send three of the family’s six children to college.
The impact of climate change on coffee cultivation is shown to us concretely when a shower wets the earth in the middle of a sunny day. To protect the coffee berries from the rain, the coffee processors hurry to collect the berries that have been spread in the sun to dry.
“In the past, we had clearer rain cycles with storms, but today, during the rainy season, water comes in small showers several times a day. It makes it difficult to dry the berries and also to collect them in the mountains” says Emmanuel Egaddu Amocha.
Uganda truly lives up to its nickname the African Pearl. Its breathtakingly beautiful scenery and, on the other hand, the conditions of a developing country with its large family size and modest living conditions left us an indelible mark. Coffee is a very important source of income for the people of Uganda and takes hundreds of thousands of families towards a better standard of living. It is extremely important for us to understand how many precise work steps and how much professional skills the journey of coffee all the way from the Ugandan mountain slopes to our coffee table requires. Coffee should be valued as it deserves.
The writer is the Stratgy and Sustainability Director at Meira