Uganda is Africa’s up-and-coming specialty-coffee powerhouse. Improvements in farming and processing are helping the region surge past socio-economic hurdles that have historically held this coffee origin back. Upgrades in quality and new washing stations are also having a substantial impact on the lives of the smallholder farmers who produce the coffee.
While Ethiopia may be Africa’s top coffee producer, Uganda is the continent’s top exporter of the valuable commodity. And yet they’re nowhere near their maximum potential yet. The overall 2020/2021 harvest was a record-breaker with a 22% surge in exports totaling nearly 5.5 million bags, despite the logistical challenges brought on by COVID-19 earlier last year. The promising success can be hailed as the fruits of labor brought on by improved agricultural practices and boosted by great weather, though namely in the production of Robusta as the unusual lack of a real dry season in the Arabica-growing areas have reduced flowering rates.
The country’s low altitude around Kampala and the Lake Victoria Crescent makes it ideal for vast production of Robusta coffee. Robusta plants are native to Uganda; Arabica plants weren’t introduced until the early 1900s. Today Arabica is comprises roughly 24% of Uganda’s coffee production. It is mainly grown in the mountainous regions such as: Mount Elgon, the Rwenzoris, and in West Nile.
Genuine Origin has been closely following Uganda’s progression as a specialty coffee producer for years with the help of our sister company and sourcing partner in the region, Kyagalanyi Coffee Ltd. Uganda not only continues to astound everyone with improvements in cup quality, but also in the determination to create impact on every scale, small and large, with hands-on initiatives tailored for the diverse producing regions around the country.
Founded in 1992, just after the coffee industry was liberalized in 1991, Kyagalanyi is one of the oldest and largest coffee exporters in Uganda. Even though producers have the freedom to market their coffee to buyers of their choice, poor public infrastructure and remote farm locations mean that options are limited. Kyagalanyi has been working for decades to change that; broadening market access is a key enabler for creating growth opportunities for the industry as a whole.
Country-wide Production of Specialty Coffee
Coffee might only represent 20% of an average farm’s crops, but the income generated from it can account for 50% of the household’s annual income. Uganda has a 15-year Coffee Roadmap program, implemented by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority, with the goal of increasing production to 20 million bags by 2030 and tripling the income for producers.
One of the main constraints to achieving this goal is farm productivity. With the majority of farmers being smallholders, most growers lack the option to expand land-wise. Kyagalanyi works with over 26,000 households to address crop productivity through Volcafe Way support operations and expects their reach to grow to 34,000 this year.
In 2020 alone, Kyaganlanyi conducted over 40,000 individual household trainings and 2,700 group trainings on agronomy, gender, and child education. But what’s truly impressive is how their engagement has led to clear results: 3,378 households completed a family vision, 2,567 households made a joined household plan and 2,578 households made a coffee farm vision, according to Dr. Anneke Fermont, Regional Sustainability Manager for Kyagalanyi.
The Mount Elgon area is thriving; this eastern region borders Kenya and the influx of investments and donations have stimulated the production of competitively high-quality coffee. Kyagalanyi has five regional washing stations and a team of 60 field staff in Mt Elgon. Between 2009 to 2018, Kyagalanyi reported an increase of 72% in coffee tree yields for their partner producers.
In West Nile, Kyagalanyi has done more than bring economic prosperity to an inaccessible and impoverished corner of Uganda. Household inspections are a standard practice in Kyagalanyi’s farm certifications and through that, there was a chance to create even more impact by advocating child education at the same time. Together with local NGOs and community partners, Kyagalanyi identified households where children were not in school and tackled the main hurdle for consistent enrollment: poverty.
Many households in Uganda cannot afford to pay the fees for school, uniforms, exams, and supplies, which served as a big motivator for Kyagalanyi to help increase their income from coffee. In 2018, Kyagalanyi was recognized for their exceptional commitment in creating a child labor-free zone with the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Standard-Setter Award, a success story that further cements Kyagalanyi’s presence in Uganda as more than just a coffee exporter.
After averaging out the numbers from increased yields, improved quality, and higher pricing for the better quality, Kyagalanyi’s operations have created a staggering $6.5 million USD in additional value each year for Mount Elgon and West Nile producers combined.
Growing More Specialty
As Kyagalanyi implements the Volcafe Way throughout their operations in Uganda, another challenge that’s being addressed by the government and private companies alike is the local perception of the cash crop. Most of the farmers in Uganda grow bananas, cassava, onions, tomatoes, and other crops that are sold and consumed locally, but as a traditionally tea-drinking nation, coffee is not.
“Coffee has always been an absent product in Uganda,” says Jonny Rowland, Assistant General Manager at Kyagalanyi. “It’s seen as a quick money maker that’s just taken away and so farmers have not grown up with a passion or attachment to coffee.”
So how is Kyagalanyi convincing farmers to treat their coffee trees better? By showing them how quality improvements can lead to real opportunities for sustainable farming as a business.
Last year, Uganda exported nearly 5.5 million bags of coffee, and they were all farmed by around 1.7 million smallholders. The average farm size is only 0.18 hectares and it’s a challenge to reach a majority of them, both physically and economically. A prime example of tackling these challenges is the more recent development of Arabica coffee production in the Rwenzori Mountains by Kyagalanyi, aided by on-the-ground efforts of Agri Evolve, a social enterprise dedicated to adding value for agricultural supply chains.
Most of the coffee from the Rwenzoris are drugars (dried Uganda Arabica) which are very low quality due to poor home processing practices. Rowland, who also founded Agri Evolve in 2015, attributes these habits to transportation issues. “[The poor quality] has nothing to do with the potential of the coffee trees or the landscape,” he says. “If you’re a farmer up in the hills with a poor road and you have to carry that coffee on your back to sell it, you want to get the coffee as light as possible. That’s why they’re home processed, dried on the floor and stored in poor conditions. But there’s a huge opportunity to turn that around.”
They’ve been hard at work showing farmers the benefits of selling ripe cherries at Kyagalanyi’s buying stations throughout the region. “We’re paying farmers double for cherries than what they would get in drugar form because we can take the cherries and produce them at better quality,” says Rowland. On one hand, they’re educating farmers that they can get more money for cherries without having to invest their time and effort in the drying process for drugars, and on the other hand, Kyagalanyi is supplying effective transportation support to help get the heavier cherries to the buying stations.
In addition to the two new wet mills in the Rwenzoris that process 50 tons of cherries each per day (Kisinga and Bugoye), Kyagalanyi’s presence also includes mobile buying units, motorbikes and donkey transport teams throughout the 120-kilometer mountain range. They do radio and talk shows to spread the word about how Kyagalanyi does things differently — and more importantly, pays differently — for fresh quality cherries. Fun fact: Kyagalanyi even hired a local artist to write a song about this and blasted it on pick-up trucks with loudspeakers to get everyone to gather at the trading centers.
“Having Agri Evolve being hands-on in Rwenzori is about developing our reputation as the number one partner for coffee farmers and that’s a part of Kyagalanyi’s ethos. We’re not just an exporter or a buyer in Kampala,” says Rowland.
And it’s working. Responsibly sourced cherry volumes have gone from 0 to 325 million tons from 2015–2020. There are top quality naturals coming from the Rwenzoris like the Uganda Kisinga Station Natural 2021 and even fully washed Uganda green coffee too.
Last year, three Volcafe Way nurseries in Rwenzori distributed over 100,000 seedlings to farmers, with the main variety being SL14. In order to encourage the sustainability of farming as a business, Kyagalanyi is doing all they can to both stimulate and demonstrate better agricultural practices that lead to better livelihoods all around. There’s still a long way to go, but even in the short time since their presence in the region, Kyagalanyi has already made a huge impact in prices for farmers who sell directly to them (+50–70%!).
Kyagalanyi’s efforts aren’t just limited to Arabica coffee either; with 60–70% of their exports being Robusta, they’ve expanded the Volcafe Way farmer support program and certification standards to Robusta farms too. In Masaka, the UTZ/RFA initiatives will reach up to 5000 farmers in the next few years.
Genuine Origin & 2021 Uganda Green Coffee
Although the Rwenzori’s are known for producing naturals, Genuine Origin is excited to see more fully washed coffee being produced in partnership with Kyagalanyi. Processing methods that are still new to the region, like carbonic maceration and anaerobic fermentation, have been tried and tested at washing stations in the Rwenzoris as we continue to push coffee forward, and the opportunity for honeys to become a more common offering are in the works.
“There’s a wealth of knowledge that we can tap into by being part of the Volcafe group and learn from our colleagues in different origins,” says Ted Maberly, Operations Coordinator at Kyagalanyi. He and the team have been experimenting with a concentration on consistency, in order to develop particular lots on demand, year after year, for partners like Genuine Origin.
For now, check out the fresh natural and washed Rwenzori green coffee that was just shipped out from Uganda in December. Washed Uganda coffee is a great blend component and the 2021 lot from Kisinga Washing Station is a well-balanced cup with crisp, citric acidity and honey sweetness.
It’s inspiring to see communities, businesses, leaders, and producers come together to uplift Uganda’s coffee industry as a whole to change the world’s perception of a truly promising coffee origin. There is so much potential here and coffee roasters can expect more variety in processing and increased quality for lots in Genuine Origin’s Uganda portfolio.
To learn more, watch Genuine Origin’s Uganda Origin Report Webinar on YouTube.