Uganda’s Mt. Elgon: from coffee anonymity to speciality coffee powerhouse

Anna Chemutai, a smallholder coffee farmer in the village of Chebonet, wakes up at dawn every day to cook breakfast for her family and prepare them for work and school. By 7:40 am, she is already in her coffee garden, tending to the trees and ensuring that they are growing in healthy conditions. Anna is one of Uganda’s 1.7 million smallholder coffee farmers who are helping to establish the country as a specialty coffee powerhouse.

Uganda, the world’s eighth largest coffee producer by volume and the largest exporter of coffee in Africa, is aiming to increase its annual coffee production from 7 million bags to 20 million by 2030. The country is also seeking greater recognition internationally and expanding into roasted and instant coffee manufacturing. However, the movement is not just about quantity and commercial-grade consumption, but also about establishing a throne in the pantheon of high-end specialty coffee alongside neighbours such as Kenya and Ethiopia.

Mountain Harvest, a producer, processor, and exporter of organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance certified specialty coffee based in Mbale, is helping smallholder coffee farmers like Anna to achieve new heights of quality while also increasing production. The company emphasizes training women on best practices for growing coffee on what are typically 1-acre plots, as women do the majority of labour on smallholder farms in Uganda. When women are empowered with managing household finances, the family is more likely to be fed and clothed, children get books for school, and the quality of life improves.

Mountain Harvest also supports intercropping with banana, macadamia, avocado, and other trees that provide shade for the coffee as well as additional income for farmers with limited land. Growing legumes fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides food, while cows, rabbits, and other animals provide additional revenue and manure for compost.

The company’s microfinance program trains farmers on savings and loans while covering expenses in the offseason. The training builds their capacity to manage money while also generating the transaction history future lenders will want to see. With yields, cup scores, prices, and livelihoods all rising in unison, the work is getting done, and Uganda is overcoming long-standing obstacles to reinvent itself as an origin of quality and distinction.

The Ugandan coffee industry is experiencing a surge in demand for high-quality beans, and companies like Masha Coffee and Endiro Coffee are taking a vertically integrated approach to meet this demand. By sourcing green coffee directly from Ugandan farmers, paying a premium for high-quality beans, and partnering with local roasters for production, these companies are improving the lives of farmers and expanding their retail operations. Additionally, the Coffee Investment Consortium of Uganda (CICU) is working to coordinate with member companies to deliver higher volumes of high-quality Ugandan coffee into the global market and attract investments specifically to cover expenses and costs of exporting.

As the industry grows, producers are also exploring the value of robusta coffee, with indigenous robusta varieties containing genetic material that may be critical to the survival of all coffee in the face of climate change. Producers are developing “fine robusta” and filling the void left by dwindling arabica supplies. The Rubanga Cooperative Society, a CICU member, is one example of a producer of fine robusta, with over 9,000 members spanning 400 farmer groups in western Uganda. With access to post-harvest processing, packaging, and roasting facilities through CICU, Rubanga is able to produce washed-process, Fair Trade-certified robustas and compete with arabicas.

However, the industry still faces challenges, including a lack of export financing and available credit. The CICU and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development (PACEID) are working to develop an export credit fund that will provide affordable financing for producers of coffee and other products. Despite these challenges, stakeholders in the Ugandan coffee industry remain hopeful for the future and are committed to improving the lives of farmers and providing high-quality beans to the global market.

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