In the summer of 2017 I graduated from the University of Reading with a degree in Agriculture. Having always wanted to live and work in Africa I jumped at the first opportunity I got. A former alumni of Reading, a couple of years older than I, had moved to Uganda to set up a business exporting agricultural commodities. A few things had been tried such as chillies and honey, but the one that had gained some traction, was coffee. I arrived fresh faced just as the foundations were being dug for a new washing station. Having never specifically studied coffee production or processing to any great depth I was very much a novice, but what I did have was an understanding of smallholder farmers and general agronomy. After a fantastic 18 months I decided that it was to leave Africa (for the time being) and head back to the UK where I joined the Trade Team at DR Wakefield where I have been working since.
Uganda has four arabica growing regions with the two largest being Mt. Elgon in the east on the border with Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains in the west, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwenzori’s was where I ended up. To be precise, a small village called Kisinga about 40km away from the nearest town, Kasese.
In the past tradition has stipulated that the Rwenzori’s produce naturally dried coffee, dried in the farmers back garden. This is known as drugar (Dried Ugandan Arabica) and has earned itself a somewhat negative reputation over the years for being very poor quality. Those farmers in Mt. Elgon in the east of the country have mainly indulged in wugar (Washed Ugandan Arabica). However, as investments and knowledge increase, all the regions are taking the next step in experimentation with other processing methods. The current Ugandan crop we have at DR Wakefield is a natural lot from Mt. Elgon, which has been processed really well.
Education in the Rwenzoris around the potential of coffee as a cash crop has been lacking, until recently. The main harvest runs from September to December which also coincides with the long rainy season. They also have a fly crop which is usually smaller and only runs from March to May. Since the majority of the roads in the mountains are mud, the heavy rain causes significant difficulties for the farmers wishing to transport their cherries. Many of the roads and paths can only be accessed by foot or motorbike. This is one of the reason why traditionally the coffee was more often than not, been picked when it is underripe and green and dried on the dirt floor, or potentially a tarpaulin, until the rainy season had ended, allowing the roads to clear up.
Drying the cherries on the ground causes them to spoil and form mould, not to mention having the pet goat walk all over them. It would then be sold on to middlemen for a very low price who would hull it and take it to Kasese from which it would pass to larger exporters in Kampala for export.
Nowadays farmers in the Rwenzoris and Mt. Elgon are being discouraged away from drying the coffee themselves and instead selling the cherries directly to cooperatives and other companies to process .This means a lower risk of spoilage and a quicker cash flow for the farmer as each day they supply fresh cherries they get paid, rather than having to wait for it to dry before taking it to market. To bolster the advantage of selling cherries, a higher price is offered for red cherries (when outturn is taken into consideration). Let me explain. At the time of writing a kilogram of red cherry would fetch 1,350 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) and a kilogram of drugar 5,800 UGX. Now, assuming that it takes around 6.5 kgs of cherry to produce 1 kg of drugar the same value of cherries is worth 8,775 UGX compared to 5,800 UGX. The main disadvantage to farmers of this system is that they would have to make recurrent trips to their local buying centre throughout the season which potentially could be several miles away.
Although the quality coming out of Uganda has often fallen short of some of its east African counterparts like Kenya and Ethiopia in the past, real progress is being made by Ugandan producers keen to develop their product. I am very excited to taste some of the lots that come out of there in the next few years and hope it won’t be too long before I can go back and see the developments for myself.