Uganda – the new Kenya?

It is early November 2016 and we are sitting in an old jeep on our way to the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union (BJCU) in Kyarumba, which lies on the foot of Uganda’s picturesque Rwenzori Mountains. Goats and cattle are grazing close to the bumpy path. We pass small rivers and little villages. Already, we have spent 6 hours on a bus, travelling from Kampala to Kasese and another hour from Kasese to get to this beautiful green paradise. 

A few months earlier, on the search for excellent specialty coffee, we had been taking a closer look at the coffee belt, and searched for various coffee growing regions and countries. Uganda is relatively unexplored for Arabica coffee, and we wanted to find out more about this African country, which is widely considered the birthplace of Robusta coffee.

The Rwenzori Mountains are known among locals for their extinct volcanoes. The tectonic, fertile soil and topography are promising pre-conditions for a distinct coffee. Mount Rwenzori is referred to as the "Mountain of the Moon – the rain maker". We discovered that the region is blessed with regular rain showers in the late evenings, while enjoying sun during the day. All signs point to great ripening conditions for coffee cherries grown on the slopes of Mount Rwenzori, at 1,100 to 2,200 meters above sea level.

Historically, the crop in Uganda has been fruitful and rich, thanks to the Nyasaland – an Arabica coffee variety relatively unknown. Over the years, a gradual switch to the varieties SL28 and SL14 has taken place. Among farmers, the debate is ongoing as to which one is the best. So nowadays you find a mix of all three varieties across many smallholder farmers' land. Seedlings of the SL28 are extensively promoted by governmental authorities as the best variety, and handed to growers. SL28 was created by Scott Laboratories in Kenya, and resulted from a series of experiments in the early 1930s. The variety – belonging to the Bourbon family – is producing excellent cup qualities with unique fruit flavours. Many coffee lovers immediately link SL28 to Kenya, which is famous for it’s complex fruit and berry cup characteristics, bright acidity, and exceptional sweetness.

As we arrive at the coop, we are greeted by the employees of BJCU and representatives of the 33 micro washing stations. They are gathering for their annual workshop on leadership, the Gender Action Learning System (GALS) programme, and best practice – to strive for improvement in the quality of their coffee, exchange ideas, find solutions, and discuss the following year’s harvest.

During the coming days, we get an insight into how well-organized, ambitious, and hard working the people at BJCU in Kyarumba are. The coop has close to 5000 farmers under organic certification, of which 85% are women. The cooperative’s efforts for gender equality were recognized by the SCAA Sustainability Award in 2015. The GALS is promoted in all activities within the coffee value chain. The BJCU is owned by many farmers, and initially started as a micro-financing cooperative in 1999. This model incentivizes farmers to do their best, as they are benefiting directly from it.

During our stay at the coop we spend our days visiting washing stations and cupping the various coffees. We learn a lot about their processes; from the cherry picking right up to the port delivery.

Infrastructure is very poor in Uganda and some of the washing stations are incredibly remote; located up in the mountains, without the possibility of vehicle access. At the washing stations the lots are usually fermented for 24 hours; the station managers run their first checks after 18 hours and adapt the fermentation time based on the weather and humidity. The coffees are dried on raised African beds, under cover, for about 18 days.

The farmers carry the bags of cherries, usually on their heads, to the next washing station. We realise how hard this work is by walking up the mountains to St. Goret, a 5 km path up to almost 1,6km altitude which you can only climb on foot. We also realise that the quality of Ugandan coffee is challenged by the farmers’ knowledge. The washing stations are filling the knowledge gap with pictographic presentations, explaining simple things to farmers, such as only to pick red, ripe cherries. Another challenge is that some farmers are not used to drinking coffee and therefore cannot tell what defines a quality coffee. Traditionally, people in Uganda are used to drinking tea; coffee was at one time considered a drug. This perception has slowly changed, and farmers have been invited to try their own coffee.

We also learn that Western Uganda produces natural coffees, known as Drugars, with enchantingly interesting flavour profiles. One of the washing stations that we visit, Ihani, has also started experimenting with honey processing. The beans are not dry enough yet to cup them on this trip; however, we are keen to try these in the coming years. It will certainly take some trial and error before getting it right; nevertheless, we are pleased to see the eagerness of the Ugandan farmers to catch up with the specialty coffee world, and adopt new methods into their traditions.

We also see the farmers’ willingness to learn about their coffees at our cupping sessions. Many farmers eagerly join us, and their willingness to embrace feedback impresses us a lot.

As we prepare for the cupping sessions we discover that, unfortunately, it is not possible to separate the varieties, because most landowners harvest only between 0.5 and 1 ton of cherries per season, and the coffee is brought to micro washing stations for processing and drying. We have to cup SL28, together with SL14 and Nyasaland. However, we are able to trace back the coffees to the individual micro washing stations. The coffees exhibit a broad range of flavours, and overall they cup very well – some of the samples have distinct fruit/berry notes, with bright citric acidity, which we think are reminiscent of Kenyan coffees. The difference? The Ugandan coffees are lacking the overly sweet characteristics of Kenyans; however, we are very pleased with the sweetness, and think the inclusion of the Nyasaland is balancing the exceptional sweetness of the SL varieties.

In total, we cup samples derived from 20 out of 33 washing stations, which deliver their dry parchments to the BJCU.

The dried coffees are brought from the washing stations to the coop. In case they are not dried well enough, they are dried once more at the coop. Paineto Baluku, the managing director of BJCU, explains to us the impact that climate change (which has caused the rainy months to shift) has had on production – an effect which has become apparent over the course of only 15 years. Drying coffee has therefore become more challenging, and this can have an effect on the quality of the coffee. It is owing to this concern that we measure the moisture content of export-ready coffees there. This is between 10.4% and 12.1%, and the water activity is between 52 and 58. The results are positive; better, even, than we had hoped for.

After they have dried, all the coffees are mechanically hulled at the coop, and only screen size 15+ is being prepared for international markets. After the hulling, about 300 women hand-sort the coffees for export, and on average seven 60kg bags are prepared per day. There is also a team in Kasese, which is helping to sort the coffee manually when demand is higher and during peak harvest. Uganda has two harvest periods: the fly crop from February to May, and the main harvest from September to December.

Once the coffees have been hand-sorted they are ready to be bagged into GrainPro bags and then packed into Jute bags, before being sent off to Kampala. All coffees from the Western part of the country have to go through Kampala, where export documents and certificates are obtained, and where they can be loaded onto containers which are then trucked to Mombasa, Kenya. As Uganda does not have direct sea access, most coffees sail from the port of Mombasa.

Is Uganda the new Kenya? Or better than Kenya? Well, not quite yet; but nowadays the coffee quality is able to compete in the specialty world, and the ambitions amongst the young Ugandan farmers are blowing a fresh breeze into the East African market. Uganda can have a promising future if the harvesting and processing keeps improving; something they can learn from their big brother, Kenya.

The coffee industry – in particular the specialty coffee market – has created opportunities for people in rural and urban areas, and it has given them the chance to lift themselves into better living conditions; improving the lives of their families and generations to come.

This is an interesting development, in light of the Ugandan Robustas, which have been trading at very low prices. The new coffee era in Uganda is quality driven, with the focus on Arabica, and the ambition to be the next Kenya – or perhaps even better than their neighbouring country, which is known to produce only washed coffees. Eventually, the price in Uganda will catch up with the rising quality; a development we have seen in many coffee growing regions.

Over the past three years, we have made the journey to Uganda for each main harvest, and select our coffees from various micro washing stations, of which we are convinced of the quality, consistency, and cup profiles. The coffees score between 84.5 and 86.0 SCAA points.