Unlimited potential of Uganda

John Russell Storey of Cofi-Com travels into the Ugandan heartland to discover a country committed to treating farmers as business partners.

When people ask: “How was your origin trip?” I struggle to find the right words to capture everything and do the country justice. 

However, if I had to summarise Uganda in just one word, it would be “industriousness”. Kampala, the country’s capital and largest city, buzzes with insane motorcycle taxis that operate on adrenaline and blind luck. Main roads are lined on both sides by a myriad of small businesses selling everything from luscious fruits to massive bedsteads and intricate wooden coffins. In some areas it’s a contrast between sophisticated restaurants and people living in corrugated iron shacks tens of metres away. Outside the cities and towns, the pace is slower but it felt like everyone was doing something or going somewhere.

Together with a group of Cofi-Com customers, our first stop was a visit to the Volcafe Kyagalanyi [chuga lani] Coffee headquarters and mill in Namanve, an industrial suburb of Kampala. This place has a presence with its towering storage silos and constant thrum of heavy machinery. The walk around was fascinating – so many questions asked in so little time. The day passed in a wonderful blur of cuppings, lunch, and a thorough briefing of Uganda and Kyagalanyi Coffee by Dr. Anneke Fermont. What Anneke put into words was an amazing picture of what sustainability actually entails on the ground. Understanding the infrastructure, investment, and networks that our sister company undertakes was an eye-opener.  

Kyagalanyi Coffee operates three sustainability projects involving more than 700 farmer groups in the Mount Elgon, Rwenzori and West Nile growing areas. Farmer support services are delivered through 86 skilled and passionate women and men. Advice ranges from plant rejuvenation, pest/disease control, use of organic/non organic fertiliser, erosion control, and climate change adaption. These aren’t feel-good or poster projects. They are long term, practical, and realistic community activities that deliver.

John Russell Storey is the Marketing Manager of Trade at Cofi-Com

Among everything the teams are doing, one message really stood out. Farmers are encouraged to think of what they are doing as a business rather than just something that brings in an amount of cash every season. It’s a canny mindset that’s working. Through short and long-term business plans developed jointly by the farmers and field teams, yield per tree has substantially increased. The extra money has in turn helped with housing, farm equipment, and school and medical fees. 

Tied in with this concept is another very strong message – gender equality. With an increasing number of women owning and operating farms, the support teams have found these farmers readily embrace change and are open to new ideas. In fact, some of the best-run farms we visited were female owned. Where the farms are male operated, field team members have activities that jointly incorporate husband and wife decision-making. This has proved both empowering and beneficial. 

Kyagalanyi teams extensively use Mobile Money, a mobile payment system which has proved valuable. While cash payments are far easier to spend, Mobile Money means the money goes into an account that can be jointly accessed by husband and wife teams. 

A social challenge teams are tackling in rural areas is youth employment. Just over half the country’s population is under 18. If the charm of running a business that happens to be coffee appeals to this generation, it would be a positive outcome on so many levels. 

To help start this transition, Kyagalanyi Coffee’s field support operators, entrepreneurial young men and women, have been trained to stump and prune trees and then offer their services to farmers. They quickly become self-funding, branching out into building heat efficient clay ovens that minimise smoke, and use less wood to run. Today, there are 34 teams operating in the project areas, and just over 20 per cent of the members are young women. 

To try and encapsulate everything Anneke outlined, we travelled to Kyagalanyi Coffee’s operation in Kasese, at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains in Western Uganda. In a small plane from Kampala, we took the hour flight over lakes, swamps, and undulating green countryside dotted with small farms. Ten minutes after landing we were enjoying lattes made from locally grown and roasted coffee in Café Olimaco. There, the owner/barista of the café kindly solved our burning question of what a rolex was. We’d seen the name promoted on roadside eating-houses and needed to put our curiosity put to rest. It turned out to be a chopped fried egg rolled up on a chapatti, hence “rolled eggs” evolved into “rolex”. We found it to be the perfect snack for breakfast, mid-morning, well, anytime really.

Café Olimaco in Kasese, Western Uganda, serves locally grown and roasted coffee.

Breakfast was also an introduction to the charismatic and energetic Jonny Rowland, founder of a company called Agri-Evolve. Working closely with Kyagalanyi Coffee, Jonny and his team manage the Kisinga Coffee Station and a number of model farms. It’s a dynamic partnership formed three years ago between Jonny and Matt Seaton, General Manager of Kyagalanyi. What’s been achieved since then is astounding. After the mill had been rejuvenated with new equipment and changes that transformed the production process, focus swung to what mattered most – farmers and quality cherry. 

The Kisinga and Kyagalanyi team’s approach is simple in theory but complex in the initiation and delivery. Essentially, an environment is created where farmers are treated as business partners. This means countless field visits and consultations on farms, and discussing how yields can be increased through tree care and land management. Asking farmers to cut their trees to stumps to reinvigorate growth was a huge leap of faith especially as their income would drop short term. Through patience and being able to prove the benefits, farmers came on board. 

Large signs show exactly what the model farms are doing from the varietal grown to the spacing between the trees. Passers-by are encouraged to stop, walk around, and see what is happening. 

The stumped trees grow back quickly. Shrewd pruning makes sure the regrowth is strong and healthy. As the trees return to production after stumping, large and abundant clumps of ripening cherries speak volumes. It’s not just talk and theory. These practices work. The trickle of interest from farmers has become a steady flow. 

Thank you to Michelle Morgan and Liesel Schmidt from Morgan’s Coffee Roasters, Nick Di Ciaccio from Custom Coffee Brands, and Dom Musumeci of Seven Miles Coffee Roasters. To Matt, Alistair, Anneke, Wendy, Tobi, Vincent, and Marion from Kyagalanyi Coffee and Jonny from Agri-Evolve, thank you. You all were more than terrific with your time, knowledge, and hospitality. We talked with amazing and knowledgeable people, saw parts the country no tourist ever would, and enjoyed genuine friendliness and hospitality. Next stop, Tanzania. 

This article appears in FULL in the February 2019 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here.

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