Uganda may be Africa’s largest coffee exporter, but with an ambitious plan to increase its production and quality, the country is not stopping there.
Many people, even outside the industry, recognise Ethiopia as the birthplace of Arabica coffee, but few would identify the origin of its resilient and stronger cousin, Robusta coffee.
While Vietnam is the largest producer of Robusta, with Brazil and Indonesia trailing behind, it’s actually the fourth largest producer of the crop that might lay claim to its origin: Uganda.
Robusta makes up about 80 per cent of the coffee produced in Uganda, with Arabica introduced into the country through Malawi in the 1920s.
Arabica is grown mainly in the nation’s highland areas in the east, west, and south-east. Robusta flourishes in the country’s central plateau, where altitudes range from 1000 to 1500 metres above sea level.
Dr Emmanuel Iyamulemye Niyibigira, Managing Director of the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), says this relatively high altitude for Robusta production, combined with unique soils and farming systems, give Ugandan Robusta an unmatched level of quality.
“Uganda is sometimes thought of as a ‘Robusta country’, but that mindset is changing because people are realising that our Robusta coffee is as good as other countries’ Arabica,” Dr Iyamulemye tells Global Coffee Report.
As the nation’s biggest agricultural commodity, coffee production plays a major role in Ugandan economy and society. UCDA estimates that up to 1.7 million households rely on coffee production for their income, about 40 per cent of which are female-lead.
This reflects approximately 42 per cent of farming households in Uganda. Iyamulemye says this prominence has made growing the coffee industry a key focus of the government since the turn of the millennium, following several decades of hardship.
“We had a peak in exports in 1970, around 3.5 million [60-kilogram] bags, then it went down again for two factors,” he says.
“We had a coffee price crisis that depressed production and farmers, who started growing other crops like cocoa. In the 1990s, there was also a devastating [coffee wilt] disease that hit our Robusta coffee plants and wiped out nearly half the tree population. Production fell to as low as two million bags per year.”
It’s estimated coffee wilt disease cost Uganda accumulated losses of US$580 million between 1997 and 2007. Government funding and support from the European Union to develop disease resistant varieties, and distribute free seedlings to farmers, has helped the country fight coffee wilt disease.
“With that, we saw a shift in production. It went from 2.5 million bags to 4.2 million. It stagnated there for a year then jumped to 4.7 million. We’re now at 5.1 million bags exportable product [in Coffee Year 2019/2020],” Iyamulemye says.
Smallholders reign supreme
Farming households in Uganda hold an average plot size of less than one acre. Dr Anneke Fermont, Regional Sustainability Manager for coffee exporter Kyagalanyi Coffee – the in-country representative of Volcafe – calls coffee a “smallholder crop” in Uganda.
“We don’t really have the coffee estates you’d see in Kenya or Tanzania. It’s about 95 per cent smallholder production,” Fermont says.
“These smallholder farmer systems, which are very agroforestry focused and biodiverse, is part of what’s special about Uganda. It also means you’re working with a lot of individual farmers, so making any kind of change takes a lot of time, investment, and courage.”
Kyagalanyi works directly with 26,000 households across Uganda, helping to improve quality, access to certifications, and farming, social, and environmental practices. Farmers benefit from better prices, better yields, and more sustainable farming systems.
“Certification is quite important in the Arabica sector. Around 15 per cent of Arabica exports from Uganda are certified, for Kyagalanyi it’s closer to 20 to 25 per cent,” Fermont says.
“In the Robusta sector, it’s difficult for a certification scheme to meet economic ends for a smallholder farmer. But our newest effort is focusing on slightly larger Robusta farmers, with three or four acres, where you can buy a little more coffee per farmer, which makes it more sustainable to run these operations.”
Overall, Fermont sees low yields as the biggest constraint on Uganda’s coffee industry.
“Farmers are earning quite limited amounts of money from their coffee fields. Most don’t have space to expand, so the only way they can earn more money is by improving productivity,” she says.
“The Ugandan sector is fully liberalised, which is really good because it gives farmers access to a wider market, and they receive a higher portion of the Freight on Board price than, for instance, a Kenyan or Tanzanian farmer. On the other hand, it also means that farmers are not organised, which makes it difficult to get those services to them.”
Fermont predicts worsening climate change will not deal Ugandan farmers as harsh a blow as Central and South American producers. However, it could create a struggle with erratic rainfall and increased risk of pest and disease.
“Anything you do to improve productivity will build resilience of your farming systems to climate change,” she says.
The Ugandan government is also encouraging producers, especially in Arabica growing areas, to plant shade trees that protect their crops.
To overcome issues with market fragmentation, Kyagalanyi Coffee has entered new regions to expand its direct support of the producers.
“We have started working in the Rwenzori Mountains [in southwest Uganda], a new area for us. Farmers there are very remote, and previously, were only able to sell their coffee to middlemen at very low prices,” Fermont says.
“Moving into that area, building washing stations, and buying high-quality coffees, you can really drive up prices quite quickly, which has a major impact on the income of those smallholder farmers.”
Another avenue for growth Fermont sees for the Ugandan industry is rising demand and recognition in the specialty and single origin market.
“Uganda is a very diverse country, with different types of soil and climates that give rise to a lot of different qualities and types of coffee. The diversity of Uganda’s coffees is celebrated in Uganda, but to the rest of the world, it’s something still to be discovered,” she says.
“That is changing, with specialty roasters becoming interested in Uganda and more single origins coming out. Nespresso, for example, with its Reviving Origins project in collaboration with Kyagalanyi, puts Uganda on the map.”
Nespresso released its Amaga awe Uganda, “Hope for Uganda”, capsules in May 2020, providing the origin with direct exposure to a global consumer base.
“The quality of Ugandan coffee has dramatically improved over the past 10 to 15 years. Our best Arabica coffees are competing with Kenyans in terms of quality while still being relatively cheap,” Fermont says.
She adds that 1229 professional tasters from the Coffee Quality Institute have confirmed this view, grading Uganda as having the third best coffee globally based on harvests between 2010 and 2018.
“Uganda should really take advantage of the fact we have so many smallholder farmers trying to create a livelihood for themselves, compared to other coffee countries with bigger farms. Uganda can sell itself with all these stories more than it has done in the past.”
Laying out a plan
Having so many smallholders in the country, however, can pose challenges when it comes to sharing the “story” behind coffee from Uganda.
“A daily purchase from one of our washing stations easily comes from 200 different farmers. That makes it difficult to put a QR code with information about the farmer on the coffee,” Fermont says.
The Ugandan Government has also foreseen this becoming a problem and has begun action to streamline the industry. A National Coffee Bill was introduced in 2018, providing greater transparency and regulation of the market.
Previously, the UCDA’s reach only covered off-farm activities like marketing and processing, leaving on-farm activities such as planting materials, nurseries, harvesting, and post-harvesting largely unregulated.
The National Coffee Bill will require coffee farmers to register with the UCDA, so the authority can capture details of the size of land, number of coffee trees, and particulars of farmers, coffee buyers, sellers, and nursery bed operators.
Iyamulemye says the National Coffee Bill addresses a gap in regulation at farm level.
“From the proper selection of high-productive seeds to quality control over planting, harvest, and post-harvest activities, we believe the new law is going to greatly impact the quality of production and productivity,” Iyamulemye says.
The UCDA has also been tasked with growing consumption in Uganda, including the training and education of baristas and coffee professionals. Due to British colonisation in the 1800s, Uganda has always focused on exporting its coffee over drinking it. But coffee shops have begun to spring up across Uganda, from its capital Kampala out to smaller towns and trading centres across the country.
“If we drink more coffee, it will create more jobs and keep more revenue in the country,” Iyamulemye says.
“The drive is to add value and another aspect of this is variation. We’ve seen a few roasters start up, which is very good for the country, because we can start exporting processed coffee, instant coffee, and roast and ground coffee as well as green beans.”
These initiatives are all part of Uganda’s Coffee Roadmap, a strategy the government set up in 2015 to increase coffee value and production, with the goal of producing 20 million bags annually by 2025 to 2030.
Other initiatives of the Coffee Roadmap include building structured demand through country-to-country deals, especially with growing markets like China, organising farmers in organisations and businesses entities, and branding Ugandan coffee for greater recognition and association.
“Why are countries like Colombia and Guatemala famous for coffee when it originates from places like Uganda? With a brand, we can say ‘this is a coffee from Uganda, we stand by these values’,” Iyamulemye says.
Despite being Africa’s biggest exporter of green coffee, Uganda ranks eighth overall. Iyamulemye says this demonstrates the room Uganda has to grow on a global scale.
“We don’t feel we are doing much by saying we are the biggest coffee exporter in Africa, because we’re not even near the maximum potential we could be. Coffee is a global commodity, we want to be among the top three exporters of the world,” Iyamulemye says.
“Our ambition is to be a global leader in the quality of coffee, exports of value-added coffee, and domestically, for coffee to have its place as an employer for the country, creating more jobs and income for households.”
Image credit: Kyagalanyi Coffee