Handy lessons from Uganda’s quick rise in coffee production

A coffee farmer in Uganda. Success of the industry has been a result of strong co-operatives, government support and availability of fertile land. file photo | nmg

What you need to know:

  • Four decades ago, Kenya was the leading coffee producer in East Africa, but not any more; Uganda is today the largest exporter in the region.
  • The success of the Ugandan coffee sector has been a result of strong co-operatives, government support and availability of fertile land.

In Uganda’s Mbale Town, a promising farmers’ society is pooling local coffee producers into a thick band of wealthy people.

And it is easy to see how. Established in eastern Uganda, the Bugisu Co-operative Union (BCUL) is a group of farmers, processors and exporters of pure Arabica coffee.

With a capacity of over 100,000 tonnes a year, the society has survived largely on its strong supply chain. It has more than 300 smaller growers’ societies at the grassroots.

Uganda produces over three million 60-kg bags of coffee per year, earning about Sh50 billion ($500 million) in revenue. BCUL may well be adding a lot to those figures.
But how did Uganda get here, while neighbour Kenya continues to uproot its coffee trees? There is a story to it, officials at BCUL told the Sunday Nation.

Four decades ago, Kenya was the leading coffee producer in East Africa. But today, the farmers’ incomes have dwindled and production has dropped from 130,000 tonnes in 1980s to about 40,000 tonnes in 2016/2017 financial year.

Then, Uganda was under rogue dictator Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s. A study by the European Economic Community found that Uganda’s production of key export crops — coffee, cotton and sugar — slumped between 1970 and 1978 by about 51 per cent.

The most lucrative trade between Uganda and Kenya at the time was smuggled coffee.

But from 1988, three years after President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over power, Uganda’s house started being in order.

The State dismantled the commodity boards that have become a leech on Kenyan farmers.

Today, Uganda is East Africa’s largest coffee exporter and the second largest producer of coffee beans after Ethiopia in Africa.

What is Uganda doing right that Kenya can emulate? Vincent Buyi, general manager of the co-operative, said success of the coffee industry has been as result of government support in good farming practices and availability of fertile land.

He said that in Uganda, coffee farming has been embraced as culture. “It is mainly agro-based where soil conservation and tendering of the crop is given priority. These soils do not require a lot of inorganic fertiliser.

The government has stamped its feet in the industry, with adequate extension workers,” he said at his Mbale office last week.

Introduction of high yielding elite Robusta clonal coffee by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) in mid-Northern Uganda is also a plus.

After conquering the East Africa market, with demand hitting a high in Europe and United States, Uganda is steadily venturing into the Middle East.

Mr Buyi encourages Kenya to learn from Uganda. “Kenya has done well in dairy farming, which comes in handy in sourcing for organic manure,” he said.

The Kenyan government can also increase agriculture research funding, focusing on plant varieties that are water efficient, drought resilient, pest resistant and high yielding.
It can also revamp and streamline extension services.

Strengthening of coffee specific farmers’ groups and co-operatives is also critical.

Productivity can also be enhanced by encouraging farmers to plant high yielding, disease resistant coffee varieties. This calls for research.

In Uganda, this kind of support is channelled through the government’s Youth Livelihoods Programme (YLP), which provides an avenue for funding and start-up capital to the youth.

Despite good fortunes, the co-operative is still facing many challenges, especially in poor pricing on international platforms.

A kilogramme of parchment goes for Ush6,250 ($1.8), processed green beans Ush9,500 ($3), while coffee attracts $9, much lower than the price offered in the international markets.

Volker Coffee, Great Lakes and a number of multinationals are competitors in the market, according to Mr Buyi.

The union has, however, not been left alone, with many trying to introduce politics to its affairs.

But Mr Buyi insists that co-operatives is the way to go.

“When farmers are left at the mercy of unscrupulous businessmen whose target is to maximise their profits, such challenges will always crop up.”

Soon, Uganda could be the top coffee producing country in Africa. Worldwide, Brazil remains the top producer, recording 2,592,000 tonnes (43,200,000 of 60kg bags) in 2015/2016. Vietnam is second and Colombia third. Ethiopia is at position five, Uganda (288,000) is at position eight while Kenya (16) produces about 49,980 tonnes.

A Nation exposé published on November 18, 2015, revealed how a Mr Abraham Mwangi built coffee networks that brought down the industry and compromised respective bodies such as the Coffee Board of Kenya.

Kenya may need to emulate Uganda’s recent successes.