What is your coffee story?

Oct 10, 2016

Uganda Coffee Federation estimates that over 20% of Uganda’s population directly earn all or a large part of their cash income from coffee

On Thursday, October 6, 2016, Morrison Rwakakamba, the Chief Executive Officer of the Agency for Transformation, a think tank in Kampala, made a presentation before the members of the Uganda Coffee Federation to commemorate the International Day for Coffee held at the St. Lawrence School, Horizon Campus, Wakiso, Uganda. Below is the edited version of his presentation: 

The theme of today's event is "Underscoring Stakeholders in Achieving Uganda's Vision 2020". This theme is in large measure a step to operationalisation of President Yoweri K. Museveni vision and directive. For the coffee sector, The President was very clear and itemised this Vision to real targets in a directive to Cabinet members responsible for this sector; Uganda will plant 900 million coffee trees, expanding production and exports from current four million bags to 20 million 60-kg bags by 2020. Therefore friends, the game is on and it is #KisanjaHakunaMchezo. I want to believe that indeed the medium term target shall be to export 20 million bags of valued added/ processed coffee. 

You see, all this cannot happen unless all stakeholders along the coffee value chain are tuned on - and collectively taking action in a mutual, fair and robust manner. As you are aware, the coffee bean is and has for many years been the most valuable commodity on a global scale only second to oil. It will continue to be so for a while and Uganda has the potential, pedigree and bandwidth to take leadership at production level, value addition and retention level, coffee jobs level, foreign exchange earnings level- and other vertically and horizontally integrated levels. We cannot slip up. 

I will today not focus on technical and scientific aspects of coffee, numbers and figures of export and foreign exchange earnings etc.! We have scientists, policy makers, technocrats and practitioners in the audience. I will save that for them. I will try to navigate the coffee stories. 

My coffee story 

From my childhood, I instinctively loved farming - and observing shoots of crops taller and bigger from previous day and berries of coffee turn from green to red in span of time - really fascinated me. You know, seeing things grow, in a way signified meaning of life in real terms. One could see the hand of God at play - really magical stuff at that time. I had not interacted with science and forces of cosmos responsible for conditions that facilitate natural shifts, weather partners etc.- but like I truly believed at the time, it is all action and story of God and his supremacy over nature and livelihoods. 

Later in the 1980's, while growing up in a farmers' household, I saw coffee farming as a central pathway get people out of poverty. For example, our neighbours like the family of Kamuhanda, Makara etc. of Nyeibingo village, Rukungiri who had more coffee were averagely and visibly living better lives, for example, sending their children to good schools. Indeed mostly the truth that for millions of Ugandans directly and indirectly, coffee paid and continues to cater for their school fees and still sustain their livelihoods today. 

In fact, Uganda Coffee Federation estimates that over 20% of Uganda's population directly earn all or a large part of their cash income from coffee. When I put a full stop on final university exams in 2002- I headed home and planted my first coffee tree. I have since never looked back. 

The coffee story that we all have a responsibility to tell

In the Seventh Century, in Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia), it is believed that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered the coffee plant. Kaldi, noticing that when his flock nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush they became more energetic (jumping goats), he chewed on the fruit himself. His exhilaration prompted him to bring the berries to an Islamic monk in a nearby monastery, but the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into a fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world's first cup of coffee. 

This legend is timeless and has romanticized Ethiopian Coffee around the world. Ethiopia is regarded as origin coffee - yet this is a shared heritage and Uganda is at the center of it. Perhaps, this is an important pointer for Uganda to be vigilant and tell its story. We must tell our coffee story. Collectively and individually; what are your coffee stories? For urbanites here today, I for instance know that you have had romantic dates over coffee - but also negotiated and sealed business and professional deals in porches and terraces of our expanding cafes/coffee houses in our cities - from Gulu to Kisoro. As for farmers who tend to this phenomenal crop, your stories of success and challenges must be so many. As a coffee farmer myself, I have lived and breathed them. 

Just like Ethiopia, Uganda is also original home of coffee. Just like river Nile, Uganda shares this heritage with Ethiopia. When you meet Ethiopians, they will tell you Source of Nile is in their Country - We also tell them Uganda is the source of the longest river on earth - The Nile. The fierce debate sometimes goes on and on. But truth is we share this heritage at both Jinja in Uganda and Dambiya (Lake Tana) in Ethiopia. This is the same with Coffee both in those historic highland of Ethiopia and the Nganda regions of Uganda. For Ethiopia it is Arabica species and for Uganda it is Robusta species. Indeed Explorer John Speke's writings of his journey through what is now Uganda, described coffee being prepared as a soup here. 

As all of us probably know, wild varieties are still found in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda, where they are harvested as a specialty ECO coffee and marketed as the "Kibale wild". The bushes of the Nganda and Erecta varieties are grown in a crescent on the plains north and west of Lake Victoria at an altitude of about 1200 metres. Now we have a coffee story that unites us as a people, as a nation. This is a story that those branding Uganda should tell. It is a story our leaders should tell.

It is a story that Ugandans abroad should shout out. It is a story that our embassies should package and widely share. 

The story of coffee in Uganda's economy

Coffee has stood the test of time. You know, by 1914, European and Asian farmers had established 135 plantations, occupying 58,000 acres of land, but the crop was abandoned when prices fell in the 1920s. It was left to Ugandan smallholders to continue the farming of coffee, though at first the acreage was insignificant. By 1931, only 17,000 acres were under cultivation. The coffee Board was set up in 1929, later becoming the Coffee Industry Board in 1943 and then the Coffee Marketing Board in 1959. The subsequent years of civil strife in Uganda saw economic life stagnate and coffee production fall back. 

The National Resistance Movement (NRM) government returned stability to the country after taking power in 1986, but the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement three years later prompted world prices to crash a little more than half their previous level. Prices recovered briefly following the frost, which in June 1994 destroyed much of the Brazilian crop for that and the following year. Ugandan production increased in response to the higher prices, with exports reaching 4 million bags in 1995-96 and 1996-97. Since then we have not been able to meaningfully expand productivity. Now the target has been set at the highest level of government. The potential to top the world is before us- and I know, it will happen in 2020. Let's not slip up but keep the momentum. 

The story of coffee challenges

I know that coffee farmers, dealers, processors (upstream and low stream) face monumental challenges. From climate change and its adjuncts likes droughts, water stress, floods (for example, in 2010, major flooding near Uganda's Mt. Elgon wiped out more than 60,000 coffee trees and killed nearly 400 people). There are more challenges like; diminishing quality of soils, quality inputs like seedlings, pesticides and herbicides; post harvests losses due poor facilities for drying and storage, inadequate knowledge dues to challenges in delivery of extension services, weak farmer groups and cooperatives, price of electricity and other infrastructural challenges, old coffee trees, high interest rates, low domestic market for value added and specialty coffees, pricing system for coffee that gives producers no choice - among others. During a recent past African Peer Review mechanism, President Museveni summarized the Coffee problem; 

"The coffee bean from Uganda has been exported to United Kingdom at US $1 per kilogram for the last 100 years. The price of the coffee bean has recently moved to US $3 per kilogram in the international market. Yet, when this coffee is processed in the United Kingdom it is resold to us at US $15 per kilogram. This means for the last 100 years we have been donating 14 dollars per kilogram to United Kingdom. In addition, we are creating jobs in their country for their people in the coffee processing chain". But how do we work our way out of challenges and bottlenecks to the story of success? 

Reflections on coffee and the story of actions and triumph 

Government through agencies like Uganda Coffee Development Authority, responsible ministries and farmer groups is fully aware of the bottlenecks we face and invested in delivering solutions. 

To expand our coffee fortunes as farmers, chain actors and the Country, I want to share and re-emphasise six opportunities to explore further and take action on; 

1.     Science and research: Increase agriculture research funding by 15% points to focus on plant varieties that are water efficient, drought resilient, pest resistant and high yielding.  I know that our researchers have developed seven strains of the Robusta variety that are wilt resistant. This should expand to Arabica variety but also embed resistance to droughts.

2.     Revamp and streamline extension services. Operation Wealth Creation Operation (OWC) should combine the logistical aspect of extension with knowledge and advise services to farmers. For example, a recent OWC internal evaluation revealed that over 65% of coffee seedlings distributed in the last financial year didn't survive! This is a whopping loss for farmers and taxpayers. This scenario could have been avoided if OWC's ability to quickly and cost effectively deliver inputs was supplemented by timely technical advice to farmers from agronomic knowledge workers. Working with on ground coffee farmer associations would serve as a channel to scale up knowledge and resilience practices. 

3.     Boost domestic consumption: Uganda is Africa's second-biggest coffee producer, after Ethiopia but consumes less than 3 percent of its crop. Strategy to expand per-capita consumption by 60 percent in five years should be formulated, financed and implemented. I know UCDA highlighted this need sometime back- but we all need to emphasize this and hold them on their promise to deliver on it.

4.     Strengthen coffee specific farmer groups and co-operatives. This will be critical to form a cadreship of farmers with situational awareness regarding the entire coffee value chain- and collective delivery of solutions. Mix-up of farmers in omnibus groups whose membership are involved in a cocktail of enterprises make group action ineffective and mostly impossible. Importantly, Coffee specific groups have potential to negotiate retention of value at farmer level, knowledge and skills building, recruitment of youth into coffee farming and leadership, collective negotiation of competitive coffee prices and favorable interest rates among others. 

5.     Coffee tourism: Countries are reaping from agro-tourism and coffee is leading the pack. Coffee tourism can be conducted in a coffee plantation environment - in areas where coffee beans are grown and produced. Coffee tourism can also focus on delivery of information and education about coffee - for example,  information  about  how  coffee  growing  is  carried  out,  who  is  growing coffee  and  its  importance  to  farmers  and  the  process  that  makes  a  coffee  bean  a  finished coffee  product  ready  to  be  consumed.  Foreign and domestic tourists should experience the process of making coffee and be able to test the flavor of the local product. And our story of coffee has potential to attract millions tourists in Uganda. 

6.     Re-imagine coffee leadership: It is critical that this sector builds platform that facilitate emergence of leaders that will take coffee to a new horizon. Such leadership must centralize women and youth in its ranks. Importantly, the leadership must be capable of transforming attitudes and behaviors into life styles and communities that focus on hard work, enterprise and getting things done. We cannot have leaders mostly lamenting and complaining about challenges we face in coffee sector. We need leaders with a sacred heart- who guided by values of equity and fairness- lead, take action and get things done. Now lets look into our hearts and locate where we are in this area of leadership - for we are all leaders operating at different levels. 

At the end, we shall individually and collectively turn the coffee story into rewards that shall quicken Uganda's progress to total transformation. Lets go plant coffee.

I thank you so much.

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