By Maj. Tabaro Kiconco
A lot has been happening in the coffee sector since the establishment of Operation Wealth Creation by President Yoweri Museveni in 2013. To start with, coffee seedlings planted have since increased from 19.3 million at the commencement of the initiative five years ago to the current 172.77 million.
If there is any strong indicator that is required to show that the agricultural sector still has a lot of potential to develop with increased Government support, then these numbers offer the best example.
And as such, Uganda has seen coffee production increase from four million bags in 2015 to 4.7 million bags in last year. With the very conducive climate that ensures growth of some of the best coffee in the world and as more people embrace the free coffee seedlings provided by the Government through OWC, the only direction for the highly consumed beverage is upwards.
In the same timeframe, the total number of coffee beneficiaries has increased from 435,474 in FY 2014 to 730,000 as of last year. This is also projected to increase again to 873,600 farmers by the end of this year. And the good news does not end there. Coffee still manages to be one of the crops with a steady export market value that can perhaps only be compared to oil.
And as the quantity and quality of our coffee improves, a number of global stakeholders are taking more interest in our produce. Recently, 20 Ugandan coffee entrepreneurs travelled to the United States to attend the Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle, USA. The expo provided a much-needed platform for promotion of our coffee in the highly specialised and competitive US market which holds great potential for our coffee exports. Much appreciation goes to the organisers of the event, USAID East African Trade and Investment Hub and US Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah Malac for facilitating the team and participating to make it fruitful. This is a clear indicator that indeed trade, and not just aid holds the key to unlocking Uganda and Africa’s full potential.
The expo experience is also another indicator that our coffee industry is ripe to play in the premier league of the global coffee market not just as an exporter of regular coffee, but of high quality and high profitability. One of the most challenging issues we face compared to other countries such as Ethiopia and Brazil is that they have focused a lot on production of specialty coffee. Brazil produced nine million (60kg) bags last year with most of it going to the US market. That is why it was very important for our coffee entrepreneurs to travel to the world’s leading coffee market and learn as well as share experiences with coffee buyers and traders.
Specialty coffee is not actually a type of coffee, but rather the process, climate and soils that are used to grow that coffee. This means that all the quality seedlings that are distributed by Operation Wealth Creation qualify for this very profitable category of coffee. This is because Uganda has already been qualified as having the appropriate soils and climate for growing it. What sets it apart is that the coffee beans must be free of any defects and moisture content must be between 9-13%, which requires good drying methods.
There has been a lot of debate over the position of coffee on the list of the world’s most traded goods. Whereas, according to Starbucks, the leading processed coffee retailing companies in the world claimed in may this year that coffee comes second to oil globally, many voices have come up to challenge that assertion. But what can’t be challenged is the fact that the demand and the market for coffee, just like oil products, is an insatiable and ever growing one.
The World Bank’s Development Prospects Group, however, estimates the size of the coffee export market at $19b. Uganda’s coffee production is currently enjoying a year on year increase even as the world’s leading coffee producers saw a slump in their production, with Brazil going down by 11% and Vietnam’s production going down by 29.6% in the last year. These are statistics obtained from International Coffee Organisation.
As pointed out earlier and thanks to our visionary President who issued a directive for a concerted effort by various Government agencies to ensure that Uganda increases her coffee production, UCDA and stakeholders was moved to design the Coffee Roadmap that will make this vision realisable and contribute in ensuring that Uganda gains middle income status. The roadmap highlights three pillars that will catalyse this transformation namely: Demand and value addition; production and enablers.
Production is a major aspect that will, however, play the leading role in this initiative. And as such, land, being the core factor of production must be given due attention. Land use and management practices at the end of the day will determine the level of output for the total land under coffee cultivation.
In Uganda, excluding lakes, swamps and forest reserves, more than 71.5% of the country equaling 14 million hectares, is agricultural land. Of this, 6.9 million hectares is arable, with cereal production (temporary crops), while only10% of the total land area is committed to permanent crops such as coffee, that don’t need replanting after every harvest.
Arable land as a share of land area of Uganda increased from 18.9 % in 1965 to 34.4 % in 2014 growing at just an average annual rate of 1.25 %. By all means, to match the ever rising population’s food needs, this is a very slow shift. Though Uganda, like the rest of Africa has large tracts of idle, arable land. A World Bank/FAO study (ARD 2009) reports that of the 400 million acres that can be used for agriculture, less than 10% is currently cultivated. Which makes Africa the largest underutilised land reserve in the world.
In order to increase production of coffee, there is a clear need, therefore, to start targeting idle land for utilisation. Our country has some of the most productive soils, ferrisols and eutrophic soils that are found all over the country and account for two thirds of soils in the country. That means that coffee, and other crops, can grow and provide high yields with none or minimum need for fertilizers. This is a great blessing given that most of the countries that have excelled in agricultural production rely heavily on fertilizers and irrigation, without which they cannt have a single harvest.
The first thing, therefore, is attitude change. We need to first of all look at land as having a great potential for wealth creation, and then secondly, look at the crops that can be grown on that land that will have the maximum return on the investment, compared to other permanent crops such as sugar cane, if you are a small holder farmer. On an acre, the average number of Robusta coffee seedlings one can plant is 450. For Arabica, this can go up to 680 seedlings.
One of the issues primary considerations in coffee growing is the quality of seedlings. If they are sourced from uncertified sellers, a farmer can end up with very poor yields. It is important, therefore, to get seeds from OWC, which have been sourced from certified seed companies. The average yield of the quality coffee seedlings that are being distributed by OWC after maturity, is between 10 to 15kgs per tree. Maturing for coffee usually takes approximately three years. This explains the increased production in coffee in 2016 because the seedlings that were given to farmers in 2013 had started maturing and now the farmers are reaping the benefits.
Going by the current farm gate prices, the wholesale price for a kilo of Robusta coffee is sh2,250 while Arabica is at sh4,000. Thus depending on the type of coffee you choose to plant, you stand to earn an income of between sh13m to sh30m on an acre. In addition to this, coffee can be easily intercropped with other plants such as banana, maize, groundnuts, soya and sorghum which ensure increased income as well as food security.
One of the challenges that still affects this sector though and is constantly appearing in the news is the habit of farmers harvesting green coffee berries and mixing them with the red ripe ones. This is not only a risk for the farmer who may end up losing all their harvest when intercepted by Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) quality inspectors, but it also creates a bad reputation for the country on the international market, if this goes unchecked. This is because the export demand for Ugandan coffee will affect the farm gate prices; the better the quality, the higher the prices. UCDA has already closed a number of factories for processing immature coffee berries mixed with ripe ones as well as operating in unhygienic conditions.
In order for one to ensure maximum return from coffee, one then needs to ensure that quantity and quality go hand in hand. It is not worth it for one to patiently wait for the coffee to mature and then rush to pick it when it has not yet properly ripened. Waiting the extra weeks for the coffee to fully ripen guarantees a good price while rushing to pick it compromises all the energy and time one has put in up to that stage.
Another aspect that affects the quality is the post-harvest handling of the coffee beans. In order to fetch a good price and be acceptable on the international market, the coffee beans have to be fully dried and retain only the permissible moisture content. The process of drying the coffee is the obligation of the farmer. Poor post-harvest handling such as drying the coffee on the bare ground is, therefore, a huge loss. According to studies carried out in Ethiopia, comparing quality of coffee beans depending on drying process, it was observed that coffee beans dried on bare ground retain only 59% of overall coffee quality, compared to 71% using tarpaulin and 75% when dried on wire mesh.
As we embark on increasing coffee production as a country, which will rely a lot on the utilization of the idle arable land among other things, let us also keep in mind that it is also important to ensure good post-harvest handling. As OWC, our target is to ensure distribution of 300 million coffee seedlings per year up to 2019. Our call to citizens, therefore, is to exploit this opportunity and grow more coffee as we transition into a middle-income country status.
The writer is the Public Relations Officer, Operation Wealth Creation