Oct. 21, 2018
I've spent the last days in western Uganda, a region I'm visiting for the first time. There's heaps of coffee coming from this place but honestly it's never been that interesting to me in the past.
The reason is that the coffee has been very commercial in quality. There is very poor sorting, meaning a lot of defects in the final green coffee product, and all the focus has been on creating volume. It's a system of coffee collection where it's difficult to work directly with farmers. All the coffee goes through several layers of middleman and traders.
It seems almost a bit of a curse that Uganda has been so business friendly, so welcome to the investments of multinational coffee companies. This means they would build large mills and infrastructure that they wouldn't risk in other countries, but it also means they exert control over the market.
So the whole system is oriented towards their ends, meaning large volumes of commercial coffee at low prices. Never mind the fact that in these regions the coffee plants are good old varieties, and the altitude's are quite good for specialty coffee, meaning 1400 m and up.
The coffee in the west, traded through the town of Kasese, has always been natural, dry processed. The farmer dries the cherry they pick, and then sells it to local collectors as dried pods, called kiboko,
Drying is inconsistent and actually the coffee usually remains at high moisture when traded, often as high as 17 percent. The collector might sell it again but eventually it ends up with a local huller who converts it to green coffee, still with high moisture and not ready for export. It comes to Kasese town where most of the large players have warehouses for storing and bulking up coffee deliveries.
Collector systems like this, where Coffee is delivered to a central town where the end buyer awaits deliveries, usually don't benefit the farmer much or produce quality coffee. None of the training needed to ensure quality practices travels from a place like Kasese back to the farmer and their trees.
Yet the various layers of collection are needed because at each level, people want to be paid quickly for their product. Also the Rwenzori mountains are challenging with few roads were small trucks can reach farmer areas. Coffee is generally brought to collection points by the farmer on foot, animal or motorcycle (called Boda Boda here)
I've been cupping out the results of some new approaches to coffee here. In one case, raised bed naturals that are carefully sorted high standards, a.k.a. all ripe fruit. The coffee is way better than commercial types, yet the humidity and rain is here during drying time shapes the cup profile I believe. It's not Ethiopian natural.
In other parts of these mountains, new washing stations are opening. These are very promising, with coffee grounds at altitudes of 1800 m and higher. Transportation of these coffees is a bit difficult, and even visiting all these farms on a single trip, as they are many hours away from the central trading towns or Kampala.
Other areas like Paida have promise, and of course the coffees we have seen and places visited before, traded out on Mbale in the east. These are the Mount Elgon coffees like Sipi Falls brand, called Bugisu. Here in the west the naturals are called Drugars. I used to think this was an area or name of a group of people! It's actually an acronym: DRy UGanda ARabica !
In the coming weeks I will figure out what the real quality potential is here. Many of the coffee samples I was tasting were too fresh and in some cases roasted poorly in the lab. It's always better to get samples back home and roast them under familiar conditions.
In many ways, I'm reminded of Honduras here. No, there's nothing Honduran about Uganda! But here is the coffee system tailored to the big volume buyers, with giant Mills that can't produce separate lots, and little focus historically on exploring the quality potential of the coffee. Yet that potential is real then exists. It's going to take a change in mindset, and real on the ground investment. It's going to mean direct contact with farmers, and finding a truly valuable role for the middleman where they increase the value of the coffee quality.
And it's going to take buyers who will reward quality with much better prices. I can't buy a farm and build a mill here. So someone's going to have to step up and do the groundwork, and gladly I can see that is happening in several places and with varied approaches. Expect better Uganda coffee soon.