The rain pours amid the rolling green hills and lush vegetation. It’s the middle of Uganda’s second rainy season, known as “the little wet season.” Raindrops spatter against the tin roof, and thunder booms; I sip hot chai across from John Nuwagaba—managing director of the Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPCU)—at his office in Bushenyi District.
Nuwagaba’s office resembles a typical workplace in Canada. The telltale whir of printers and ringing telephones fills the air as the staff, dressed in business attire, go about their day as usual. Sitting relaxed in his office chair, Nuwagaba calmly explains his role in a new wave of social entrepreneurs seeking to empower Ugandan producer communities. “The challenges are enormous for this country, as Ugandan coffee is on the verge of being rejected by international markets,” he says.
Uganda’s coffee industry has survived decades of violent conflict and a tumultuous shift from centrally-planned production to a liberalized, or market-driven, model. Still, smallholder farmers remain under-appreciated and vulnerable in the coffee value chain, where the vast majority of coffee production relies on household plots ranging from a half hectare to two hectares in size.
Across the country, these farmers face many issues such as coffee yields plagued by wilt, bollworm infestations, and coffee berry disease. Moreover, knock-off insecticide and herbicide products are commonly sold within villages, giving farmers a false sense of security in fighting pests and disease.
Seasonal weather patterns also present uncertainties, as daily thunderstorms during the wet season make it difficult to dry recently harvested cherries—or “kiboko” in Lugandan dialect—to optimal moisture levels for hulling. Farmers are often tempted to sell un-dried coffee to processors, which results in lower volumes after hulling and perpetuates the production of low-quality coffee circulating within the country.
When farmers sell their coffee at farm gate, unscrupulous middlemen routinely take advantage of producers by tampering weighing scales and colluding with processors. Chains of agents and sub-agents take small, undocumented commissions from each other in pyramid-like fashion. Due to the number of hands involved, it’s impossible to know how much money smallholders will eventually receive for each harvest.
In effect, a typical coffee value chain is complex. Highly-contextualized non-market conditions go beyond the farmers’ control and consequently make earnings less predictable.
Entrepreneurs like Nuwagaba are working with smallholder producer organizations as part of a country-wide effort to increase producer bargaining power and to change the reputation of Ugandan coffee. The ACPCU represents 15 democratic primary societies and about 6,500 farmers within the district. In just over five years, the cooperative has increased its working capital from $10,000 to $2 million.
A major goal of the cooperative is to help its primary societies increase their production volume of fair average quality coffee (FAQ)—a classification used to describe clean, hulled beans. One primary society has already invested in a hulling facility and now offers quality-differentiated prices to farmers. Nuwagaba emphasizes that providing options for smallholders beyond just selling dried cherries can make Uganda’s coffee more competitive within global markets. This is because the new pricing mechanism provides an incentive to practice better harvesting and post-handling techniques.
Nuwagaba also seeks to increase earning opportunities for farmers by diversifying operations to include washed arabica coffee beans, honey, and eventually, single-origin fine robusta. Beyond this, he wants to empower producers within the existing value chain by soliciting investment for an onsite grading facility; this would save the cooperative from having to transport it to Kampala, the country’s capital.
Discourse regarding agricultural development in Africa often invokes telegenic imagery, but in reality, rural livelihoods are quite ordinary. Nuwagaba’s challenges are no different than those faced by start-up businesses in Canada, and the cooperative’s success will be realized through a combination of pragmatism, perseverance, and creativity.
When I ask Nuwagaba to describe his vision for the ACPCU, he replies, “Seeing farmers transformed into a middle class instead of living from hand to mouth.” Long-term sustainability for this cooperative will not come to fruition through the charity of others. Instead, active consumer support is needed to promote the growth and livelihood of these Ugandan coffee farmers. Once Canadian consumers understand how their choices in the grocery aisle affect worldwide communities, they can begin to make these choices in ways that support a fairer global marketplace.
Sasha Caldera is a co-founder of Fair Trade Vancouver, and a Professional Fellow with Engineers Without Borders Canada.
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