“You are most welcome.” The male farmers congregate in a simple concrete building on the edge of the red dirt road in Demukata Society, about an hour up the mountain from Mbale town. As we enter the humble space, there is nothing hanging on the pale yellow walls and all of our shoes have filled with a thick, red mud now that the rainy season has settled into a constant rhythm, after only two weeks of showing her face again. A rushing river lined with Eucalyptus trees flows behind our meeting space, and the lush green peaks of Mt. Elgon lay beyond it. Patchwork squares of treeless land are carved out of the mountains, their rich soil filled with beans and corn and plantains, as far as I can see. There is a small meeting space that sits next to the river, made up of a few wood posts, a tin roof, dried grasses that make up the walls, and their broken pieces that decorate the dirt floor, a simple black chalkboard, and wooden benches. It’s a school, with a few lingering, smiling children, their eyes bright and engaged, practicing their English to the visiting Mzungus.
We had arrived to Mbale town last night after a long journey from Chicago to Amsterdam, Rwanda, Entebbe, to Kampala. This was our first full day in this new territory, but we found ourselves in a place with people who spoke our same language–that is, the language of cooperatives, fair trade, organic, small farmers, and of course; coffee– and through that bond, we were able to feel right at home (or right in coffee country…). The staff of Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative warmly took us under their wing, leading us out to the societies sparsely located through the hills of Mt. Elgon, through the streets of Mbale and offered us a deeper look at Uganda through the context of coffee. It was a first time visit to Uganda for our Cooperative Coffees delegation of three and we had come to meet the farmers, to further our relationship and learn about what happens on the ground.
Sure there were different colors, different shaped houses, different languages, but the hectic streets, the rural villages, and the spaces between all had a similar overall feel to other coffee country landscapes I’ve visited throughout Latin America. Alongside the staff of Gumutindo, I quickly learned that any unease I had arrived with was immediately calmed when we reached Mbale. It felt safe compared with most of my travels through Central America, and I was surprised by how comfortable I was upon arrival.
The jet lag was hitting me hard on our drive up to Demukata and the consistent potholes didn’t stop my bobbing head from its fight to stay alert. If there’s one thing I’ve mastered from all these miles on the road, it’s how to fall asleep in the most unusual circumstances. And these roads were no exception, my eyes giving in to the rhythmic bouncing of our off-road vehicle, in spite of the newness surrounding me.
As I fight to keep my eyes open and fixed on the side of the road, we pass by groups of children with pale yellow plastic containers, heading to and from the wells to fetch water, either frolicking with an empty, light jug, or walking slowly and steadily balancing several gallons on the top of their heads. Their gaze follows our land cruiser as it stumbles slowly along, until our eyes catch each other and a loud, “How are youuuuuuu Mzunguuuuu” erupts together with a giant smile and waving hands. Our smiles last until the road carries us around another bend. Along the way, the banana trees line the roads and populate the coffee farms, reaching their branches in a v-shape towards the cloudy sky, as if they are joyously welcoming the coming rain. And the streets are lined with goats, cows, and men pushing (or riding, if they can manage it with strength and balance…) bunches upon bunches of heavy, green plantains tied to their bicycles, heading down the hill to market. The plantains will be sold locally and soon after boiled and mashed into madoke and served as a staple in most Ugandan homes.
Rain drops grow more frequent as we ascend, and the dirt road consequently becomes slick like the snow covered roads we’re used to at home. We eventually slide into our destination, alert and eager to get to know the farmers, the organization, and life in rural Uganda. Here we go.
Coffee has been grown on the hills of Mount Elgon since the early 1900s with the Bugisu Cooperative Union, a large co-operative, controlling much of the market since the 1950s. However, there has been little focus on the quality of both the beans and the organizational structure. As the specialty and gourmet segments of the coffee market started demanding better qualities and offering higher prices, a group of farmers got together in 1998 to launch a side project to market their coffee independently. Today, that small project has grown into Gumutindo Coffee Cooperative (Gumutindo meaning “excellent quality”), organizing nearly 10,000 farmers throughout Mt. Elgon. As a secondary level organization, Gumutindo is responsible for processing, exporting, and marketing the organic and fair trade coffee grown by its members. Strengthening their member cooperatives has always been a core part of their mission.
As we participate in workshops surrounding the involvement of new members within Gumutindo throughout the week, we learn about the unique challenges that Uganda must deal with to overcome the history of sour images Ugandans hold in regards to cooperatives. Unlike in Latin America, cooperatives in Uganda have been historically less successful. In the past, cooperatives here were owned by the British, who used them as a tool to serve their own export interests, giving little ownership or benefit to the farmers involved. When the British left, the cooperatives were left in the hands of the national government who lacked the knowledge, capacity, and ability to successfully run them. Since then, cooperatives have maintained a legacy of corruption. That unfortunate understanding of cooperatives that has played out through history has made it difficult for farmers to see the importance of getting organized. Gumutindo has much work to do in this respect, but by offering higher prices, prefinancing, technical support, access to market information, offering a space for women to participate, providing projects related to climate change mitigation, and social premiums for community projects, they have been able to acquire many members who (as a result of their participation) have seen many noticeable changes in their livelihoods.
Our first day in Uganda lead us to conveniently coincide with a meeting with a newly organized cooperative in the Demukata Society. This is one of the 16 primary societies that makes up Gumutindo and is located in the mountains of Mt. Elgon, an extinct volcano that is home to thousands of coffee farmers. Demukata sold coffee to Gumutindo for the first time this year, and board members Jennifer and Oliver, Lydia the coffee quality manager, and John Harrington, a retired Welsh volunteer, were there for a governance workshop to explain to the farmers how payments were done, the importance of quality, the benefits of being organized in a fair trade cooperative, and to introduce them to their buyers.
Inside the room, about 30 men from 5 different regions fill the space. All of them speak Lugisu, including the board members, so Lydia and Oliver help translate the meeting into English for us. Their workshop focuses on the benefits of fair trade for farmers new to this whole system; better prices, improved livelihoods, social premiums, organizational and technical support from Gumutindo, training, and encouraging the participation of women.
Oliver and Jennifer, two strong women, speak confidently on not only their roles as board members of GCC, but as their roles as women and farmers. “Where are your women? They too can farm, can be organized, and attend meetings. Women may even handle the money better and should be allowed to sell the coffee and collect payments for their families too. When women become involved, it’s a benefit for the whole family,” they tell the room full of men, encouraging them to have their wives and family members involved in future meetings. Later on in the week, we were impressed by the changes in regards to women’s involvement that were seen in other cooperatives who had many years of organization behind them.
The staff of Gumuntindo are getting to know the farmers, just as the farmers are getting to know the organization. And while we are there, we take advantage of the opportunity to explain to farmers why we do business the way we do. Sharing our bags of coffee with the new members, I explain the Just Coffee chain compared with the conventional chain, backing up Jennifer’s “fair trade ladder” she had just drawn, showing the sequence of actors that participate in the fair trade coffee chain, from the producer all the way down to the consumer. They check out the roasted beans, tasting, smelling, studying them, new to the flavors and characteristics of what their beans turn into on the other side of the world. Ironically, the British left their culture of taking tea behind and although it is cultivated by thousands of farmers in this area, coffee consumption here has never really taken off.
To bring this all together, John helps to explain that 98% of Gumutindo’s coffee is sold for export in the international specialty coffee market to several countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. Upon organizing with Gumutindo, these small farmers immediately enter into this global market, as global traders, connected with people all over the world. We explain the long journey of coffee from their homes to Mbale, to the port in Mbasa, Kenya, across the ocean, and to our roasters. We also explain why we are part of fair trade, why the consumers that purchase our coffee support us, and in turn support them. And no matter how small their plots of land are, we are all now connected in a globalized world through these beans.
After a heavy meal of rice and meat, we travel back down the mountain to prepare for several more visits with different societies. Throughout the week, we explore how Gumutindo works to empower communities through well-organized cooepratives and uses them as a means for development, working together with farmers to confront the effects of climate change, HIV/Aids, poverty, and to promote women’s participation and fair trade.