The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) invited me to participate in a coffee industry tour of their country. Other participants included business owners and representatives of prominent American specialty coffee roasters and the Importer Crop to Cup. The majority of us flew to Kampala on the same flight and stayed at the Serena hotel. We mingled, and then began a guided coffee shop tour. A television crew followed us around like National Geographic filming wild animals, an odd twist. They interviewed us about our perceptions of Uganda and the coffee industry there. I was shocked to find Uganda more developed than what had been presented to me on TV. Many places in Kampala appeared nicer than Chicago, including the roads.
I learned about Ugandan customs and discovered that many people drink tea with milk and spices instead of coffee. To this day, many farmers believe that coffee is used as gunpowder. Why else would Mzungu’s (Europeans) pay so much for it? Before recorded history, coffee was cultivated on the Ssese islands in Lake Victoria and used for religious purposes. Coffee was consumed at weddings and some demonstrated their friendship by cutting their hands open, bleeding over coffee beans, then giving those beans to a friend. One shop visited sold coffee how it was originally consumed, roasted to a shade of yellow (Ancora Bianco). Coffee is still consumed this way in the western region of the country; when you enter a home as a guest, the owner presents a basket of beans for you to chew on.
We arrived at UCDA headquarters and cupped several tables of coffee including but not limited to Taste of Harvest contestants as well as Gorilla Summit Mountain coffee, ITC Women’s coffee, Twin Trading Women’s Groups Bukonzo and Ankole, and coffee from Kasese including Kika Coop. We were greeted by US Embassy representatives and shared lunch with them. Many of the group was enthusiastic about the opportunity to meet with US royalty, but I was not; the US embassy directly supervised the overthrow of my wife’s country last year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIvRljAaNgg
That evening we watched a native Ugandan dancing show. Participants performed dances representative of tribes from across the country. Ugandan Indigenous people known as Pygmies danced with amazing agility and women moved in unison while balancing clay pots on their heads.
Before departing for Jinja, we met with several exporters including Savannah, Great Lakes Coffee and Kygalanyi KLA. Each exporter was strategically structured to market coffees to different segments in the coffee industry.
After an exhaustive series of cupping and a long drive, we arrived at the Black Lantern Nile campsite. Lying in bed we could hear the sound of raging water and monkeys jumping from trees above our heads.
I promised my wife I wouldn’t die on this trip, so I enjoyed the majestic view of the Nile from the camp site while the rest of our party braved white water rapids. I was told a series of sheer drops led to a gentle pool of bathing crocodiles. Survivors gathered and we set off for a tasting event at the CORE Iganga training site.
One group cupped Canephora (aka Robusta) coffees and the other experimented pulling shots of their own production coffee along with different ratios of Robusta. An agronomist led a discussion regarding the genetic make up of Robusta and its different varieties. Climate change and deforestation have forced scientists to rush to identify coffee genetics across the country. A research project is currently underway to document all of the varieties of coffee grown in Uganda as well as their flavor characteristics. Uganda is the birthplace of Robusta and may well have been the birthplace of Arabica too, considering its parents Eugenioides and Canephora are native there. In the Kibale National Park, mountain gorillas’ feast on native species including: Canephora, Eugenioides, and Liberica. Scientific focus should be placed on Eugenioides, due to its drought resistance and flavor qualities. We cupped Organic Kibale coffee at the UCDA and were blown away by aromas of tropical fruit, berries, and plantain. In Mbale we met our grower partners Gumutindo and cupped coffee with them and a representative of the Bugisu Cooperative Union. Gumutindo proudly displayed our logos throughout their building and workers smiled, cheered and waved when I greeted them.
Before departing for Sipi, we met and toured the mill Kygalanyi (owned by multi-national ED&F MAN). The Kygalanyi mill is a brand new 14 million dollar project. An agronomist for Kygalanyi promotes pesticide use and synthetic fertilizer. She stated that the use of synthetic fertilizer had no negative effects on the environment. She intends to apply commodity agricultural techniques, those common in corn and other crops, on specialty coffee. I was told that loans were given to farmers at up to 30% interest, with the farm placed as collateral. On the other end, Root Capital– a non-profit– offers loans to farmers at 11%. Either way, it is a real challenge for small farmers to afford these inputs.
Part 2 will be posted soon.
Written by Casey Blanche.