Roaster’s tasting notes: this is our first Ugandan natural and it has made us very happy. It treats you to tropical fruit notes and a high, candy sweetness – think retro pineapple cubes. It has a silky mouth feel and whilst it has the distinct notes of a natural it is a tamed ferment. Gorgeous.
For many, Uganda might not the first country that comes to mind when thinking of high quality Arabica coffee: the country has been traditionally known as a producer of Robusta. However, in many regions of the country the challenges are more a matter of infrastructure, history and knowledge than environment. The Rwenzori Mountains in the country’s West (bordering Democratic Republic of Congo) are just one of many regions in the country ideally suited to the production of high-quality specialty coffee.
Sir Winston Churchill first described Uganda as the ‘Pearl of Africa’, while admiring its “magnificent variety of form and colour, profusion of brilliant life and its vast scale”. Benefiting from a bi-modal rainfall season and high altitudes, the country has a pleasant climate all year round and is lush with greenery. The mountain ranges to the east and west are home to Uganda’s Arabica farmers; Robusta is produced on the central plateau.
The Rwenzoris are famously known as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’. They stretch for 120 kilometres along the Western Uganda border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. The snow capped peaks reach over 5,000 metres above sea level and support glaciers that are the start of many rivers flowing down the slopes (including one source of the Nile). The slopes of this range is one area where the government of Uganda is promoting coffee production as a key driver for rural development.
The area is home to the Bakonzo tribe, a people who have farmed the foothills of the Rwenzori for as long as they can remember. The high altitude, fertile soils and plentiful rainfall provide perfect growing conditions for Arabica coffee. Coffee offers the Bakonzo farmers a stable income that allows them to support their families and develop their homes. The coffee is grown under the shade of banana trees, while the mixed farms also produce cassava, maize, beans and groundnuts for local consumption and additional income.
Bukonzo county is divided into many sub-counties including Kisinga, Kyondo, Kyarumba, Munkunyu, Mahango, Nyakatonzi and Isango. The area has many small towns situated on the lowlands, which are joined by good road networks. These towns provide ideal locations for coffee processing and are home to many farmer groups, primary processors and it is in one of these towns, Kisinga, where Kyagalanyi has located its first Coffee Station in the area. At this station, Kyagalanyi is focusing on high quality speciality natural Arabica.
Most farmers have around 1 hectare of land, and all work on the farm is done by hand, usually by immediate family members. Families work together in groups, usually community based but sometimes also extended family groups, to process and market their coffee, an approach known as ‘share farming’. This helps them to improve processing, better control quality and increases their marketing ability.
Kyagalanyi is one of the entities tapping into this budding potential and making it possible for smallholders to participate in specialty markets. In Uganda, they operate three sustainable Arabica washing stations, all of which are UTZ certified. Their Kisinga Coffee Station presents to farmers a programme that incorporates processing infrastructure with agricultural extension services.
Kyagalanyi aims to build long term relationships with the groups in the region and works closely with them to develop the value chain. The work in the Bakonzo County has only recently begun, but already Kyagalanyi is assisting farmers with better market information, improved prices for better quality and advice on how farmers can improve their primary processing techniques. This area will soon become part of the Kyagalanyi Coffee Services program which aims to sustainably increase coffee production and quality.
With such small plots of coffee, but with coffee playing such an important economic role for so many families, it is not surprising that coffee production in Bakonzo County comes with challenges. Rainfall is becoming more irregular, with frequent droughts and punishing rainstorms. Temperatures are rising across the board. In these unreliable circumstances, Kyagalanyi plans to play a very important role. In other regions, the team has worked to promote ecological buffer zones and shade tree planting in the coffee farms, which helps regulate temperature and curtail erosion from sudden deluges, they also provide training in a wide range of agricultural topics. A large field team in this region has just begun to provide a range of extension work to help coffee farmers improve coffee production and their livelihoods. As coffee yields are still far below optimal, farmers can easily still double productivity. Group trainings, individual household trainings, coffee youth teams, demo plots, model farms, coffee nurseries and free cherry collection are all services that the Kyagalanyi team offers to help smallholder families make the most of their land. Improved farm management through these trainings will make the trees more resilient to climate change and overall off-set any yield reductions due to changing weather patterns.
As mentioned below, farmers delivering to Kisinga are smallholders who are stuck in the common circular conundrum of low production>low income>lack of money for inputs>low production. To put it briefly, the following issues are rife:
1. low farm acreage and
2. low yields per tree due to:
I. Old trees;
II. Nutrient deficiencies due to lack of organic manure and limited use of inorganic fertilisers;
III. Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) and to a lesser extent coffee leaf rust due to lack of resistant varieties in Uganda and limited use of coppers and fungicides
As almost all arable land is already in use, farmers who seek to secure higher income from coffee simply must intensify coffee production. Kyagalanyi has a large number of demonstration plots and model farms used to train farmers on the best practices for and benefits of renovation work, inorganic fertiliser use and improved control of CBD and leaf rust. In addition, all member farms receive at least one individual household training per year. During this visit, the Kyagalanyi field staff help the farmers to identify their coffee farm’s constraints and advises them accordingly. Kyagalanyi has also set up Coffee Youth Teams in the Kisinga area. These youth provide commercial farm management services, including rejuvenation and application of agro-inputs.
This work over the past five years has resulted in improved adoption of stumping and inorganic fertiliser use in the Mount Elgon area and related increases in yields. Kyagalanyi are looking forward to seeing the same impact in the west.
Traditionally, soil fertility in coffee fields is maintained through agro-forestry systems, organic manure (cows), erosion control and some mulching with crop residues. However, nutrient removal rates through harvest are higher than nutrient inputs and nutrients supplied through soil weathering. Crop residues are often used to feed the cows, but 1-3 cows per 1 hectare farm cannot supply sufficient manure for good yielding production. Nutrient deficiencies are therefore common in the region. Kyagalanyi teams have seen strong responses to inorganic fertiliser in their demo plots and model farms. Farmers are appreciating the fertiliser recommendations and increasingly adopting them.
Regular rejuvenation was previously not practiced in the coffee areas of the Rwenzoris. Farmers would only cut-off dead or non-productive stems on an irregular basis. As a result, the majority of trees in the area were very old. Kyagalanyi has introduced the concept of full stumping on their demo plots. As the farmers return to the demo plots for regular trainings, they see how the rejuvenated trees develop and learn of the importance of sucker selection, fertilisation and CBD control to optimally promote growth in the rejuvenated trees. They are also encouraged to try out rejuvenation on a few trees in their own farms during individual household trainings. As many farmers in the region are aging and rejuvenating large trees with hand saws is tiresome, Kyagalanyi set-up coffee youth teams to offer commercial stumping services.
During the harvest season, Kyagalanyi encourages farmers to deliver cherry to their new, state-of-the-art wet mill instead of hand pulping on their farm. This has given the programme increased control over processing activities, which can be challenging in the region as rains during the harvest season are common. Most farmers live up to 50 kilometres away from the washing station. Due to the long distances, Kyagalanyi has a truck that offers free transport services that visits every farmer group 1-2 times per week during harvest season. As the coffee trees flower multiple times, the harvest season is quite long (4-5 months). Farmers normally pick coffee at least once every week.
Kyagalanyi implements a 95% red cherry policy. Farmers are requested to only bring in fully ripe cherry, and this is checked at every collection point. If the quality is not good enough, farmers will have to sort their cherries at the collection point until 95% red before their coffee is purchased. Kyagalanyi provides tarpaulins and racks to assist in the sorting.
This coffee was processed using the natural method. Once delivered the coffee is floated, and is then moved to dry on raised African beds inside greenhouses. It will stay here for around 15 days, and drying is controlled by turning the coffee regularly and maintaining an equal depth of cherry on the beds. The coffee will dry until it reaches optimal humidity.
About the Varieties:
Most farmers in the region grow old rootstock SL28 and SL34, interspersed with the occasional SL14, Nyasaland and Bugisu.
SL28/34/14 – Scott Laboratories was a research organisation based in Kenya that developed multiple cultivars under contract between 1934 and 1963. Scott Labs developed various SL varieties, mostly based on Moka and Bourbon types brought by the Scotch and French missions to Kenya to cultivate. Some of the more successful SL (Scott Labs…get it?) varieties are still widely grown in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda today, however, SL 28 and SL 34 are the ones that are most relevant for specialty coffee. It is important to note that by ‘developed’ we mean that the varieties below were ‘selected’ by Scott Labs over time. They are not ‘hybrids’ – although they were technically ‘developed’ in a ‘lab’. SL28 – Bred in 1931 from Tanganyika D.R, SL 28 has become ubiquitous throughout East Africa and is recognised as a variety of exceptional cup quality. Beans are wide and productivity comparatively low. Though it is not substantiated that we can find, some sources claim that Scott Labs crossed mutations of French Mission, Mocha and Yemen Typica to produce the SL 28 variety. No matter the exact genetic composition, almost certainly their original goal was to create a plant with high quality, reasonable productivity and great drought resistance. SL 28 hits the first objective squarely on the head. SL34 – A mutation of French Mission, originating from the plantation of Loresho in Kabete, SL 34 has wide leaves with bronzy tips. It is widely grown throughout Kenya. SL 34 is valued for its high productivity in different climate conditions and great height ranges. It is also claimed to be resistant towards draught and strong rainfall.
SL14 – SL14 was selected in 1936 from a single tree labeled Drought Resistant II (D.R. II), and drought tolerance is a noted characteristic of SL14. Historical records documenting the origin of D.R. II were lost, but the seedlings were established at Kabete in 1933 and then widely distributed in areas east of the Rift Valley in Kenya. The variety is now widespread in Kenya and Uganda
Nyasaland is Bourbon-Typica Group (Typica-related) variety and one of the oldest Arabica coffee varieties introduced to Africa. The variety originates from Typica introduced to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1878 from Jamaica. By 1891 there was a flourishing coffee industry in Malawi, but this eventually declined because of the marginal climate, which is hotter and drier than is usual for Typica. High incidence of pests including white stem borer coupled with inexperienced farmers allowing the plants to overbear in the first years caused a precipitous fall in yields that ultimately led to the abandonment of coffee in Malawi.
Nyassaland was taken from Malawi to Uganda in 1910, where farmers also struggled with the variety. Early failure led to the widespread planting of Robusta in Uganda. But in recent years, there has been a small resurgence of Arabica growing on the slopes of Mount Elgon, where Nyasaland (locally called Bugisu) is an important variety for smallholders.
Bugisu is a local variety of Nyassaland. The name derives simply from the region, where it is widely used to connote that a coffee is processed using the washed method as opposed to the Drugar/Natural processing method.
Kyagalanyi is ISO accredited and UTZ certified. Wages are based on the role the individual is carrying out, market rate comparisons, cost of living and individual performance. They have in place a number of initiatives which support employee welfare such as a subsidized lunch, 21 days annual leave, medical insurance or access to medical facilities financially covered by the company, access to clean drinking water at all times and employee suggestion boxes at all sites. In addition they operate in accordance with the Workers Compensation requirements of Uganda as well as having an additional insurance cover in place and a compassionate leave policy. All employees are provided with appropriate PPE equipment depending on the nature of their role.
Kyagalanyi has developed a gender engagement programme in other parts of Mt. Elgon and plans to extend this to the Rwenzori area very soon. They support youth employment through the Coffee Youth Team project. They also promote the construction of energy saving stoves to reduce fire-wood consumption.