James Ben Wakooba is a coffee farmer and a member of Endiro Growers Bukalasi Women’s Group in Bukalasi central village, Bukalasi sub-county Bududa district.
He started growing coffee in 1994. He recalls that that harvest was poor because of the rudimentary cultivation methods he was using at the time.
He says he never knew that coffee was supposed to be weed often. He also never knew that he had to use manure and prune the crop.
“Also, I never knew that coffee would do well in the shade brought by a tree and that the cherries were supposed to be pulped immediately after harvesting, stored in clean water for two days before it is washed, sorted to remove all the bad coffee, and then kept in clean places,” he says.
He adds that after washing the coffee, he would dry it in direct sunlight and on the bare ground. After harvesting, he would take the coffee to Bugisu Cooperative Union and wait for months before he would get paid.
From four acres, he would only get four bags of 100kg each of dried coffee which was not profitable. This he says kept him in poverty.
Aidah Nandutu is another coffee farmer and member of Endiro Growers Bukalasi Women’s Group who also had similar challenges as Wakooba’s.
She says from two acres she would harvest only three bags of cherry coffee that resulted in 35 kilograms of dried coffee.
She explains that most of the time she would sell the coffee raw at sh600 per kilogramme, which was lower than what she would have earned if she had dried the crop before sale.
“When I waited for it to dry, I would sell to middlemen who would buy a kilogram at sh1,500. Yet I would hear rumours that coffee in cooperative societies was at sh4,000. However, I was not able to take the coffee to the cooperatives in Mbale which is more than 50km away,” she says.
For Michael Wabusha, another coffee farmer from Bukharela Upper village, Bukalasi sub-county in Bududa district, whenever they took the coffee to cooperatives, they were always the last to be paid after the high-profile farmers were cleared.
“Many of us almost gave up because of the way we were treated but stayed because the little money we were getting was helping us solve our household problems,” Wabusha said.
On the other hand, he grows his crop on a hill and did not know he had to create contours to prevent soil erosion.
“My land was eroded because of the water runoffs.”
Coffee farmers continued facing these and other challenges until 2015 when Endiro Coffee came to Bukalasi.
The co-founder, Endiro Coffee, Gloria Katusiime, says when they began working with a group of coffee farmers in Bukalasi, in Bududa district, they discovered they had been exploited for many years by middlemen.
According to Katusiime, the farmers’ coffee ultimately made it to grocery stores in the USA and Europe in packages stamped with a “Fair Trade Certified” label, yet the reality was far from fair.
She explains that Bukalasi women were selling their ever-decreasing volumes of coffee to middlemen as cherries at sh800-1,500 per kilo.
Then the middlemen resold the coffee to cooperatives and brokers who then continued to move the coffee through several layers of trade on its way to Third Wave coffee joints and high-end grocery stores in the West.
“No money made it back to Bukalasi in the form of training, equipment, or community development projects. Instead, the farmers were left to struggle on their own against drought, pests, and sickness among others,” Katusiime explained.
According to Cody Lorance, also a co-founder of Endiro coffee, they decided to buy coffee directly from the farmers.
He said that when they offered 25%-30% more for coffee than other players, the farmers at first were sceptical.
“However, when we started paying for the coffee, they realized our offer was real,” Lorrance added.
Explaining that, no one was paying that much for the crop, which made the farmers in Bukalasi the highest-paid coffee farmers in the country.
He adds that this price was fair for the hard work and superior beans by the farmers.
Florence Muyama Wakooba, the pioneer beneficiary, recalls that at first, they could not believe the price hence they sold coffee to both Endiro and middlemen even though they were using the equipment donated to them by Endiro.
Lorance recalls that when they came for the first portion of the harvest in 2015, they found only a little more than a tonne of coffee, and the rest had been sold to middlemen.
“We completed that season (2015-16) with just under 7,000 kilos of coffee,” he recalls.
In 2016, he says, they continued to train, pray with and work alongside farmers to improve their farming methods through teaching the basics of harvesting, pruning, teamwork, how to make natural fertilisers and organic pest control.
“Farmers’ yield for the 2016-17 season increased by over 100%. We bought over 14,000 kilos from Bukalasi and the resulting quality was judged by many to be Uganda’s best tasting coffee,” he says.
Emphasising that the coffee started being enjoyed as far as the USA, the UK, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, and elsewhere to date.
Lorance emphasises that as Endiro, they are committed to buying coffee directly from the group of 250 coffee farmers, the majority of women.
Some of the areas the groups were trained in include intercropping the coffee with food crops such as beans and bananas. These according to the farmers is for food security.
According to Wabusha, initially, coffee plantations were strictly for that crop and many farmers had to buy food. The beans also help to add nitrogen to the soil.
However, after they were trained, farmers now grow food crops alongside coffee. Proceeds from coffee sales are used for developments.
He adds that they were also trained in good agronomic practices such as proper weeding by slashing, especially during the beans off-seasons.
“We were also trained on the importance of pruning the coffee annually to maintain the desired shape of coffee trees, promote fruit production, allow air circulation and sunlight penetration, and prevent malnutrition,” he says.
Wabusha says they now cut away any unproductive, damaged, unhealthy, or unnecessary branches leaving clean and angled cuts.
He adds that they were also advised to stump to remove the old trees, infested when their production or growth has declined drastically, and also to make space to intercrop with other crops for food security. After, the young coffee tree begins to grow again.
They were also advised to plant shed trees in the coffee.
Lornah Mukuwa Nabulo, a coffee farmer, says the trees provide shade thus mitigating excessive temperatures and heat stress that lead to flower and fruit abortion of coffee.
She adds that the trees recover soil nutrients from deeper soil horizons and transport them to their leaves, when the leaves fall and rot, they provide organic matter or manure which is released to the coffee plantation.
”Trees improve the soil texture and water retention thus availing the much-needed water to the coffee and capture much-needed Nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrates which are used by the coffee for numerous purposes,” she explains.
Adding that trees also act as windbreaks to protect the coffee trees from excessive and destructive winds and some even repel dangerous pests found in the environment,” she says.
According to Wakooba, they were also advised to mulch their coffee plantations to prevent erosion and enhance soil moisture status through improved infiltration and reduction in evaporation among others.
The Bukalasi, use animal manure since it has the potential to be used as an organic nutrient source in coffee production.
Spraying pests, the groups were also trained to use organic pesticides.
Wakooba says they were advised that natural pesticides are biodegradable, barely leave residues in the soil, and are less likely to harm humans.
He adds that they are cheaper and more accessible in less.
“We mix chill and ash as our pesticides and it works well. I never put in a coin because I plant my own chill and the ash, I just burn the beans waste after threshing,” he says.
Because of the training, Wakooba, says from the time he became a member, today from his four-acre he harvests at least 2000kgs.
They also buy at a much higher price than the local market prices something that has increased household income.
For Nandutu, from the two acres, she now harvests at least 800kg and above which was unthinkable before Endiro came to Bukalasi.
Nabulo from her three acres now harvests at least 1200kgs of coffee. She has managed to buy a dairy cow, bought land, and also supports her husband to meet home needs.
She also introduced her husband to improved coffee farming, which has increased the household income.
In the groups, they were trained never to throw away anything that comes from coffee.
They were trained that after pulping the coffee, the pulp can be cleaned, dried, and turned into drinking products. The coffee pulps are also used as a fertilizer in the coffee and also used as animal feed after it has fermented.
From the pruned branches, they were taught to always remove the young leaves of coffee and dried at room temperature and then be used as tea leaves.
The coffee beans can be cleaned, dried at room temperature, and packaged for sale. They can also be ground into drinking coffee.
When they stamp the coffee, instead of leaving it to waste away as firewood, the group was trained to make small motors and pestles which they use for pounding groundnuts, coffee, and different ingredients while cooking.
They also use the coffee stalks to make mingling sticks and hoe handles, among others.
Then the coffee stems that are cut while pruning, and the group was trained to use them for making trays and other decoration materials.
Coffee is also used by breastfeeding mothers to stimulate breast milk. Even the mothers also get the energy to do work like never before.
In 2015 – 2016, they sold as a group seven tonnes of organic coffee to Endiro, in 2016 – 2017, they sold to Edniro 11 tons of coffee, 2017 – 2018, they sold 45 tons, in 2018 -2019 they sold 26 tons, 2019 – 2020, the groups sold 50 tons of coffee to Endiro.
However, 2020 to date they never supplied them with coffee because of COVID-19.
However, Lorance assured the farmers that they are back on board hence asking Bukalasi farmers to start bulking the coffee.
The group plan to set up a modern coffee washing station and a bulking area to ease the member’s work, but also to help in bulking and storing in one place.
Bukalasi coffee wins international award
After Endiro’s intervention, Bukalasi Coffee continued keeping the stands and quality production of coffee. And indeed, their efforts have not gone to waste.
The coffee has managed to win a prestigious international award.
Bukasasi coffee managed to win the new product award in the Coffee and Cocoa Category as part of the Specialty Food Association’s (SFA) 2022 sofi™ Awards a top honour in the $170.4b speciality food industry held in New York.
It is the first time a Ugandan product has won this high honour. The sofi Awards are open to members of the SFA and have been given each year since 1972.
Bukalasi Coffee was one of 102 winners selected by a panel of speciality food experts from nearly 2,000 entries across 53 product categories.
While presenting the award to the farmers recently in Bukalasi, Lorance said the products are judged on taste, including flavour, appearance, texture and aroma, ingredient quality, and innovation.
Noting that all tastings are anonymous and are held at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center.
“On behalf of Bukasali coffee farmers, we are honoured that our flagship coffee has won a New Product Award. We are going to continue working hard with farmers to maintain the high-quality production,” he said.
He explained that this is one of the ultimate stamps of approval for the work done by Endiro farmers in Uganda and the roastery team in the USA which called for celebrations.
Winners are showcased at the Summer Fancy Food Show, at the Javits Center in New York City. The awards are open only to the trade, it is the largest East Coast B2B-only speciality food and beverage show.
Dr. Emmanuel Lyamulemye Niyibigira, the Managing Director of Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) who was the guest of honour at the handover, said it was a great honour to be part of the handover ceremony of the prestigious award to Bukalasi coffee farmers, asking other farmers to emulate them.
He noted that as UCDA they are proud of them, emphasizing that they are going to also support them such that they continue to produce quality coffee.
He thanked Endiro for thinking of the local person who has always not benefited much from their efforts.
“I believe your efforts have increased household incomes which is the government’s agenda. Members of Bukasali coffee, please join the Parish Development Model such that you get extra funds to invest in your coffee for even bigger yields,” he said.
He shared that Uganda’s coffee exports for (February 2021-January 2022) amounted to 6,722,115 60-kilo bags worth US$ 741.03 m compared to 5,465,184 60-kilo bags valued at US$ 511.66m the previous year (February 2020- January 2021).
This represents a 23.26% and 38.18% increase in quantity and value.