Know the ‘Real Coffee Story’

There has been significant coffee news out of Uganda lately. The Ugandan Coffee Development Authority reported that total exports for the 2016-17 season increased by 18%. Another announcement was recently made by the world’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea, who has entered into a multiyear agreement with Ugandan coffee giant Kawacom to put some 500,000 retail bags of coffee on the shelves of their stores around the world. Such stories were welcomed with excitement by coffee industry players in Uganda, but just how good is this news?

Unfortunately, it is too quickly assumed that increased exports of Ugandan coffee automatically mean good things for the farmers who grow it. Global coffee trade, however, has long been a demand-side industry in which practically every bean has a buyer somewhere. The farmer who sold all of their coffee last year is not necessarily better off when they sell all of their beans again this year. Selling out does not necessarily equal economic growth in business and thus cannot be thought to automatically signal positive transformation in the coffee village.

What does?

Think about it. A farmer, let’s call her Joyce, who sold 500 kilos of coffee cherries at 1000 Ugandan shillings (UGX) per kilo ($0.27 USD) in the 2013-14 season has made a total of 500,000 UGX or $138 USD. If demand for Joyce’s coffee increases during the next year she can still only sell a maximum of 100% of her crop. So, the only way her condition can improve is if she has the means to increase her crop volume or the price at which she sells it. Unfortunately, in Uganda, most farmers don’t have this kind of power.

When we at Endiro began to explore the farm side of coffee a few years ago, we discovered that even the “Fair Trade” farmers were not receiving either fair trade wages or any kind of community inputs which would help them to increase their volumes. Instead farmers were facing annually decreasing crop yields and were being offered ever-decreasing prices for their coffee.

So, the reality was that a farmer like Joyce from our scenario above reached the 2014-15 season and found that she had only 300 kilos to sell and that the coffee buyers were had decreased their buying price to 900 shillings per kilo. Joyce then earned only 270,000 UGX or $75 USD. Her hope that coffee could ever improve her quality of life was quickly diminishing.

A recent report by Lehigh University’s Kelly Austin found that the average coffee farming family in Uganda’s coffee-rich Bududa district earns only about $100 USD per year from their crops. Austin goes on to cite increased illnesses, poor education access for children, and gender inequality as just a few side effects of this extreme poverty.

Facilitating change is, at one level, quite simple. If coffee is going to become a source of hope and positive transformation, two things must happen. First, farmers must get better prices for their coffee and, second, they must achieve better crop yields.

Endiro has been dedicated to pursuing these two things since 2015. We began our work in the Bududa’s Bukalasi community with a group of women and men who had been exploited for many years. These were farmers who were producing coffee that ultimately made it to the shelves of grocery stores in the USA and Europe in packages stamped with a “Fair Trade Certified” label. Their reality however was far from fair. The Bukalasi women were selling their ever-decreasing volumes of coffee to middlemen as cherries for 800-1500 UGX per kilo. The middlemen then 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 trainings, equipment, or community development projects. The farmers were left to struggle alone against drought, pests, sickness and more. After all, if they failed to produce, there was always another farmer somewhere else who had coffee to sell.

There is little question that we at Endiro had almost no idea what we were doing when we first began to partner with the ladies of Bukalasi. We had never farmed coffee and had almost zero agricultural knowledge. What we did have was a passionate and uncompromising commitment to a few key principles:

1)      Ignoring global market prices, we would pay 8,000 UGX per kilo of coffee, without exception.

2)      We would train and equip the farmers so that they could perform initial processing (floating, pulping, washing, drying) so that we could achieve a specialty grade coffee.

3)      We would do everything in the context of genuine relationship.

The farmers didn’t believe we were serious at first. After all, no one was paying that much for coffee. No one was paying anything close to that. We were surely deceiving them. So, at first, they protected themselves. They used our equipment and continued to sell most of their coffee to the middlemen. When we came for the first portion of the harvest in 2015, we found only a little more than a ton of coffee. But then the money started to be distributed and the farmers realized that we were for real. We finished that season (2015-16) with just under 7,000 kilos of coffee.

Now, remember Joyce, our imagined farmer from above. If she sold us her 300 kilos of coffee that year, she just made 2.4 million shillings ($650 USD). That’s significant.

During the offseason, we continued to coach, pray with and work alongside farmers to re-strategize their farming methods. By teaching them basics of harvesting, pruning, teamwork, how to create natural organic fertilizers and how to control pests through organic methods we saw that the farmers increased their yields for the 2016-17 by over 100%. We bought over 14,000 kilos from Bukalasi last season and the resulting quality has been judged by many to be Uganda’s best tasting coffee. In fact that Bukalasi coffee is now being enjoyed as far away as the USA and Taiwan.

Once again, we check in with Joyce, our representative farmer. Now, her crop has increased from 300 kilos to 600. Joyce now has an annual income on par with the Ugandan national average, something she had never dreamed possible.

During a recent visit to Bukalasi to launch the new season, we heard from all of the Bukalasi team leaders – farmers elected by their peers to represent teams of 50 farmers. Their testimonies were breathtaking. One woman said that it was the first time in her life that she had ever seen 1 million shillings. She was immediately followed by another farmer who said it was her first time to see 2 million! Several farmers reported that they used their money from last year to buy milk cows and that as a result their children were no longer suffering from malnourishment. Many farmers used their earnings to pay school fees for their children who were no longer missing school. A young man reported with pride that he had begun nursing school thanks to the family’s coffee earnings. One can only imagine the long-term impact that an educated younger generation will have on Bukalasi. The reports continued for a long time.

For the 2017-18 season, Bukalasi has set a goal of 50,000 kilos of coffee and so far they are well on pace. Preliminary testing suggests that the coffee this year will be the best they’ve ever produced, approaching cupping scores in the high 80s. Some of our farmers will produce 1000, 2000, 3000 and greater volumes of coffee this year and find themselves quickly approaching the ranks of Uganda’s middle class.

For our part, we have stepped up our commitment to these farmers. We will be paying 8,300 UGX per kilo this season in Bukalasi and investing in additional equipment, training and more. We are even working to develop coffee leaf tea and cascara (a beverage made from the dried fruit of coffee cherries) so as to bring two additional streams of revenue to the Endiro Growers Bukalasi Group.

This is what we mean when we say we are brewing better together. We mean partnering with the farming families, who must be fully participating agents in building their own future, to develop holistic strategies which genuinely bring transformation. The ladies of Bukalasi have a saying that they have adopted as a kind of motto for their forward success – “I am not poor, my head is poor.” We believe that these women have much to teach a world of ultra-wealthy coffee conglomerates who cannot see their way to increasing the amount of money they pay farmers. In fact, they have much to teach all of us. How many of our supposed obstacles are little more than mental blocks. Maybe we aren’t so poor, but our heads are poor.

We hope you coffee lovers out there will take a moment to consider the choices you make with each cup you drink. We hope you café owners will forget about brand names for a moment when you look for a coffee supplier. We hope you micro-roasters will look beyond mere certifications and price tags when you order your next bag of green. Get to know the real story. And, if you are so inclined, join the Endiro story and brew better together with us!

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