Mbale: Coffee Town
For generations, coffee has been core to the livelihoods of those in the Mt. Elgon region. Family life shifts with the seasons, and it is rare to meet someone on the hills who doesn’t have coffee plants scattered through their garden.
Demand for Uganda’s Arabica hasn’t always been constant, however Mbale is enjoying a happy period at the moment. The attitude is shifting from “this is just for the Mzungus*” as the Ugandan coffee culture develops. Walking through the slopes of Wanale, farmers will speak of how coffee was once grown for use as bullets, dried on the ground and seen only as a cash crop. The growth of giants such as Kyagalanyi and the entrance of collectives such as Zukuka Bora are driving new interest, locally and internationally. This in turn sparks investment in farmer education, bonus payments and fairer supply chains.
These supply chains are complicated, even within Mbale.
Every coffee tree yields around 3kg of cherries. Each coffee bean is the seed of a juicy cherry. They are harvested only at a rich red colour and then undergo washing, pulping, fermentation, drying, hulling and grading. Farmers will either sell the cherries whole, after pulping, or as dried beans. The buyers take care of the remaining processes.
We partner with farmers’ collectives, who purchase whole cherries directly from the farmer. This enables consistent quality and fairly rewards the farmer for what they do best: growing coffee. Alternatively, farmers can sell to middlemen, large co-operatives or private exporters, but this inevitably reduces quality (due to decentralised processing) and results in underpayment (due to information asymmetry or extra players).
It’s difficult to understand and assess the different models and the relative impact on farming communities. Unfortunately, my average drawing doesn’t make it much clearer.
We’re planning on spending some time here during harvest season and we’ll work out how to break it down properly then. In the meantime, reach out and ask us questions!
*A friendly word for foreigners like us.
written by Darcy
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