Uganda: How Coffee Exports Escaped Covid-19 Storm

Uganda's coffee exports for the financial year 2020/21 hit a 30-year record, exporting more than six million coffee bags, what explains that?

Over the last five years, government has been providing free coffee seedlings to farmers all over the country to increase production. During the exercise, farmers who ordinarily were not coffee farmers ended up planting because of the availability of the seedlings. This pushed up production.

Therefore, the coffee which was planted between 2015 and 2018 is now yielding and is in production. However, this came with support from extension services that provide farmers with mindset change training to appreciate that coffee is a business that can transform lives.

In addition to extension services, we have added professionalism in coffee production by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with district local government staff and model framers to spread the gospel to farmers highlighting the importance of growing coffee for business. We have come up with coffee manuals that serve as our 'Quran' or 'Bible' to help in spreading the gospel.

It has also helped in improving the quality of coffee. Uganda's coffee was recently ranked by Uganda Coffee Institute as the third-best quality coffee which opened doors to new markets. We have now displaced India in the Italian market. There is also accelerated demand for coffee in those markets.

The favourable weather is another factor aiding increased coffee production. We have not had a long dry spell in a long time. So, the good weather quickened coffee to flower and produce good berries. The favourable coffee prices also contributed to this performance. From 2017 onwards, many traders bought coffee but did not realise a return on investment due to the low prices at the time which led to hoarding.

But more than six months ago, the prices have started increasing. Farmers are now offloading what was in stores to the extent that some companies bring empty containers to load coffee. So, as a country, we need to add value to fetch more money.

According to the report, there was a tremendous performance in June. Is this a one-off or you are establishing a trajectory for greater output?

We are on a trajectory. We have so far distributed 1.2 billion coffee seedlings. We expect continued increased production because of the free distribution despite the mortality of coffee seedlings.

The lockdown has also increased appetite for coffee as people are now ordering coffee for home deliveries especially in Europe particularly Italy that drove up the good performance.

We are looking at 20 million bags of coffee from farmers by 2025/2030 according to the roadmap. This is a deliberate effort to establish a trajectory for greater output.

We are relying on the nine pillars of coffee production which contribute to increased production and increased consumption of coffee in the country.

The report mentions sustainable 'sipi coffee' which fetched five dollars. What does this mean?

First, sustainability implies growing coffee using good farming practices to conserve nature and provide better livelihoods for people who grow and process it. Therefore 'sipi coffee' is a type grown for sustainability because there is a traceability mechanism to check how it is being produced.

It takes about 30 minutes to dry after harvesting without compromising the qualities if well handled. Sipi coffee is a quality Arabica bean grown in Bugishu around the Sipi Falls area. Much as Arabica coffee is deemed good for sustainable production. The Robusta coffee is also being fine-tuned for sustainable production due to the altitude that favours Robusta coffee growing.

The Bugishu region is producing a lot of Arabica coffee, but we are expanding our production to the western rift valley including Kisoro, Kanungu, Rubirizi, and Zombo so that when the central production goes dry, we have a backup.

In terms of pricing, are we where we should be?

Price is never a static figure. We always want to have more. Ugandan farmers are getting up to 78 per cent of the actual export price which is one of the highest we have in the region and globally. This market share is good because the prices have increased. But we can do better if we invest in specialty coffee.

Specialty coffee can go up to five dollars. Therefore, as we push the coffee volumes, we should also emphasise quality. Specialty coffee in its green stage is coffee that is free of primary defects, properly sized, and dried. This means the coffee must pass aspect grading and cupping tests.

Pacesetters

Coffee production.

The pacesetters in coffee production are Brazil followed by Vietnam. Brazil produces more than 30 per cent of the global coffee output followed by Vietnam which produces half of the volume of Brazil.

Brazil predominantly grows Arabica whose production volumes drop after a year of increased production. Therefore, Brazil's production was reduced due to the Arabica coffee production cycle giving an advantage to Ugandans.

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