With increased recognition for its quality of Arabica coffee, Uganda is now considered an established origin within the specialty market.
A little history and geography…
…don’t worry I’m not taking you back to school! 😊 Just a little info to familiarise yourself with the country like I had to do with many when I first got serious about coffee and its origins – unfortunately, I didn’t pay much attention to geography in school so a huge learning curve on my part! 😊
So, Uganda is officially the Republic of Uganda and as many African countries, it is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa. Its neighbours include Kenya, South Sudan, D.R. Congo, Tanzania, and Rwanda with a large area of the southern part of the country occupied by Lake Victoria placing Uganda in the African Great Lakes region – a series of lakes comprising a part of the Rift Valley lakes in and around the East African Rift. Uganda also boasts being in the Nile basin.
Shortly after the arrival of the explorer Henry Stanley back in 1875, the first missionaries started reaching Uganda . Prior to this, Uganda was divided into various kingdoms. When the missionaries arrived, they arrived from various religions, particularly Catholic, Protestant and Muslim and as you can imagine were met by hostility. Of course, it goes without saying that with the missionaries, also came trade so in 1888 the British East Africa Company took over Ugandan trade under the British Government and in 1894 Uganda officially became a British colony.
Uganda was granted independence by Britain in 1962 although it maintained it’s commonwealth membership until 1967 when it eventually became Republic of Uganda. A not unusual troubled political history for the rest of its years, Uganda now is still not a truly settled country.
COFFEE IN UGANDA
Robusta, Uganda’s native varietal
Uganda’s coffee history is largely routed in Robusta coffee, hence why it is considered a fairly new origin within the specialty coffee scene. Although Arabica coffee is now becoming more common, Robusta plants are still dominant in the country’s coffee production and being indigenous to the country it has been part of Ugandan life for hundreds of years. An interesting fact here is that the variety of wild Robusta coffee still grows in Uganda’s forests today and is thought to be one of the rarest examples of naturally occurring coffee trees anywhere in the word!
Arabica coffee plants were not introduced in Uganda until the 20th Century. Even so, it took a lot of effort to establish, as disease devastated the crops early on. This made the farmers turn back to Robusta coffee growing as it is more resistant to disease and as it was native to the country it made sense. This was in 1910s and 1920s.
The mid 1970s Uganda saw its biggest economic coffee boom. Why? Well, this is a true example of how one’s devastation becomes an opportunity of another’s. So, Uganda’s boom followed a devastating frost destroyed a huge crop in Brazil, so demand was not met, and Uganda had the supply to meet it. This was a turning point for Uganda and coffee became its most valuable export until the 1987 global coffee crash.
Arabica coffee rises again
So, back to our beloved Arabica coffee! Arabica plants were beginning to be re-introduced into the country prior to the 1987 crash mentioned above. This time it happened on a larger scale, as modern agricultural techniques introduced were able to help protect the plants from diseases and harsh environments. There was also a kind of light bulb moment for the farmers when they realised that they had the perfect climate for Arabica trees on the east and west borders of the country.
Arabica coffee in Uganda is mostly grown on the slopes of Mount Elgon usually grown in mixed farms with food crops for the farmers own consumption. These crops include beans, peanuts, and bananas so the coffee trees are grown under shade trees. This method of growing ensures sustainable coffee production. The food crops provide food for the farmers, shade for the coffee trees and even their leaves that fall to the ground provide compost for the coffee plants.
Most Arabica coffee in Uganda is processed using hand pulpers but there are projects underway to introduce better more efficient processing such as eco-friendly integrated pulping systems – these remove the pulp and mucilage at the same time and uses only small amounts of water making them extremely suitable for use by smallholder farmers.
Robusta coffee still holds the top spot in Uganda’s coffee production and although Arabica is still not grown on the same scale as its Robusta cousin, Arabica coffee production in Uganda has grown steadily over the past 40 years. Its production has improved and so has its reputation and quality.
Mount Elgon from above
Our grade A coffee comes from Uganda’s Kapchorwa district on the eastern border of neighbouring Kenya and is grown on the slopes of Mount Elgon. This is a high grown lot of washed, 100% shade canopy, mixed varietal arabica coffee.
The coffee is grown by a group of small farm holders within the region. These farmers share access to a wealth of growing and processing resources including four greenhouses, an arabica nursery for adolescent saplings, and a washing station with eco-pulping capabilities. Banana trees grow alongside the coffee, contributing to the 100% natural shade canopy. Almost a thousand individual farmers contribute to the overall lot. Each manages their own 1.0-hectare farm and is responsible for the production of about 1,000 arabica trees.