The people of Uganda have long had a deep cultural and social relationship with the “golden bean.” Robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) used to grow wild along the northern shores of Lake Victoria, and the Baganda people of the famous Buganda Kingdom began cultivating it in their household gardens. In their culture, robusta coffee was largely used for traditional and cultural functions like sealing blood brotherhood, initiating new people into the community or celebrating the birth of twins.
From colonialism to corporations
In pre-colonial times, coffee trees were grown behind the houses as a sacred crop until 1894, when the British colonial masters embarked on a plan to join and combine the region’s communities, chiefdoms and kingdoms into a single governable state, eventually leading to the creation of the nation of Uganda. Coffee was commoditized by the colonizers, who told the local people it was unhealthy to chew the beans and drink coffee. Over time coffee lost its cultural significance and became a cash crop. The colonial government facilitated the establishment of several large-scale robusta coffee estates in central Uganda, and introduced Arabica coffee varieties from Ethiopia and Malawi. But in 1919, smallholder family farmers had to take over coffee production when the mainly British-owned estates collapsed due to a fall in world coffee prices.
Today Uganda has over 1.3 million family coffee farms, providing livelihoods to 5.5 million Ugandans, and coffee is the economy’s leading foreign income earner. Thanks to these millions of family farmers, Uganda has emerged as Africa’s top robusta coffee producer and the second-largest coffee producer in Africa after Ethiopia. However, despite coffee’s social, cultural, economic and political significance, Ugandan coffee producers remain the poorest and most exploited players along the value chain, facing many challenges. The producers are at the mercy of corporations who determine the farm gate price. The business is dominated by a few exporters and market giants, and a large number of middlemen who deal with the vulnerable small-scale coffee producers at the bottom of the chain, creating poverty and under-development.
Today almost all the coffee produced in Uganda is destined for export, with only a negligible amount retained by a few small roasters and coffee shops for local consumption. To make matters worse, some beans are imported back to the country as instant coffee, processed in Europe or elsewhere in Africa, further distancing people from their dearly loved crop. This problem is common to other African countries, where huge amounts of food are exported and later imported back in unhealthy processed forms.
A network for quality
In a bid to save Uganda’s native varieties and coffee culture, and improve the circumstances of traditional robusta coffee producers, a group of family farmers came together in 2012 to start a Presidium. Since then the producers have been working on capacity build- ing, environmental conservation, indigenous knowledge sharing and promoting traditional intercropping banana and coffee farming systems, which are more resilient to climate change. Special attention is paid to providing a high-quality product for the local market, as well as networking with various stakeholders at different levels of the coffee chain and other coffee-producing communities around the country.
Raising awareness among the local population about the benefits of drinking “good, clean and fair” coffee as well as empowering producers to deliver high- quality coffee directly to the local market are two of the solutions the network is working on in order to conquer the challenges of the coffee sector. Today all the family farmers in the Presidium and other coffee-producing communities in the Slow Food network understand the importance of producing high-quality coffee for local consumption, not just for the international market. More coffee shops are now being opened around the country as more people are starting to understand different coffee qualities and how their selections and choices affect the local economy.
Local coffee shops are the main vendors of coffee sourced directly from producers, and they showcase the diversity of the coffee crop. They bring consumers closer to the producers, and get valuable feedback on quality aspects that are then explained to the producers as part of the improvement process. Drinking coffee locally means preserving Uganda’s long-standing traditions and cultural relationship with coffee, and recognizing the value of the family farmers who kept producing the crop through the good and bad times. It means widening a direct market base for more than a million coffee-farming households as well as contributing towards the preservation of our rich local biodiversity.
The African Coffee Presidia
The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has begun working to actively safeguard specific varieties of African coffee. Though outside the international circuits of global trade, they most likely represent the beverage’s future. Slow Food has already launched three coffee Presidia, in Uganda, Mozambique and Ethiopia, and mapping is being carried out to identify other wild and cultivated varieties. Watch the video on the Harenna Coffee Presidium in Ethiopia.
This article was originally published in the Slow Food Almanac.