From Germany to Uganda: Stephan’s Mission to Elevate Robusta Coffee

02 Nov 2023

At the heart of the Slow Food Coffee Coalition, there are individuals—coffee farmers, entrepreneurs, and coffee lovers—each with a remarkable and deeply intertwined story. Their connection goes beyond just signing the Manifesto and embracing the values of the Slow Food network; it’s fueled by a profound passion that fuels a daily pursuit of a coffee that embodies the essence of Good, Clean, and Fair. As diverse as the coffee they cultivate and champion are the journeys that brought them in the Coalition. From the fertile soils of coffee farms to groundbreaking ventures, they are driven by a common vision: to harness the power of coffee for the betterment of both our planet and the communities that nurture it. Within this rich mosaic of human experiences, we want to provide you our SFCC members’ stories.

We’re glad to introduce you to Stephan Katongole, a coffee farmer and the proud owner of “Coffee You Know.” His journey is a unique and inspiring one that spans from Germany to Uganda. In 2013, armed with an MBA degree and an unwavering determination, Stephan made a life-altering decision: he relocated to his grandparents’ farm in Ssembabule, Uganda. It was here that he embarked on a mission centered around Coffea Canephora, more commonly known as Robusta. Stephan is not only a member of the Slow Food Uganda network but also one of our newest additions to the Slow Food Coffee Coalition’s family of producers. His story is a testament to dedication and an unwavering passion for transforming the world of coffee.

Our journeys are as diverse as the coffee some of us produce and champion. From the rich soils of coffee farms to innovative ventures, we are united by a shared vision: to make coffee a force for good, both for the environment and for the people who cultivate it.

Building on this immense human richness, we would like to offer a space for our members’ stories. This month we feature Stephan Katongole, a coffee farmer and the proprietor of “Coffee You Know” who embarked on a unique journey from Germany to Uganda. With an MBA degree under his belt, in 2013 he made a life-changing decision to relocate to his grandparents’ farm in Ssembabule, Uganda. There, he set out on a mission entirely centered around Coffea Canephora, commonly known as Robusta.

Stephan Katongole

A member of the Slow Food Uganda network and one of the newest additions to the Slow Food Coffee Coalition producers’ roster, Stephan’s is an inspiring tale of dedication and passion for the transformation of the world of coffee.

Let’s start with a simple question: how do you like your coffee?

When I lived in Germany, we always drank it with milk, as is common there. But when I started working with coffee, I wanted to savor its true flavor and explore how it changes with variables such as processing method, species and harvest conditions. Now, I enjoy black coffee from my own farm most of all. In the morning, a straightforward French press or Aeropress is all I need. No complicated equipment here!

Can you share your journey with us? How and why did you decide to become a coffee farmer and entrepreneur?

In the early 2000s, after my grandparents passed away, my father returned to Uganda to manage the family farm, which he had planted extensively with coffee, as was common in the area. I would visit during holidays but stayed in Germany. However, those visits provided me with a profound understanding of how coffee grows and is processed.

At a certain point, my father inquired about who in the family might be interested in taking over the farm in the future. That’s when I seriously began contemplating this path. I knew I wanted to do things differently.

Coffea Canephora (Robusta) plants in full bloom

How so?

While still in Germany, I started researching Robusta and various cultivation and processing methods. The Ssembabule region was well-suited to Robusta, but when I began speaking with roasters and importers in the specialty coffee industry in the 2010s, they all said there was no market for it.

Robusta was often seen as “second-class” or low-quality coffee. That’s when I realized I needed to prove them wrong, and I saw it as a challenge.

Is that how “Coffee You Know” came into existence?

Exactly. I wanted people to know who grew their coffee and that the coffee they were enjoying was Robusta. Initially, I handled everything myself: from cultivation and processing to roasting and shipping to those who wanted it. I even kept a blog where everyone could follow me on the journey.

Over the past decade, from when I started in 2013 to today, I’ve successfully moved to direct trading of green coffee with specialty coffee roasters in Europe who appreciate and are willing to pay a fair price for high-quality Robusta.

Do you see a significant role for Robusta in the coming years?

I’ve always believed that Robusta represents the future for two key reasons. First, within the specialty coffee industry, most people grow, process and consume Arabica coffee. It’s only a matter of time before they explore other coffee species, and we’re already witnessing a growing interest in various coffee species within the specialty coffee sector. Secondly, Robusta is more resilient to climate change and can be cultivated at lower altitudes.

Nevertheless, we have to increasingly implement agroforestry systems because even Robusta plants cannot survive extreme the heat, heavy rains and hailstorms associated with climate change. Climate change is already upon us, and we must adapt swiftly. Being part of the Coffee Coalition can help spread this message to a broader audience, encompassing both consumers and producers.

You mentioned researching processing methods. Have you introduced any new techniques in Robusta processing?

Initially, I experimented with washed Robusta, a method that very few growers employed. However, this process consumes a significant amount of water and generates wastewater that, if not managed properly, can harm the soil and groundwater.

So, I transitioned to the honey process, which utilizes minimal to no water. Another processing method I employ is the anaerobic natural one. Essentially, we pick ripe cherries, ferment them in special bags for 2 to 3 days, and then dry them naturally. This approach brings out a wide array of flavors.

Coffee drying on raised beds

Lastly, your mission as a business owner and as part of the Slow Food network?

My mission is to emphasize the importance of diversity in various aspects. Firstly, I aim to prove that Arabica isn’t the sole source of high-quality coffee. Secondly, to adapt coffee cultivation to climate change, we must act collectively and promote the widespread use of agroforestry systems in coffee farming. One of the first steps will be to work closely with the “Kanoni Coffee Producers of Ssembabule” Slow Food Community to share my practices with them.

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