Coffee is a real opportunity for farmers in Uganda, and with assistance from Volcafe Way Farmer Support Organizations, they’re producing some of the country’s best coffees to date. In this conversation, Anneke Fermont, regional sustainability manager at Kyagalanyi (pronounced CHUG-uh-lani) Coffee, Genuine Origin’s sister organization in Uganda, describes finding meaningful work, efforts to end child labor, and the two carefully crafted coffees selected for Genuine Origin.

Anneke Fermont: I’m Dutch, I’m 44 years old as of Monday, and I’m an agronomist by training.

In 1997, I moved to Africa to work as an agricultural scientist. I worked in South Africa, then I moved to Senegal for four years. Then I came to Uganda, and I worked here for nine years on cassava and other food security crops — bananas is one of them. But I found I was not having the impact that I wanted to achieve with my life. As an agricultural scientist, a lot of what you develop remains on the shelves, it never gets to farmers. So I was looking for something else to do where I could have more impact. Then I came across Kyagalanyi, where I ended up becoming the sustainability manager, and it’s been the best job I’ve ever had.

I thoroughly enjoy working with farmers, colleagues, development partners and roasters, to contribute to a value chain in which economic sustainability drives social and environmental sustainability. Over the years, our Farmer Support Organization (FSO) in Uganda has grown from strength to strength. We now have more than 60 field staff that provide a wide range of services to about 12,000 Arabica farming households, to assist them with increasing coffee quality and production.

Genuine Origin: What kinds of changes are you seeing?

AF: Certified volumes have tripled in the past five years. Quality has improved significantly. We reached a cup score of 86 for some of our Mt. Elgon coffees last year, and our Erussi coffee was sold as a single origin in Europe.

At the farmer level, we see the adoption of good management practices picking up. Our key message to them is to rejuvenate their old trees by stumping — or, pruning — and to start using fertilizer. The percentage of households using fertilizer doubled in the past 2 years in Mt. Elgon, from 15 to 32 percent, and stumping is really picking up in some areas. It’s such a pleasure to see.

Besides strong basic services such as improved processing and drying equipment, our agronomy training program and input services, we are involved in a lot of concept development. This includes using smartphone apps to collect monitoring and evaluation data; a project on commercial farm management services that we call Coffee Youth Teams; a project introducing mobile money to pay for coffee purchases from farmers; and a project to stop child labor.

We share lessons learned within our team, with other Volcafe origins and with our development partners. Since the introduction of the Volcafe Way, there is a lot more sharing between origins. We are learning a lot from our Latin American colleagues on how to transform smallholder coffee production into commercial enterprises.

GO: What has Kyagalanyi’s role been in stopping child labor?

AF: We’ve just completed a Stop Child Labor project that we ran for two years with partners, and thanks to that work, 437 children have gone back to school. Due to the success of the project, UTZ has just approved a 3-year project to expand the Stop Child Labor activities in West Nile. The new project will help create cost-efficient strategies UTZ implementers can use to work on child labor issues.

GO: What were the last two years like?

AF: It was a coalition between us, as a coffee exporter working with coffee households in West Nile; quite a big social NGO called CEFORD; and the Teacher’s Union in Uganda (UNATU). The certification standard UTZ has funded is by Hivos, a Dutch NGO.

Ultimately, the idea was to start a child labor–free zone. CEFORD was very involved with the community, creating awareness, working with local leaders to get them on board and  finding children that were working and helping to send them to school. On our end, we would identify child labor in the households in the Kyagalanyi area, and work with those households to develop activities to help them create more income.

CEFORD was sending the children back to school with a small backpack that would help them out for the first term. But then, if you don’t solve the economic situation those families are in, and most of them are very poor, you don’t create a long-term solution to the problem.

So, our staff would sit down with the households and say, “OK, short term, what can you do to get more income to send that particular child back to school?” It could be a very simple solution, like identifying a bunch of bananas in the garden that they could sell now, to help them pay for school fees. But it could be activities like starting, for example, rope production or a small side business.

GO: Did you say rope production?

AF: Yes, ropes for tying cows, for example. It’s a relatively simple way to create some extra income for a family, from sisal fibers. It’s a big, flashy plant with very long leaves, and by some method you get the fibers from those leaves and use them for weaving.

And then long term, of course, we were looking at helping people to improve their coffee production. If you start improving management in your coffee garden today, you’ll only see the positive impacts of that next year. In the meantime, you have a whole year where you still don’t want those children to drop out of school again. So, we’re looking at short-term economic activities that can support a family until their coffee gardens are starting to bear more fruit.

GO: Can you share an example?

AF: Absolutely. And, to give you a little bit of background, West Nile is really one of the poorest areas in Uganda. Among other things, it’s been indirectly affected by the Lord’s Rebellion Army, the LRA, which was operating in the north of Uganda until 2009. So for 15 years, it was very difficult to travel from Kampala to the West Nile. You had to go in a convoy, which of course had a huge impact on the economic development of the area.

So it’s a poor area, and because of what they’ve been through, a lot of people had almost had given up. They were like, “Okay. This is how it is and I can’t change it,” and they were not seeing the opportunities they actually had. So, that’s been a key lesson for me that I’ve learned with our staff. That when they sit down with a household, they can help it to realize the opportunities they have, small or big, and give them the courage again to start pursuing them.

There was one household that I visited myself. And, this family was really not okay. The whole compound was completely disorganized, the coffee field was looking terrible, the husband was not at home. The wife was at home, and she had a very, very nice character. But I think her husband was drinking, and that pulled her down. And her children were not in school.

I remember leaving that household thinking, “How are these people ever going to change? It’s such a tough situation, how can it change?” But then we went back a year later with our staff — and in the meantime, our staff, and the NGO staff, had been visiting and helping that household. And when we went back, we found the house in a much better state.

It was all organized, the husband was at home, the coffee field was managed, and then we sat down and started talking to the family. The husband said that because of the numerous visits that they had received, from us and from our NGO partner, he had realized that where he was going with his life was not very good. He decided to stop drinking, he decided to join a church, and he started discussing with his wife the opportunities they had at home, and with their coffee field, and they decided to improve the management of it.

He told me, “I have a banana crop that I never took care of. But now, I’ve realized I don’t want to leave my farm in this condition for my children, not if I want them to be able to continue with something good.” So he was improving his banana garden. And the wife had started making ropes to sell to get some little money.

The children had gone back to school, and even the attitudes of the children in the household were now very different, the wife was telling us. The children were more polite and were starting to assist in the household again. The whole family somehow was pulled together and working together.

GO: So they really just needed some encouragement, to kind of come of that political and emotional depression?

AF: Yes! People knowing that someone cares is a core part of it. A lot of people feel that if you’re in a little a bit of a desperate situation, and you feel no one is caring about me, but then you have workers coming to visit you regularly, to help you talk things through, to help you look at your opportunities, then it brings back courage to your life, or something. It gives you hope.

GO: In places like Central America, practices like better pruning techniques are a way of improving a coffee household’s income. Is Uganda at that stage yet?

AF: There are a lot of hurdles, before people adopt whatever particular agricultural practices. It’s really challenging to get people to improve. There are easy things you can do, and there are things that are more difficult. Pruning and erosion control and better weed management — everyone can do that. And if you manage to encourage a household to do so, then yes, they can increase productivity already with the first step.

But if you really want to improve productivity — and productivity in Uganda is relatively low — then people will have to start stumping their coffee trees, which means cutting it back completely, rejuvenating it and starting to use fertilizer.

When I first started working with Kyagalanyi in 2011, I didn’t see hardly any stumped coffee trees. But now, in several areas, we have managed to encourage the adoption of stumping, and we see more and more farmers doing it. So I find that very encouraging, especially in the Mt. Elgon area, at the higher altitude areas in Mt. Elgon. That makes you feel like what you’re doing is really making sense.

GO: Along with stumping, what other practices are you demonstrating on the model farms?

AF: We started our model farms last year. We have now eight model farms in Mt. Elgon, five in West Nile and two in Rwenzori. And in Uganda, no one keeps records. If you try to ask people how much money they spend on coffee, how much income they get from coffee, it’s always rather vague answers because very few people are considering farming as a business.

So we have try to create a complete change in the mindset of people, that they look at agriculture actually as a very good business opportunity, where there is a lot of money to be made from if they really concentrate on it. So over the next year, every training on the model farms will discuss one element of farming as a business, and at the same time, still have a question-and-answer session on good agricultural practices.

We want to have people start recording the costs of production that they incur over every two-month period. And then every two months or in the next training, you sit down and share together how you have been recording, for example, the costs for weeding, the cost for stumping, the cost for fertilization, and what challenges you’re facing.

Once they have finished a whole year, people will have actually a better idea of what the cost benefit of their farm looks like. And then they can start comparing and say, “Hey, Michelle your farm is is doing a little better than mine. What are you doing differently than me?”

GO: Are people interested in creating high-quality coffees? How does that get talked about?

AF: We do exercises, for example, where we count 200 green cherries and 200 red cherries and we weigh them separately, so people are realizing, “If I harvest green cherries, I lose about 15%, 20% of the weight. So I just get less money if I harvest green cherries. “ Then we go to the parchment level. We appreciate parchments, we appreciate the green beans and, in the end, we appreciate roasted coffee by having the four qualities of coffee.

We also make then coffee from red cherries, coffee from green cherries, coffee from fermented cherries, and coffee made from cherries that have been affected by pests and diseases, for example, black beans. And a lot of our farmers have never tasted coffee — in general, in Uganda, people don’t drink coffee. So it’s very interesting to see how everyone can pick out the best cup, even if they don’t like it. So they start understanding why Kyagalanyi is so keen on just buying red cherries, and why we pay more for red cherries, and why we pay more for parchment that’s been made from red cherries. So it’s a really nice training.

GO: How does coffee production work in Uganda? Are you buying cherry or parchment?

AF: Most of that value chain will go through small traders, larger traders and very large traders. It’s important to realize that most of Uganda’s coffee farmers are not organized in any way. It’s a very liberal setup in Uganda. We hardly have any cooperatives or farmer associations that are effective on the ground. So most people are just farming by themselves and selling to all the small middlemen or bigger traders.

Namanve is our main factory, where we do all our secondary processing, and all the coffee that we buy is exported from there.

Then from Namanve, we have mobile buying units that move to an area where the harvest is going on. It’s a buyer, a quality manager, a driver and a security guard, and they buy upcountry — they buy from the smaller traders and directly from the hulling units.

And then they will send, from there, the coffee to Namanve. We also still have two fixed units. One in Nakanyonyi, where we have our own Robusta hullery, which is quite close to Kampala. And then we have Mbale, which is the main town below the Mt. Elgon area.

We have a fixed Arabica drying and cleaning unit in Mbale. So that’s a relatively large structure, and it processes all the Mt. Elgon Arabicas before sending them to Namanve for further cleaning.

For the Arabica buying, it depends on the area. Mt. Elgon is a parchment area. So traditionally, people were already doing parchment at home level, and we have introduced washing stations. We have six washing stations in the area as well. West Nile is also a parchment area, whereas the Rwenzori is a natural Arabica area.

Within the washing stations, we will buy cherries and do all the processing ourselves. But we also buy parchment down in Mbale, and we price according to quality.

GO: Do you prefer to buy in cherry?

AF: Yes and no. Buying cherry will give you more control for the quality because you know exactly what you’re buying. But it also makes it more expensive, because you operate a whole washing station or six washing stations, and it’s quite a hassle keeping those washing stations up and running always. We therefore expanded our Farmer Support activities to parchment value chains. It’s helping us to grow our certified volumes and reach out to more farmers.

But if you manage them well, you get beautiful quality out of them. We’ve just done the first two batches for Genuine Origin. They came from our washing stations, our high-altitude washing stations — the Kapchorwa and Gibuzale washing stations.

They were the best cups we’ve ever had, and it comes because we have been keeping separate batches, which is a new process for us. We used to always combine all the different batches that we processed during the year into one big lot.

GO: How are you separating them?

AF: Mt. Elgon is very high, with very large altitude differences. When a washing station opens, it buys from lower altitudes. And then slowly during the season, the harvesting climbs up along the mountain. So at the end of the season, you’re harvesting from the highest altitude areas, and there are some geological differences as well, from within the areas.

Then the Ruwenzori is a natural Arabica area. So there, most of the Arabica is picked and dried naturally by farmers, and it’s an area that has not had a lot of development efforts yet. We’ve just started going into that area last year and we have constructed the floating station where we basically do the best quality natural that you can do. We buy red cherries from the farmers, and we control the red cherry purchases.

We also float, so we only dry the heavy beans as first grade natural, so that’s the best quality of those red cherries. And we control the drying 100 percent, so we get a beautiful, natural coffee from there, which has been really wonderful. It’s been quite a sexy coffee for some of our clients. So that’s been exciting. •

Gibuzale and Kapchorwa are now in the store!