Coffee in Uganda: Culture, Heritage and Economy

Last month Slow Food Uganda organized the fourth edition of the Slow Food Coffee Festival dedicated to “Our Coffee, Our Responsibility, Quality Coffee Everyone’s Responsibility”.

Slow Food Uganda has been actively involved in the promotion of indigenous and local coffee varieties, to raise the quality of coffee production along the value chain, and to improve the livelihoods of coffee smallholders by offering visibility, as well as social, technical and marketing support to help raise awareness of the quality coffee parameters that ultimately ensure higher incomes for producers and other value-chain actors. Slow Food has already launched two Presidia to protect indigenous coffee varieties: Luwero Kisansa Coffee and Mount Elgon Nyasaland Coffee.
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Coffee is one of the most sacred and traditional crops in Uganda. While commercialized in the late 19th century, it remained an important cultural pillar in making agreements, welcoming visitors, celebrating new friendships and new homes. Economically, coffee is not only the largest foreign exchange earner for Uganda but also traditionally a sign of wealth among different communities and home holdings.
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Coffee is consumed in Uganda in various ways but the most common ones include steaming dry coffee cherries (the rounded fruit of the coffee plant), sometimes with salt and a pinch of chili pepper, then dried again and wrapped in fibers and eaten as a snack, both at home and while travelling. This method is used in addition to the ne in which ground beans are roasted on a broken clay pot and drunk with hot water as a beverage.
Amidst all the current commercialization of coffee and campaigns by the government to increase export volumes, coffee remains a central pillar in the cultural values and traditions of many Ugandans in different traditional coffee-growing regions, mainly in its central plains, and eastern and western highlands.
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Coffee is one of the major crops predominantly grown by small-scale producers in Uganda. As the birthplace of Robusta coffee, the largest share of total land used to grow coffee is covered by Robusta coffee varieties mostly in the low altitudes of central Uganda, while the rest of the land is predominantly in the highland area around mountain Elgon in the east, and the Rwenzori mountains (also known as the “Mountains of the Moon”) in the west. These eastern and western areas are covered by a variety of Arabica coffee varieties.
Almost 95% of Uganda’s recoded coffee production is exported and the rest is consumed locally in different ways. There is a growing number of coffee shops in different towns and cities, as well as an increasing trend of coffee consumption in households in both rural and urban areas. The coffee market in Uganda is completely liberalized, with a few statutory checks on product quality and safety. Today small farmers, either individually or within their different cooperatives, can access a direct market for roasted or green beans, or can otherwise sell part of their production to any buyer of their choice, even when there is need for export.
The challenge of few buyers is slowly being broken by exporting coffee roasted at origin and also working directly with coffee-producing countries. Even if they have this pressure, they are trying to make direct access to consumer markets possible for the producers and it is through such liberal policies and laws like the coffee bill that seek to make this direct access stronger.
Unlike in other African coffee-producing countries, in Uganda coffee is predominantly a smallholder farmers’ crop. More than 90% of Ugandan coffee is produced on small farms that average less than 5 acres of land, where coffee is intercropped with other foods such as bananas, beans, ginger, vegetables and shade trees, most of which are also fruit trees. This makes management of Ugandan coffee mostly reliant on family labor and a few casual workers on rare occasions.
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The Ugandan government enacted a national Coffee Bill in 2018 in a bid to revamp and regulate the coffee sector in Uganda. The objective of the Bill is to provide the Uganda Coffee Development Authority the mechanisms to regulate, promote and oversee the coffee sub-sector, as well as regulate all on-farm and off-farm activities in the entire coffee value chain. Slow Food believes that though the Bill is intended to regulate the coffee sector, there are a lot of loopholes that need to be addressed before it is passed into Law.  At Slow Food Uganda, we believe that the coffee bill is needed to regulate the coffee sector to be competitive and reduce exploitation of small-scale farmers. It is a well-timed bill, but we need to understand is that there are some issues that require clarification from the committee who proposed the bill. We need to include farmers’ ideas and decide which ones to present to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Committee of Agriculture.
There are some clauses and articles which in the future may work against the sovereignty of traditional coffee farmers in traditional coffee growing areas in the country. For example, preparing farm nurseries to grow the varieties of their choice, depending on the wide range of uses of coffee in the country. The bill also focuses on the commercial sale of coffee as the sole objective of growing coffee and recognises coffee brewing and instant coffee as the main forms of coffee consumption, ignoring other uses of coffee within the culture and traditions of Ugandans in coffee-growing regions. These are some of the issues raised by the Slow Food Network of coffee communities in Uganda which creates some doubts about the coffee bill, despite the many good and clear clauses that aim to support small-scale coffee farmers to improve the quality and value of Ugandan coffee, so that it can be competitive locally and internationally.
The Slow Food Coffee Festival is an important event that brings together key players in the coffee sector in discussions geared towards improving the coffee sector and create awareness about Uganda’s rich coffee culture and biodiversity. The event brings together producers from different ecological zones as well as coffee entrepreneurs and individuals who work to promote sustainable, local coffee production and consumption. It is also an important platform to discuss and debate social, economic and political aspects affecting coffee as an important crop. For example: this year’s coffee festival, hosted on the grounds of the local Mukono District government, served as a key platform for farmers and other stakeholders to discuss and suggest improvements in the draft Coffee Bill 2018 that is now before the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture. The event also acted as an advocacy platform to lobby the government to listen to the views of citizens and include them in the proposed Bill, to ensure that they too can profit from the opportunities in the coffee subsector for income generation, protection of Uganda’s coffee biodiversity and heritage, as well as improve the livelihood of the most vulnerable age group in the country.
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Article by Slow Food 

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