Did you know that Uganda is one of the largest coffee producers in the world?
Origin of coffee in Uganda
To go back to the origins of coffee in Uganda, we need to talk about the following periods and their key moments:
First steps of coffee
According to the Baganda, coffee was first used in ceremonies, rituals or weddings in the kingdoms of Ankole, Buganda and Bunyoro, which form present-day Uganda.
It should be noted that the Baganda were the tribe that gave rise to present-day Uganda.
The coffee trade is one of the pillars of the slave system and colonial oppression.
The Arabica variety was introduced to Uganda from Malawi and Ethiopia. The first area of the country to embrace the new crop was Entebbe, where the British colonial government was based.
This coffee variety struggled with disease just like the Robusta plant, but the more resilient Robusta variety was able to thrive more easily.
1910 – 1920
Small farmers are beginning to see the potential of Robusta.
Asian and European farmers manage to establish 135 plantations on more than 58,000 hectares of land, mostly located in central Uganda. However, cultivation was abandoned when prices fell in the 1920s after the end of World War I and the Spanish flu.
Popularity of coffee in Uganda
Coffee was considered an important product for the few producers but accounted for only 1% of Ugandan exports.
The Coffee Industry Board is established to solve quality problems.
1940 – 1950
Coffee becomes Uganda’s most important export commodity. An important factor in the spread of coffee was the emergence of the cooperative movement.
The Coffee Marketing Board is formed to support the marketing of Ugandan coffee.
After independence, the Coffee Marketing Board took control of the coffee industry.
The government passes a coffee law to ensure a monopoly on all aspects of the coffee industry.
A massive freeze destroyed a large Brazilian crop, resulting in a much higher global demand for coffee that only Uganda could meet.
Difficult transition of the coffee industry in Uganda
Falling coffee prices are bringing Uganda to the brink of bankruptcy. The government needed financial support. Recall that it was the latter that sparked the 1979 war between Uganda and Tanzania.
Arabica plants are beginning to spread in Uganda as new cultivation techniques have been introduced to protect the Arabica plant from further diseases.
In addition, farmers discovered that the western and eastern borders of the country had an ideal climate that allowed Arabica to thrive at higher elevations and in the shade of trees.
1984 – 1986
The European Community (EEC) funded a coffee rehabilitation program that focused on improving coffee production processes.
To achieve this goal, training has been conducted to improve coffee farmers’ skills and educate them about the important role they play in the country’s economy.
World market prices for coffee collapse.
The Coffee Industry Board hikes the prices it pays farmers, but by the end of the year is dead in debt and in need of a government bailout.
The collapse of the International Coffee Agreement led to a sharp drop in costs and the Ugandan government devalued the Ugandan shilling to make it more attractive to export to the world, but failed.
The agreement failed mainly because its members could not agree on production quotas and prices. In addition to Uganda, the first countries to be affected by this crisis were Vietnam, Brazil and Colombia.
In the same year, the export volume continued to decline due to economic and security problems. Large quantities continued to be smuggled to neighboring countries.
Coffee production falls by 20% due to prices, drought, armed conflict and subsistence cultivation of non-coffee crops.
Liberation of Ugandan coffee
The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) is established by government decree as part of the liberalization of the coffee industry. The main idea was to achieve better traceability and easier access to Ugandan coffee.
The UCDA was tasked with monitoring the exponential increase in coffee exports.
The coffee industry has been fully liberalized and is now in private hands.
60% of Ugandan plantations were on average 35-40 years old.
Uganda establishes a regulatory body to manage the market, the Uganda Coffee Farmers Association (UCFA).
Banyankole Kweterana Kweterana Coopérative Union Limited (BKCU), one of the largest Robusta coffee cooperatives in southwestern Uganda, went bankrupt.
2000 – 2004
Coffee exports fell as a result of falling demand for coffee and the occurrence of fungal wilt that led to the complete death of coffee plants.
When the trees fell ill with wilt, they had to be completely cleared to prevent the disease from spreading to other trees or, failing that, to the ground.
45% of the country’s Robusta coffee trees died from coffee wilt disease. As a result, exports fell sharply, from 143,441 tons in 2000 to 122,369 tons in 2004.
In addition, the Uganda Coffee Farmers Association (UCFA) was transformed into the National Union of Coffee Agribusiness and Estate Enterprises (NUCAFE), an organization that helps farmers improve coffee quality and helps them set the selling price in negotiations with buyers supports.
2005 – present
The price of coffee has stabilized, which is very positive and has allowed Uganda to position itself over the years as one of the largest coffee producing countries in the world.
The main coffee growing areas in Uganda
There are no clearly defined coffee growing regions in Uganda, but there are 3 regions that have stood out over the years.
The oldest volcano in Africa is located on the border between Uganda and Kenya and offers excellent conditions. Mount Elgon coffees have a mild flavor with fruity notes.
Varieties: Typica, Kent, SL-14, SL-18.
Harvest: October – March (main crop) May – July (secondary crop).
This is an area of northwestern Uganda with farms located between 1000 and 1500 meters above sea level. Here the coffees are usually washed and are characterized by a citrus aroma profile.
Varieties: Typica, Kent, SL-14, SL-18, Robusta native.
Harvest: October – January (main crop) April – June (secondary crop).
A mountain range on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coffees from the Ruwenzori mountains have aromas of pears and blackberries.
Varieties: Typica, Kent, SL-14, SL-18, Robusta Native.
Harvest: April – June (main crop) October – January (secondary crop).
What you should know about coffee in Uganda
- 80% of the coffee grown in Uganda is Robusta coffee, the remaining 20% is Arabica coffee.
- Temperatures in Uganda are mild all year round, between 20 and 30° Celsius.
- Most farmers use manual pulpers for making washed coffee.
- Washed arabicas from the eastern areas are often called bugisu, while washed arabicas from the west are often called wugar.
- Eighty-five percent of Ugandan coffee cultivation is in the hands of small farmers.
- The best Ugandan coffees come from producer groups or cooperatives.
- Uganda produces coffee almost all year round.
- Coffee accounts for at least 20% of Uganda’s export earnings.
- In Uganda, coffee is worth $550 million a year.
- Bugisu coffee only grows between 1600 and 1900 meters above sea level.
- In most areas where coffee is grown, there is a main crop and a sub-crop, known as ” cross crop ” or ” fly crop “.
- In the early days of coffee in Uganda, the locals chewed the beans because coffee was not yet prepared as an infusion.
- Washed processing is widespread in Uganda, but there are also coffees that are processed in a completely natural way.
- Typica and Kent are the two main Arabica varieties grown in Uganda. The other Arabica varieties are SL-14, SL-28 and Ruiru 11.
- Coffee production remained low in the late 1980s and fell from 1986 to 1989.
- In the period 1993 to 1997, international sales of Robusta coffee increased to 110,000 tons per year.
- From 1996 to 2000 coffee accounted for almost 60% of total export earnings.
- Coffee growing has become Uganda’s most valuable business, raking in over $400 million in the 20th century.
- Export quality control remains the responsibility of the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), which is responsible for classifying, rinsing and sorting all export shipments.
- With 85% of all coffee produced by smallholders with less than 2.5 hectares of land, Uganda has immense potential for producing high-quality specialty coffees on small plots.
- Most export companies are located in Mbale and Kampala.
- In most coffee plantations, other traditional food crops are grown in addition to coffee. In general, the shade of banana and other trees is used.
- The population density at Lake Victoria, where Robusta coffee is grown, is 100 inhabitants per square kilometer.
- There are two specific names for Ugandan Arabica coffee: Sugar (wet-processed Ugandan Arabica) and Dope (dry-processed Ugandan Arabica).
- Today, Robusta is still predominantly cultivated in central Uganda, since the low altitude and the warmer climate are unfavorable for Arabica cultivation.
- The soils in Uganda are so fertile that coffee can be grown without the use of fertilizers.
Ugandan coffee today
Uganda is currently the second largest coffee producer in Africa after Ethiopia. It is also in the top 10 in the world, ranked eighth, level with Peru.
The country produces around 3 to 4 million 60 kg bags of coffee annually, which is 2 to 3% of world production.
According to the Uganda Coffee Federation, around 8 million people derive most of their income from coffee.
In fact, coffee prices in Uganda peaked in 2021 with a 23% increase in revenue. However, since most coffee is Robusta, Uganda has had a hard time gaining a good reputation for Arabica as well.
Coffee farmers often struggle to access basic equipment such as quality seeds, fertilizer and irrigation equipment. They also have difficulty accessing services such as bank credit, farm training and processing facilities.
Another common problem is that small coffee farmers are taken over by wealthy neighbors or foreign investors due to weak land rights laws.
Because of this, they often have to use their small plots to grow other traditional foods besides coffee, similar to what happens in Ethiopia.
In recent years, however, coffee prices in Uganda have improved, which has encouraged many farmers to spend their time growing coffee.
However, if coffee farmers had more land, they could invest more money and time in improving infrastructure and production to experiment with new cultivation and processing methods.
With this in mind, the Ugandan government has promoted price stabilization and coffee farmer education, and launched various seed distribution campaigns to promote coffee cultivation and soil conservation.
Therefore, the country has set a goal of increasing coffee production by 20-25% by 2030.
Characteristics of coffee in Uganda
Uganda, also known as the “Pearl of Africa”, offers ideal climatic conditions for coffee cultivation thanks to its fertile soil and temperate climate as well as its proximity to Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world.
The country has amazing biodiversity, its economy is based on agriculture, mainly coffee, but also cotton, tea, cooking oil, nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables, flowers and essential oils.
The coffee produced in Uganda is characterized by its own strong taste, which distinguishes it from neighboring countries with less intense coffees. This coffee has fruity and citrusy flavor notes, a fragrant aroma, a smooth body and a wine-like acidity.
However, the majority of Uganda’s coffee grown is Robusta, an inferior variety typically used to make instant coffee.
Uganda is the leading producer of Robusta coffee in Africa and the second largest producer of Arabica coffee, after Ethiopia.
Relevant Arabica details
- The eastern and western regions of Uganda have the soil quality and altitudes of 1300 to 2300 meters required for the successful cultivation of Arabica plants.
- Arabica is found in the Mount Elgon regions in the east, the Rwenzori Mountains in the southwest, and the West Nile region in the northwest.
- Although Robusta coffee is predominantly grown in Uganda, the most widely exported coffee is Bugisu Arabica, named after the native tribe of the same name, an AA-certified Arabica variety in the country that is characterized by low acidity and chocolatey flavors.
- Bugisu, also known as “Blue Mountain”, is grown on Mount Elgon, a steep terrain with difficult-to-navigate gravel roads on the Kenyan border near the Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda.
- The Arabica harvest season lasts from October to February.
- Most Arabica coffee is processed with manual pulpers, although attempts are made to use integrated ecological pulping systems that can simultaneously remove pulp and mucilage.
Relevant information on Robusta
- The main crop grown in Uganda is Robusta coffee, an inferior variety typically used to make instant coffee.
- Robusta coffee is native to Uganda, unlike Arabica coffee, which only arrived in the country in the early 20th century.
- Robusta is mainly grown in the regions of the West Nile and Lake Victoria basins at altitudes between 900 and 1500 meters.
- Robusta is harvested all year round.
- Most Robusta coffees are harvested in the sun, although more recently attempts have been made to use wet processing as well.
- Robusta coffees grown in Uganda are characterized by their full body, low acidity and spicy aroma.
- Two types of Robusta coffee are grown in Uganda: “Nganda” and “Erecta”.