Wealthy women and a healthy nation through high-quality coffee
January 7, 2019
Women in Uganda’s Mt. Elgon region are producing some of the best quality coffee in the country and are rising to an export challenge.
By May Muthuri and Joan Kimaiyo
“Women are nurturing, clean, careful and detailed,” said Grace, a member of Mt. Elgon Women in Coffee. “This is why it’s a women-only group: to make it easier to achieve our targets each season. Moreover, empowering each other means having wealthy women and, in the long-run, we make a healthy nation.”
At 2000 metres above sea level, the Mt. Elgon region on Uganda’s border with Kenya is cool enough to produce high-quality coffee, according to Monastery Coffee’s Adam Marley, the top-ranked coffee roaster in Australia, who has placed an order with the group for 14 tonnes.
Marley, together with Randy Stringer of Adelaide University and Prossy Isubikalu of Makere University, visited several coffee-producing groups in the region to understand how farmers could further improve the quality of coffee and their incomes, as part of the Developing Value Chain Innovation Platforms to Improve Food Security project, which is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research with support from the Australian Specialty Coffee Association.
Mt. Elgon Women in Coffee had a particular focus on specialty coffee. The 15 members — with 500–2000 trees each — had initially begun with the idea of encouraging savings but ventured into harvesting, processing and selling specialty coffee within the district and to the capital, Kampala. The group had undergone considerable training to ensure high-quality coffee throughout the year. They were challenged by the visitors to put the training into higher gear to meet Marley’s export request. Mt. Elgon Women in Coffee has been processing quality coffee since 2016 and have always met clients’ targets but not yet for export.
“The devil is in the details,” explained Annett, the group’s leader. “We pick only red cherries and ferment them the same day, for 24 hours. The next day, we wash and dry them on raised surfaces for three days because one thing many farmers don’t know is that wet cherries tend to suck in dust when placed on the ground. When the three days lapse, we place these cherries on dry surfaces and thereafter pulp and package for sale.”
To meet the target of 14 tonnes, the group set up a system to monitor the entire process and ensure quality; members began increasing the number of coffee trees on their farms and also identified 50 other farmers who will be trained on tree management and harvesting. Additional measures include training harvesters. New trays for drying the cherries have been purchased and pulping will still be done the same way. Mt. Elgon Women in Coffee also approached local savings and credit co-operative societies and banks for loans and members have pledged amounts ranging UGX 3–7 million UGX (≈ USD 790–1843) to assist with financing.
The women are challenging social and cultural norms.
“We needed to change the cultural pattern in which women wait for their husbands to provide everything such that when there is need the home comes to a standstill,” said Justine, another member of the Mt. Elgon Women in Coffee. “Women do most of the work, only for some husbands to come in and squander it all on alcohol, with the argument that they own the land that the women cultivated, hence, they should have a share.”
Driven by the need to fund household needs, pay school fees, save for the future and still have some money left to keep themselves looking good, the women worked hard each season and are now reaping benefits that they couldn’t even imagine when they first began.
Each member makes UGX 12,000 (≈ USD 3) from one kilogram, which is UGX 4000 more than that made by farmers selling non-speciality coffee. Most of the money is invested in household needs, education and building, a task traditionally bestowed on husbands.
“The profits go a long way as we acquire more land, build stone-walled homes, plant more coffee, enrol our children in high-end schools and can afford term fees,” explained Caroline, a group member. “The balance takes us through comfortably until the next harvesting season.”
The group provides greater benefits than if the members operated individually. Funds are much more easily raised and efficiency is higher. A committee is entrusted with management and accountability.
“With the steering committee, the group makes timely purchases and sales,” explained Annett, “Marketing is made easier, hence, targeting high-end clients and hotels is no longer an uphill task, trainings are frequent and everyone in the group gets a chance to learn more and pass on the information to the rest later. Members enjoy higher profits, amongst other benefits which members never got to enjoy when selling as individuals.”
Despite their successes, the group still faces challenges. They process the coffee using a manually-powered machine, which takes time and labour.
As the group strives to meet the Australian demand, they are hopeful that this will be the stepping stone not only to export to Australia but other countries as well. In June 2018, they sent samples to Germany, courtesy of training conducted by the African Fine Coffee Association.
Developing Value Chain Innovation Platform for Food Security is a research-in-development project funded by the Australian Centre for the International Agriculture Research. The four-year project aims to identify principles and drivers that support scalable establishment of effective and equitable innovation platforms that enhance food security through greater engagement of smallholder farmers with market access in Uganda and Zambia. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is the lead implementer. Partners include the Copper Belt Universityin Zambia, Makerere University in Uganda, Adelaide University in Australia, National Forestry Resources Research Institute in Uganda,Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, Kapchorwa District Landcare Chapter in Uganda and Landcare International.