Towards the end of 2019, Coaltown set on its first expedition to visit one of the world's most renowned and upcoming specialty coffee origins, Uganda, with the ambition to bridge the gap between farmer and roaster by buying direct with full traceability and paying fairly to provide the support and much-needed funds to these skilled farmers and families. The purpose of this trip was to source a number of key coffees to introduce later this year, with a level of detail and knowledge about the farm you can’t achieve without visiting for yourself.
Rhys and I set off from the roastery in Ammanford on what would be a 24-hour journey towards the African equator, involving three flights and plenty of cross-country travel until we reached our first destination on the west of Uganda and the base of the Rwenzori mountains overlooking the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here we found some much-needed rest to set us up for the expedition through the mountains at the crack of dawn the next day.
The Mountains of Rwenzori, sometimes referred to as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, span 120km along the Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The high altitude, fertile soil, and tropical weather conditions make it ideal for growing Arabica beans. Rwenzori is historically a natural process area, with 95% of the coffee being processed this way at washing stations.
Our first destination the following day was the Kisinga washing station, operated by Jonny Rowland of Argi-Evolve. Originally a farmer from the UK, Jonny’s vision of improving the farming in Africa evolved during a break from his studies in Uganda. Agri-evolve’s aim is to develop an organisation run by Ugandan people, but with input from students and experts from the UK, who can advise and assist farmers in creating sustainable operations. They are committed to returning 60% of all profit to community and agricultural projects within the area, such as the Community Action Initiative. Jonny and his business partner have been working and developing in Rwenzori since 2016, and have continued to be successful. They have a busy two crop year, once between April and May, and then once again between November and December.
Given their proximity to the equator, their April – May crop is larger, resulting in a 60% rain crop in April and a 40% fly crop in November. As a result, their quality and volume are higher than the crops that would be found in other areas such as Mount Elgon. Jonny works by visiting smaller hulling stations, searching for better quality products, where moisture levels would be lower.
After looking around this impressive station we ventured further into the mountains to visit a number of farms that were supported by Argi-Evolve. Home to the Bakonzo Tribe, coffee is the main farming focus in the Rwenzori region, but beans, maize, and groundnuts are also produced for additional income. The coffee crop allows for a steady, dependable income for the farmers, with the work generally done by hand over 2 acres.
Share Farming means that farmers are able to work together to process and market their coffee, helping to improve processing, marketing effectiveness, and quality. The farmers pick the cherries up in the mountains, but as they are manually carried, their weight is often too much, leaving the farmers to leave them on the ground to dry and lessen in weight over several days. Valuable quality is lost here, but this is not understood by the farmers.
Jonny is attempting to change that through his quality training but understands that this lack of passion stems from recent history. The idea of coffee was introduced to Rwenzori 50-60 years ago, during colonial times, and was not as much introduced as forced upon the region. Farmers were told by the government to plant, and while the farmers may not have thought it was a good idea, its enforcement by the army meant that planting slowly grew. Now, if you were to look up at a coffee plant in the mountains from below, it would likely look as if coffee was falling from the sky!
On our route back down the mountains from the farming regions we were lucky enough to experience the Queen Elizabeth Nation Park in all its glory. Traveling along the river that connects Lake George to Lake Edward, we encountered much of the park's wildlife and a number of Elephant families along the way.
We travelled north along the base of the Rwenzori’s to Bugoye Coffee Station, one of Jonny’s more recent station setups. This station was set up due to a large number of high-altitude farms in the surrounding mountains that in the past had struggled with transporting their cherries down the treacherous tracks, having to cover large distances without the use of a vehicle in many cases. Bugoye station sits at the foot of a steep section of the Rwenzori Mountain range, which made for spectacular views but also displayed how difficult navigating this terrain would be for the farm we could see along the summit. Even with the new washing station location, these smaller yield farmers were still unable to travel the distance required.
In response to this, Jonny set up a network of buying stations to help bridge the gap between these smaller yield farmers and his washing stations. We travelled up the mountain to visit one of these buying stations where it was obvious to see the benefit this provided the local farmers, with many manually walking sacks of cherries with no alternative forms of transport available. At the station farmers would distribute cherries onto a drying bed in order to perform a final quality check, discarding any under-ripe cherries and contaminants before weighing to calculate a price. From here we traveled back down the mountain to Kasese Airport where we made the two-hour flight before dusk to Uganda's capital Kampala, preparing ourselves for an early start the next day.
At the break of dawn on day three, we traveled through the bustling streets across the city to the outskirts of central Kampala to Kyagalanyi Coffee Limited, who is currently the leading green coffee exporter in Uganda. This enormous facility comprised of factory buildings, processing plants and vast warehouse storage that serves as the main distribution hub for the majority of coffee Uganda ships across the globe. Here you could see large quantities of green coffee arriving on open bed trucks from washing stations located all over Uganda, some traveling the best part of a day on road to reach the destination. Here coffee was being processed on a massive scale which would be stored in enormous silos before being bagged by hand and screen printed by the factory workers and then being exported.
After looking around the facility we were taken to a sampling room to cup some of the latest coffees that had arrived at the station. This ranged from coffees from the Rwenzori mountains to the east, to coffees from Mount Elgon bordering Kenya to the west, including many different coffee varietals and processes. We were able to choose a number of stunning coffees from these regions which we aim to introduce later this year. After a short lunch break, we took to the road once again to make the seven-hour drive east to Mount Elgon, where we managed to stop off at another processing plant before dusk, which provided the link between this region and the central plant in Kampala we drove from earlier that day.
The plan for day four was to explore a number of the washing stations and farms on Mount Elgon, which required another early start to make the most of exploring this region. Our first destination was to climb the muddy roads of the mountain to reach Kapchwora washing station while visiting a number of farms en route. Our journey became a battle with the elements, as the heavens opened with a tropical storm, turning the already muddy roads into what can only be described as a red clay slip and slide. Luckily our drivers were used to these conditions, and we continued to meander our way to the summit where the station was based. Experiencing these conditions demonstrated the effort and at times huge risks drivers and farmers take in this region to maintain the supply of quality coffee to support the local communities that rely on them.
From this washing station, we were privileged to meet some of the farmers and their families in the surrounding villages who had become experts in coffee farming. We were invited into their homes to see the opportunities and benefits this industry had provided them through Kyagalanyi Coffee, including an education and financial support program called the Togetherness Initiative. This initiative had been introduced by Kyagalani Coffee and their partners as part of an educational program covering farming practices, financial responsibility and support, and a gender program to improve gender equality. This support included a savings and loan association that would support farmers through periods of poor crop or low cherry yield due to stumping trees to improve cherry growth for future seasons. We played a monopoly-style game with the farmers, designed to easily illustrate the impact key decisions made on their future harvest and income, which quickly showed how support like the Togetherness Initiative can have a hugely beneficial impact on the lives of the communities that joined.
From here we made our way back down the mountain once conditions had improved, which they did so much so that the heat in this region, coupled with the steep decline caused our brakes to ignite into flames which delayed our return to base. Luckily, our convoy returned intact at dusk and we had the evening to prepare for our long journey back to the UK the following morning.
This Origin trip as a whole was a huge success for Coaltown’s first visit to origin and the relationships made, and coffees sourced will become our benchmark to bridge the gap between farmer and roaster for future coffee introductions. Be sure to keep an eye out for our Uganda Coffee sourced on this trip later in the year!
We would like to thank Volcafe Specialty Coffee and Andrew Tucker for organising our trip to Uganda, and also thank Agri-Evolve and Kyagalanyi Coffee limited for showing us their excellent stations and farms.
I may be accused of being biased as Nick Haimes is my nephew, but i have watched him grow into the man he is today. His work ethic is second to none and his loyalty and tenacity are unquestionable. He would have felt privileged to undertake this journey which makes this all the more personal to him to be able to record and share it.
It is good to know that Coaltown coffee are as committed to every single detail of their business as they are to their staff, the interest they show and the the pride they have make them second to none in my book.
Well done to you all and may you continue your good work here and across the globe.
Great account of what sounds to have been a fantastic trip to Uganda. I look forward to reading more about your travels, and I’m especially looking forward to drinking the coffee you bring back home to us!