To an ordinary Ugandan Robusta coffee farmer, it is not easy to imagine coffee trees planted one metre apart from each other in rows three metres apart.
It is even harder to imagine an acre of Robusta coffee planted with 1300 trees and all of them growing very well.
The common practice here is to plant coffee trees three to four meters from one another and to have between 450 trees growing in an acre.
According to Joseph Nkandu, the national executive director of the National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE), this is one of the major reasons Uganda lags behind coffee growing giant countries such as Brazil in coffee production.
Nkandu visited one of the biggest farms in the country early last year to find out how Brazilians practice farming more so coffee.
Seeds of Gold spoke to Nkandu and below he shares his experience and the knowledge he attained from the world’s leading coffee producing country.
“It is not only the number of trees in a garden that counts, of course,” says the Makerere University trained agriculturist who says he was born on a coffee farm.
“The agronomy has got to be right. I had to dig the holes well in advance and to fill them up with soil mixed with organic matter. In this case I applied some poultry litter. I also had to make sure I went for the best planting material on the market, which were Coffee Wilt Disease resistant clones supplied by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA).”
At the time of planting he applied about 30 grammes of Single Super Phosphate around the foot of the clone which was followed up after some four months with some 30 grammes of NPK 17:17:17 again around the foot of the clone for the coffee to quickly develop more leaves and to prepare for early flowering.
Nkandu also made sure that the coffee trees had sufficient water all the time by laying out a drip irrigation system with water pumped from the lake which is a stone throw away.
(Unfortunately, by the time of Seeds of Gold’s visit thieves had gone to the garden at night a few weeks ago and stolen nearly everything but they were arrested before selling the parts as ‘scrap.’)
“I am just about to install a new irrigation system, I am through with all the necessary purchases and very soon work will begin,” he assured Seeds of Gold.
“With good care,” Nkandu says, “cloned Robusta coffee may start flowering within the first year of planting.”
The coffee on his Brazilian experiment coffee garden is just two years and one month old but he is expecting his second harvest which he estimates to be 30 bags of 60-kilogramme-bags of FAQ (processed beans) coffee which is about 70 gunny bags of dried coffee beans.
If he had planted 450 coffee trees on the same size of land he would be expecting about 10 bags of 60-kilogramme-bags of FAQ coffee.
Nowadays he has resorted to applying poultry litter as fertiliser.
The young coffee trees are growing with vigour and it is quite possible for the farmer to walk easily between the coffee rows doing inspection or any other activity.
“In Brazil,” Nkandu says, “heavy machines like combine harvesters use the space between the rows to do the coffee harvesting.”
Advice to farmers
As the executive director of NUCAFE, Nkandu talks about coffee production with a lot of passion. “We have to change our methods of work,” he says. “I am glad that ever since I started this demonstration garden several people have come from far and near to see the progress it is making.” Right now Uganda produces about four million 60-kilogramme-bags of coffee annually while Brazil which leads the world produces between 55 and 60 sixty-kilogramme-bags annually.
“If we increase the coffee tree numbers per acre from 450 to 1,300 and we also improve the agronomy our production should rise tremendously,” he says. His big wish is that all the farmers who visit his garden go back to their homes and also try out what they have seen at his demonstration garden.
For nearly 20 years Uganda’s coffee production had stagnated around three million 60-kilogram-bags and there is a new effort nowadays to improve production by the government distributing free coffee seedlings to interested farmers and extending the growing of coffee to regions where it was not grown before such as northern Uganda.
Coffee is the country’s third most important foreign exchange earner after tourism and remittances from Ugandans working abroad. The national objective, according to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), is to increase production to six million bags in 2019/2020 and 15 million by 2039/2040. However Nkandu is of the view that most coffee growers across the country are smallholder farmers who have no capacity to buy more land on which to plant coffee.
“I have visited the country and I have had an opportunity to see how the farmers there do their thing,” Nkandu says.
“They plant more coffee trees on their farms than we do here and because of this their production is a lot higher.”
Apart from being the leader of perhaps the largest coffee farmers’ organisation in the country, Nkandu is also a coffee farmer in the Bunjako area along Lake Victoria in Mpigi District. Ever since he returned to Uganda, following the visit, Nkandu has been experimenting the Brazilian way of producing Robusta coffee on an acre of land that he has set up for the purpose at Buzaami village along the shores of Lake Victoria, Buwama Sub-county, Mpigi District.