My name is Joseph Nkandu. I was born in Mabanga village, Namayumba Sub County in Wakiso District. My father and my mother were coffee farmers. So, coffee was their source of livelihood at home; this means that the payment of fees and upkeep at school came from the proceeds from coffee sales.
Because of this background, even when I went to school, somehow I opted for agriculture-related disciplines. This probably explains why my first degree from at Makerere University was in agriculture.
Hard work, little returns
Because of the passion I had for agriculture, when I finished my studies at the university, I did not look for an office job but started organising coffee farmers in 1999.
Since that year, from the three farmer organisations in Masaka Nebbi and Sironko, we are now talking of about 160 associations with a total of more than 600,000 farmers. Now, these farmers export coffee to Italy, Japan and USA.
I wanted to ensure that they benefit more from their hard work on the farms. Because from my experience at my parents’ home and from what I saw with other farmers, I realised they were doing a lot yet earning less from their labour.
It is probably well known that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity, next to oil.
This means that there is money in it. but I wondered why farmers were not getting out of poverty yet they were growing a valuable commodity.
Farmers did not have ownership over the coffee that they grew but were reduced to just “spectators” because of the way coffee was traded.
Whenever a trader would come to the farmer, he would ask the farmer how much he or she was selling the coffee; the farmer would then turn the question to the trader about how much is he or she was offering.
Then who owned the coffee? If the farmer could not tell the buyer how much his or her coffee was worth then the coffee belonged to the buyer, I always wondered.
The other issue I realised was that the farmers were selling their coffee at the farm gate while others sold it when it was still on the trees.
Through the National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (Nucafe), together with the people I work with, we started organising the farmers on how to own their coffee.
We organised them in associations and later on getting them to the primary processing units.
I remember the first time that we did this their income doubled and they were amazed with the results. We then took them into further value addition of grading the coffee in order for them to earn more money according to the size of the beans for export.
When this was done, the farmers income increased by 30 per cent.
I studied the entire coffee value chain all through right from the nursery up to the stage when it is a cup of coffee. I looked at how much value added the farmer is able to get along the chain.
I was the first person to study the entire coffee value chain and to show the farmers how much they earn per each stage along the value chain.
The moment the farmer is unhappy, it will eventually affect the quality and productivity and the farmers will lose so will the country through fewer exports.
After attaining a Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship in Italy, coupled with my experience during internship in Kenya and Uganda, I was inspired to start my own coffee farm.
I put up some savings and bought land in Bunjakko Island, Namayumba and Bulooba.
In the last five years, I have been able to set up a 60-acre coffee plantation. My hope is to add another 40 acres to reach my target of 100 acres.
I mainly grow propagated Clonal Robusta coffee which I export through my organisation, Nucafe.
I started harvesting my own coffee at the farm about three years ago and because of the two seasons in a year, I have had six harvests.
But I distributed the proceeds from the first harvest to my workers as a strategy to motivate and encourage them to work hard.
I have trained my workers on both the handling of coffee and how to use good agronomic practices.
In the six harvests, so far I have since been able to export seven 20-foot containers in the last three-years; each container is worth $50,000 (Shs 127.8m). This amounts to Shs894.6m.
My main challenge has always been the change in weather especially the prolonged dry spells which affects productivity. Because of this when harvesting is done, the coffee beans bare no berries.
Secondly, management of weeds costs a lot of money when it comes to hiring labour and yet I have to apply different cultivation regimes. That is, if this season, you cultivate, then the next one, you do the slashing or you apply herbicides. Using different cultivation regimes helps the soil maintain its nutrients.
Price fluctuation is the other challenge, especially when planning. Coffee is a commodity whose prices keep on fluctuating so we have to keep on adding value.
Graded coffee prices do fluctuate but with all that the price will never go to zero, so there is money in coffee. We need to take advantage of this opportunity if one takes the necessary strategies.
Then, there are policy challenges. We advocated for the formulation of a national coffee policy through the Uganda Coffee Farmers Convention, which we achieved in 2013.
However its implementation is still a challenge yet we had raised a lot measures to change the livelihood of a coffee farmer.
We are seeking government support to help many farmers come on board, as Nucafe we have done our best and through the policy we want to see government support more farmers.
However, despite the challenges, I have benefited a lot from coffee. Besides it being an agricultural commodity, dealing in coffee and advocating for the farmers has exposed me to the world. I have traveled to many countries and continents.
And from these trips, I have established a network of many local, regional and international friends and contacts. I have great social capital because of coffee.
Coffee farming gives me a sense of compassion for my fellow farmers. It has enabled me to acquire further education to the level of my own choice. I pay the fees for my education with the proceeds from coffee. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD.
I am part of the Ashoka fellowship programme, which is a recognition of my works in empowering smallholder coffee farmers. Last but not least, coffee is my favourite drink.
Being elected an Ashoka fellow, it is first of all a huge international recognition of the works of that individual.
The benefits that will accrue to me and the farmers and associations under Nucafe include but are not limited to the following:
Firstly, access to a rich global network of social entrepreneurs who have had groundbreaking innovations, which can be applied to Nucafe.
Secondly, it facilitates access to different resources; human, financial and otherwise.
Thirdly, there are opportunities for continuous learning for improvement in social entrepreneurial ventures involving exchange programmes, for instance, volunteers from renowned Business Schools around the world.
I am already in collaboration with Business Schools as a visiting lecturer to exchange lessons learned based on what I am doing.
Ashoka Fellowship is an international programme that recognises persons who are making an impact in their communities.
The varieties of clonal Robusta Coffee that are planted on the farm include K-1, K-2, K-3, K-4, K-5, K-6, and K-7.
Nucafe has trained its members under the various associations on how to maintain the quality of coffee following the respective agronomic systems like taking good care of the plants, mulching and harvesting the ready cherries plus adding value to the coffee.
Through this, Nucafe farmers have attracted better prices for their coffee, which is 30 per cent more for each kilogramme they sell.
Through his travels, Nkandu secured a good market for all the farmers in Italy.
All along they have been outsourcing a transporting company to take their coffee to the market but they are in the final stages of acquiring a license, which will enable them to export their coffee directly as Nucafe.
If you have an acre of coffee look after your farm very well. I am far away from my farm but I find time to tend to my coffee.
I am an example to other smallholder coffee farmers that when you work together, it is possible to have the bargaining power for good prices and influence policy collectively.
The future belongs to those who are organised.