When he dropped out of high school two decades ago, Wilson Kabebe resorted to growing coffee on a one-and-half acre piece of land in Muwelo village, Maliba Sub-county in Kasese District.
He then reaped about 70 kilogrammes of the cash crop every season, which was about six months long.
From this, he would smile his way home with about Shs3,000 for each killogramme as paid by the middleman. Sometimes, this middlemen would book the 39-year-old’s plantation as soon as it flowered.
“But I realised that the prices offered were less than those earned by farmers in organised groups,” he recalls with a tinge of regret.
Kicking out middlemen?
Realising that middlemen were exploiting them, Kabebe and other coffee farmers organised themselves into a cooperative society. Isule Cooperative Society comprises 778 farmers—132 women and 646 men.
The initiative has paid off: Kabebe now earns more money per kilo compared to what he was earning before joining the cooperative.
While he was previously paid Shs3,000 per kilo, the prices now range from Shs5,000 to Shs8,500 per kilo, thanks to better bargaining power that comes with a cooperative.
Besides the exploitation, the middlemen are partly responsible for the poor quality of coffee according to John Nuwagaba, the general manager, Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPCU), which is based in Kabwohe, Sheema District.
“The middlemen buy the coffee and pick it before it ripens,” he says. “They also add materials such as stones, poor grade coffee and dust.”
The middlemen have no doubt been taking advantage of the collapse of cooperatives.
When ACPCU started registering success, it began encouraging others such as Banyankore-Kweterana to revive their operations and save the farmer from exploitation.
But Nuwagaba admits that the revival of cooperatives will require government intervention, especially regarding the recapitalisation of the unions since “most of them lost their working capital”.
He also wants government to stop interfering in the operations of the farmer organisations except where the intervention is to demand accountability and check corruption.
“There is also need to train leaders of these unions in leadership and management skills,” he adds.
Nuwagaba’s assertion is grounded in the fact that the final nail in the coffin of cooperative unions was the political interests of those that managed the farmers’ organisations.
Since their collapse, it seems the government has been suspicious of the unions.
Perhaps because of their history of protest against Asians’ and Europeans’ dominance of the economy in colonial Uganda and their mobilisation power—and are, therefore, reluctant to breathe new life into them. The ongoing revival is being engineered by coffee farmers.
Farmer field schools
Even when they have greater bargaining power for their produce, coffee farmers need to produce more quality coffee.
Probably, the Farmer Field Schools (FFS) in Kasese is a good example of training farmers on how to achieve this.
During a visit to the group Kabebe belongs to, a session is underway in Kabebe’s plantation.
The training has been made possible with help from aBi Trust, a development partner that funds agribusiness ventures, and technical support from Hanns R Neumann Stiftung.
Support from aBi Trust also extends to maize, hot pepper, milk production and value addition.
Sevelino Bwambale, the facilitator, is leading a group of seven members on the lesson about the prevention of coffee pests and diseases. Team members are allowed to contribute knowledge and ask questions on the day’s topic.
Kabebe, one of the best farmers in his farm group, is attending this session and has learnt better agronomic lessons—such as planting, harvesting and post-harvest handling—from the previous training sessions.
“Unlike my neighbours,” he says pointing at the next plantation whose coffee plants are visibly competing with the tall weeds for nutrients.
“I take weeding seriously, I have dug contours to prevent soil erosion and I prune my coffee plants.”
Consequently, the father of four has put Bwambale’s lessons into practice, translating into higher yields.
To improve his farm, Kabebe borrowed Shs6m from Centenary Bank to revamp his plantation. He would later pay back the loan but the subsequent harvests were worth the effort.
“I harvest almost three times the amount I used to reap before I joined FFS,” he reveals with a grin.
Challenges for field schools
Despite the successes such as those highlighted by Kabebe, the field school has faced some setbacks.
According to facilitator Bwambale, who also grows coffee on the three-acre land he owns in the same area, the attendance of some of the FFS sessions is normally low on Tuesdays. This is because this day coincides with the market day. In fact, on the day of our visit, eight out of the 15 members of this group are absent, most of them males.
“People also expect us [the facilitators] to give them hoes, machines and tarpulins. For us we give them ideas – not money,” the 41-year old facilitator adds.
Replacing old coffee plants
That coffee production in Uganda has suffered a setback for more than two decades now. Consequently, this has shrunk the country’s earnings from this major export.
The country is one of the largest coffee producers/exporters, only second to Ethiopia in Africa and the ninth the world.
Decline in the major cash crop has been attributed, among other factors, to ageing of the coffee trees.
Most of them were planted about five decades ago, yet the plant is only economically viable for 40 calendar years. But even with new plants, pests and diseases have affected both the quantity and quality of yields.
Chris Kaijuka, the managing director, Royal Plants and Nurseries in Kyenjojo District, states that Uganda requires about 300 million plants to revitalise the sector.
Supported by aBi Trust, his company has supplied 59,320 planting materials developed at their tissue culture laboratory in a space of nine months.
The fund has helped in the production of plantlets for Robusta coffee, grown in lowlands by more than 70 per cent of the country’s coffee farmers.
Arabica coffee, the other variety that grows in highlands, is resistant to the coffee wilt disease that has decimated plantations.
Funding worth about Shs2.6bn, helped in purchase of lab equipment as well as upgrading of the laboratory and expansion of nurseries.
The scientists are using a pest-resistant variety developed by National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro).
Farmers all over the country have accessed these plantlets through Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), a government agency established 25 years ago, to improve the quality and market the cash crop.
“UCDA gives these [plantlets] to farmers at a subsidized price; it’s almost free,” says Naboth Edongat, Royal Plants’ laboratory manager. “Farmers are then helped to establish mother gardens to get more plantlets.”
Edongat also defends the plantlets against the misconception about tissue culture. He clarifies that they are not genetically modified.
In Uganda, the debate on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is a controversial one. Most farmers are likely to shun seedlings associated with genetic alteration.
“Tissue culture does not change the genes; it only helps in the multiplication [of the coffee plants]. We do not do genetic engineering,” he explains.
Through plant tissue culture, a technology through which plant cells are developed into new plants, the company is now producing planting materials that are disease- and pest-resistant.
On the whole, it is expected that the movement for the revival of the coffee sector will sustain the hope it is steadily giving to the farmers. However, it is clear that revamping of the cash crop will depend on the following factors: Restoration of cooperative unions, training of farmers, and replacing old plants that are no longer productive.