FARMER'S DIARY: In coffee too, patience pays

Mr Philip Luyombo Muluya and wife examine a coffee crop. They advice farmers to wait until they have the right quality of coffee and sell at the best prices. PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. SSALI

Mr Philip Luyombo Muluya, and his wife Harriet, residents of Kitanga village in Masaka District, recently bought a new car with some of the money they earned from last season’s coffee growing season. During a visit to their home last week, it was interesting to listen to their views on what many of our farmers should perhaps know as some of the secrets behind successful farming today.

It was also an opportunity to note the great importance that Ms Muluya attaches to gender equity in successful farming. Mr Muluya, a retired agricultural extension service provider, is the chairman of Kabonera Coffee Farmers’ Association, an affiliate member of Nucafe (National Union of Coffee Agri-business and Farmers Enterprise). His wife, a retired school teacher, is in charge of gender equity issues.

The couple now has a new car because, as they said, they sold their coffee at a very good price. “But it is mainly because we always have the commodity market requirements in mind,” Mr Muluya explained. “We had entered into a memorandum of understanding with coffee buyers in Italy known as Caffé River who offered better prices than most local coffee buyers.

The Luganda word for our relationship is omukwano. It means friendship between Caffe’ River and Nucafe. We knew their requirements, especially in terms of quality and we had to fulfill them, pick red ripe coffee, dry it on tarpaulin or any other clean place to exclude any foreign materials, and ensure it is really dry – at least not above moisture 13 (coffee moisture measurements made by a machine, which some farmers and coffee traders keep).”

He stressed the need for strict observance of hygiene since coffee is ultimately a beverage. Their association commited to sell to Caffé River a minimum of 40 metric tonnes of FAQ coffee, (kase) screen 17 and 18, (the biggest coffee beans, also the most preferred) and therefore they encouraged all their farmers to grow cloned Robusta Coffee from which it was easier to get bigger coffee cherries. “Of course we did not entirely reject smaller coffee beans. We had to grade our coffee and we still had ample market for smaller size coffee beans, screen 16 and lower as long as the desired quality standards were met.”

One of the chief objectives of Nucafe is to make the farmers the owners of their coffee crop and in the struggle to achieve this it, encourages farmers to resist the temptation of selling their crop at the lowest stages of its value chain.

Trouble is that often, this calls for some patience since those who sell at the lower levels in the value chain like at the raw coffee cherries level, earn money earlier although it is often much less than what they would get if they waited.

“So we linked the farmers to Centenary Bank which provided some cash to use as they waited for the rather long process of waiting to come up with the desired quality product sellable at a higher grade in the value chain - drying, processing, and grading,” Muluya explained. “Caffé River also has been helpful - providing us with some advance payment to our farmers.”But Muluya still had some other advice for farmers who wish to wait until they have come up with the right quality of the coffee crop to sell at the best market price possible.

He suggests taking up alternative farm enterprises such as poultry, cattle keeping or growing other crops such as maize, or beans. Coffee takes a long time to begin paying the farmer (between four and six years to achieve meaningful harvests) and even when it starts, the time between harvest periods is fairly long so an alternative farm enterprise is quite advisable. The couple therefore grows maize, mangoes, bananas and also keeps a dairy cow and some pigs.

Gender equality
Ms Muluya however, has a warning for all coffee farming households. “There has to be gender equity in the family,” she says. “There must be transparency in whatever the husband and the wife do with the money earned from the coffee. Even the children should have an idea about what the parents are doing in terms of inputs and what happens when the coffee is sold.

“Together they come to respect coffee as their family’s joint enterprise and their source of livelihood. Where transparency is lacking there may be theft of the crop by the family members and minimum attention paid to the crop, since each individual will be suspicious of the other, and ultimately the coffee quality will deteriorate along with its money value, resulting in lower household income.”