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February Coffee Origin Focus: Uganda

Welcome to the first Origin Focus of 2024. It’s a new year and a whole new us! If you’re a long-time reader of our Origin Focuses you’ll notice we’ve decided to change things up a little. Rather than cover three origins with a light touch, we thought it better to pick one origin and do more of a deep dive, to make the most of our partners at origin and their wealth of knowledge and first-hand experiences of life on the ground.

To kick off the year we are first focusing on Uganda. This origin tends to be one that is often overlooked when it comes to arabica-growing origins, and at times overshadowed by its East African neighbours, who are, perhaps, more established within the industry.

Currently Uganda exports just shy of 7 million bags of coffee a year, ranking them 10th in the world in terms of volume. This is perhaps a surprising figure, and brings it into a league with the like of Ethiopian coffee exports, a more established origin. However, in Uganda internal coffee consumption is very low, meaning the vast majority of coffee is exported. Whereas Ethiopia has a thriving coffee-consumption culture, so only a part of their total production is exported. The majority of coffee in Uganda is commercial grade and bought by multinational exporters, who tend to buy from middlemen, and with their purchasing power are able to set the price they pay.

Coffee in Uganda (in part at least) supports roughly 3.5 million people’s livelihoods in rural areas as a cash crop, with many more involved in the industry, making it a vital part of the economy. Uganda is largely an agricultural nation, exporting a wide range of fruit and vegetables alongside coffee and spices, and agriculture supports a huge 80% of the population. However, after gold, which accounts for roughly 50% of exports, coffee is the biggest at between 10-15% of their total exports, depending on the year. Ugandan coffee exports have grown rapidly in the last few years, but they have even higher ambitions, the Ugandan government currently have the goal of exporting 20 million bags per year by 2030, which will have an estimated total value of $2.2bn. This is a huge increase in terms of volume but also in value. There is a movement pushing to increase the value of Ugandan coffee. To do this they will need to improve quality, traceability as well as the image of Uganda coffee. Currently the traceability of Uganda coffee is generally low, as it is grown largely by smallholder farmers, they sell to local collectors who will sell onto exporters.

Primarily Uganda is known for its robusta production, which accounts for around 80% of the national production. In fact, robusta is actually native to Uganda, originating from the land around Lake Victoria, a region known for its biodiversity and fertile soil, so it is a plant which flourishes in the country’s natural environment. Robusta is grown widely across the country in areas of Central, Eastern, Western and South Eastern Uganda at altitudes up to 1200 masl. There are two main harvest seasons for Uganda Robusta, March-June and September-November, with the main crop for the Central and Eastern regions being the winter season, and the main crop for the Western Region being the spring months, meaning there is good availability year-round.

The other 20% of Uganda’s coffee production is made up of arabica. Unlike Robusta, Arabica is not native to Uganda but was introduced from the nearby Ethiopia during the 20th century. As the altitude of Uganda is on the whole lower than that of Ethiopia, the trees haven’t flourished here in the same way as they do in Ethiopia. Therefore, Ugandan Arabica grows in fewer regions across the country than its Robusta counterpart, and is mainly found in the highlands around Mount Elgon in the East and Mount Muhabura and the Rwenzori Mountain range in the South West. There are some speciality lots being produced, mostly in the Mount Elgon and Rwenzori regions, but the for the most part Ugandan Arabica is commercial grade quality.

There are two ways Arabica is classified in Uganda: WUGAR and DRUGAR. These stand of Washed Ugandan Arabica (WUGAR) and Dried Ugandan Arabica (DRUGAR), this is sun-dried natural coffee, as designated by he Ugandan Coffee Development Authority (UCDA). The majority of arabica is washed processed and some natural, however, some experimentation with processing is beginning to happen. For example, Clarke Farm are producing a Honey Arabica, which under the UCDA is classified as WUGAR.

This year the arabica season was shorter than expected and rainfall was heavy. Whilst ample rainfall is crucial in the development of the cherries, too much rain can, and did, hinder ripening as well as make the process of harvesting the coffee and getting it down the mountain much more difficult.

Clarke Farm and Coffee Estates

In 2023 DRWakefield began our relationship with Clarke Farm in Uganda. The farm was founded by Ian Clarke, an Irish-Ugandan doctor who has been living in the country for 35 years, and turned to coffee in more recent years. The farm is located in Kitumba near Fort Portal in Western Uganda and primarily grows robusta. Ian is passionate about improving the coffee sector in Uganda through improving the quality of the coffee and therefore improving the price it can be sold for, and the wide-reaching benefits that will have on millions of people across the country. To do this he is taking a two-pronged approach. The first of which is by creating a commercial hub with Clarke Farm’s processing facilities. These act as a collection centre, but beyond that as an example farm which demonstrates good agricultural practices, encouraging other farms to follow suit. Currently, during the robusta harvest season, there are about 600 local people employed by the farm.

The second area they are focusing on is buying some Arabica lots from the nearby foothills of the Rwenzori mountain range and they process them at their facility. To source these coffees Clarke Farm have a network of farmers and agents who have good agronomy training and ensure the quality is of the highest standard. They will only take coffee where the cherries have been floated and the low density cherries (the floaters) have been removed. This they pay more for but it is money well spent as significantly improves the cup profile. At the moment floating is not common practice in Uganda as more commercial buyers do not require it, but then pay a lower price. The higher price Clarke Farm will pay for the better quality cherries acts as an incentive to focus on good agricultural practices which will improve yield and quality. DRWakefield have bought three of these arabica lots from Clarke Farm this year, a Natural, Honey and Washed lot, all cupping well. They are due to arrive in our UK warehouse around April this year, if you are interested in these coffees get in touch with the Trade Team.

When looking to the future of coffee in Uganda it will be very interesting to see where the country will go. The ambitious goals of the government to nearly triple their export volume by 2030 suggests that increasing quantity if the main focus, rather than improving quality. However, farms like Clarke Farm are working on improving the quality of the coffee they already have to improve Uganda’s reputation as a coffee origin, and in doing so increase the livelihoods of those growing the coffee. Perhaps these two pathways will work in harmony to increase both the quality and quantity of Ugandan coffee in the future.

Headlines from other Origins

  • In Honduras, the crop is down compared to last year. In the eastern zone down by 50%, and the rest of the country 30-40%. High levels of rust have been found, although the levels of Broca in high-altitude coffee is decreasing. However, weather is optimal for drying the coffee post-harvest.
  • In Costa Rica, the exported volume of coffee is down near 30% in January 2024 compared to January 2023. From October 2023 to January 2024 is fell 13% from same period in the previous harvest.
  • Brazil had optimal weather throughout December 2023 and January 2024, which is expected to continue and currently, there are no weather concerns for the near future.
  • Shipments from Asian and East African origins are being delayed and diverted due to the conflict in the Red Sea. Freight rates from these origins have risen as a result.