Region: Eastern Uganda – Mount Elgon region
Town / City: Chema town, Kapchorwa district
Farm: Kawacom Sipi Falls Sustainable Project
Owner: Various smallholder farmers
Altitude: 1300 – 2000 masl
Processing: Fully washed & sun dried (finished in mechanical driers)
For many, Uganda might not the first country that comes to mind when thinking of high quality Arabica: the country has been traditionally known as a producer of Robusta. However, in many regions of the country the challenges are more a matter of infrastructure, history and knowledge than environment. For instance, the slopes of Mt. Elgon in country’s East (bordering Kenya) are ideally suited for the production of high-quality specialty coffee.
The locals believe that god lives on Mt. Elgon – far beyond where people venture – and that when he is happy, he delivers rain to the bountiful gardens clinging to the mountainside. Indeed, these green, fertile hillsides are very nearly divine territory for the production of potentially spectacular coffees, and producers are increasingly realising their potential.
The Sipi Falls Organic Coffee Product has made the most of these idea natural surroundings in Uganda’s Mount Elgon region and is pushing the boundaries of how we think about Ugandan coffee. By promoting the cultivation of Arabica coffee, training farmers in agricultural techniques and best practices, educating widely regarding the importance of harvest and post harvest activities, and building top-notch washing stations, the project hopes to put Uganda ‘on the map’ as the next big destination for speciality coffee.
The Sipi Falls Organic Coffee Product was initiated in 1999 in Uganda’s Kapchorwa district – high on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, where coffee grows at altitudes ranging from 1,300 metres climbing up to 1,900 metres. Arabica is the main cash crop here and is normally inter-cropped or grown alongside other crops such a banana and beans.
Kawacom – the driving force behind this quality-driven project and Mercanta’s exporting partner in Uganda – began the project with an impressive 5,000 small holder coffee farmers with an average of 0.5 ha each under coffee. These farmers, all keen to participate in higher value speciality markets, were trained in criteria for socially and environmentally responsible coffee growing practices and efficient farm management with the aim of certifying and marketing their coffee on the international scene. In 2002, the project received its very first Organic certificate – an accomplishment that has, over the years, attracted UTZ, JAS and Rainforest Alliance certification schemes. Today, the project has expanded significantly, thanks to these successes, and reaches over 10,000 small holder farmers, many of whom not only receive higher prices for their higher quality coffee but also participate in other social and environmental programs and cash management project.
The name of the project hails from the local scenic landmark of Sipi Falls. This 3 phase waterfall plunges down the slopes of Mt Elgon – once thought to be the tallest in Africa due to its enormous base, which covers 3,500 square kilometers across Uganda and Kenya.
Kawacom has heavily encouraged renovation activities amongst project participants and has, for the past several years, distributed approximately 200,000 coffee seedlings annually to its partner farmers. These SL 14 & 28 varieties are well-suited to the climate of the region and produce high cup quality.
The primary pruning is done in December & February after harvesting, whereby dry branches are removed as well as unproductive and diseased branches. Stumping of old, unproductive trees is also conducted during this time and is a key tool for improved productivity. Other types of pruning, which help select productive branches, improve airflow and limit disease, are undertaken throughout the year, as well.
Soil fertility is maintained by regular applications of composted manure and by establishing cover crops. No synthetic fertilisers or pesticides are used. In order to control pest damage, chillies, wood ash (containing potassium), marigold and animal urine are used.
During the harvest season, Kawacom encourages farmers to deliver cherry to their new, state-of-the-art wet mill instead of hand pulping on their farm. This has given the project increased control over processing activities, which can be challenging in the region as rains during the harvest season are common.
All coffee is selectively hand-picked and is delivered by individual farmers to one of Kawacom’s 9 collection points. These collection points deliver all cherry received at the end of each day to be pulped at the central mill, and lots are defined by sub-regional origin and altitude. Upon arrival at the mill, the coffee is then sorted again to remove any remaining under- or over-ripe beans, and after sorting, the ripe coffee cherries are delivered to the mill’s Pinhalense pulpers. After pulping, mucilage is mechanically removed, the parchment is soaked in tanks for 12 hours and is then either delivered to dry in beds in the sun (very low quantities due to seasonal rains) or dried at low, constant temperatures in mechanical driers that are fuelled by dried coffee husks. Since 2015, the mill has also been able to produce very limited quantities of Specialty Natural coffee (floating the cherries then sun-drying for about 3 weeks with constant turning of the drying cherries) – a method which won the group a Taste of the Harvest award in 2016.
Kawacom extension workers continuously work to sensitise farmers participating in the project to youth and gender issues, to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and to provide education in finance and savings management. The project has also established a training centre to train farmers in all issues relating to Good Agricultural Practices and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Furthermore, Kawacom runs a Gender & Youth Initiative that promotes entrepreneurial training and opportunities for local youth.
Kawacom has also worked to establish ecological awareness programs, such as preventing deforestation by encouraging and financially facilitating the implementation of energy efficient cooking stoves that use bio-gas for fuel. They are currently investing in rainwater harvesting tanks that will be installed at farmers’ homes to collect rain water for domestic use.