When he dropped out of school about two decades ago, Wilson Kabebe resorted to coffee growing on a one-and-half acre piece of land located in Muwelo village, Isule parish, Maliba sub-county in Kasese district.
Kabebe, who dropped out at the end of his O-level due to lack of school fees, then reaped about 70 kilogrammes of the cash crop every season lasting about six months. From his produce, Kabebe would smile his way home with about Shs 3,000 for each killogramme as extended by the middleman.
Sometimes, the middlemen would book the 39-year-old’s plantation as soon as it flowered.
“I realized that the prices offered were less than those earned by farmers in organized groups,” he reminisces with a tinge of regret.
COOPERATIVES KICKING OUT MIDDLEMEN?
Realising that middlemen were exploiting them, Kabebe and his fellow coffee farmers organized themselves into a cooperative society: Isule Cooperative society which comprises 778 farmers – 132 females and 646 males.
Women sorting coffee beans at Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union, Kabwohe, Sheema District, Western Uganda
The cooperative initiative has paid off: Kabebe now earns more money per kilo compared to what he was bagging before joining the cooperative. While he was previously paid about Shs 3,000 per kilo, the prices now range between Shs 5,000 to 8,500 per kilo, thanks to better bargaining power that comes with selling as a cooperative.
Besides the exploitation, the middlemen are partly responsible for the poor quality of coffee according to John Nuwagaba, the general manager of Ankole Coffee Producers Cooperative Union (ACPCU) Limited located in Kabwohe, a trading centre located about 350km outside the capital Kampala.
“The middlemen buy the coffee while still in the plantations and pick it before it ripens,” he says. “They also add extraneous 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, the cooperative began encouraging others such as the Banyankore-Kweterana to revive their operations and save the farmer from exploitation by middlemen.
But Nuwagaba admits that the revival of cooperatives will require government intervention, especially regarding the recapitalization of the unions since “most of them lost their working capital”.
Previously a backbone of the Ugandan economy, cooperatives collapsed in the 1970s with ascent to power of President Idi Amin Dada who chased away Asians, forcing expatriates and capable leaders and managers of these unions scampering into exile.
Nuwagaba also requests government to stop interfering in the operations of the farmer organizations 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 that drove in the coffin of cooperatives unions was the political interests of those that managed the farmers’ organizations.
Since their collapse, it seems governments have been suspicious of the unions – perhaps because of their history of protest against the Asians’ and Europeans’ dominance of the economy in colonial Uganda and their mobilization of power – and are therefore reluctant to breathe life into them. The ongoing revival is being engineered by coffee farmers countrywide with support from aBi Trust a multilateral donor entity founded by the Governments of Denmark and Uganda.
FARMER FIELD SCHOOLS
Even when they have greater bargaining power for their produce, coffee farmers need to produce more quality coffee – and perhaps the Farmer Field Schools in Kasese supported by aBi Trust a good example of training farmers on how to achieve this.
When we visit 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 private sector agribusiness through Implementing Partners such as Hanns R Neumann Stiftung. Support from aBi Trust also extends to cereals, horticulture, dairy, pulses, oilseeds and coffee.
Sevelino Bwambale, the facilitator, is leading 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,” Kabebe says pointing at the next plantation whose coffee plants are visibly competing with the weeds for nutrients. “I now 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 Shs 6m from Centenary Bank to revamp his plantation. He would later payback the loan but the subsequent harvests were worth the effort.
“I now harvest almost three times the amount I used to reap before I joined Farmer field schools,” he reveals with a grin.
CHALLENGES OF FARMER FIELD SCHOOL (FFS)
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 acres of land he owns in the same area as Kabebe, the attendance of some of the FFS sessions is normally low on Tuesdays because this day coincides with the area’s market days. In fact on the day of our visit, eight of 15 members of this group are absent, most of them males.
“People also expect us [the facilitators] to give them hoes, machines and tarpaulins. For us we give them ideas – not money,” the 41-year old facilitator adds.
REPLACING OLD COFFEE PLANTS
Coffee production in Uganda has suffered a setback for over two decades now and consequently shrunk the country’s earnings from this major export.
The decline of this major cash crop in Uganda the largest producers of coffee – only second to Ethiopia and the ninth the world – has been attributed, among other factors, to the aging of the coffee plants.
With most of the coffee planted about five decades ago – yet the plant is only economically viable for 40 calendar years. Even with the new plants, pests and diseases have been affecting both the quantity and quality of yields.
Prilla Basemera a bio technician at Royal Plants and Nurseries examines a coffee tissue culture process in the laboratory, Kyenjojo District.
According to Chris Kaijuka, the Managing Director of Royal Plants and Nurseries in Kyenjojo district, Uganda needs about 300 million plants to revitalize the sector.
Using funds extended by aBi Trust, an entity that funds private sector agribusiness, Royal Plants and Nurseries has supplied over 59,320 Coffee Wilt Disease resistant (CWDr) planting materials developed at their Kyenjojo tissue culture laboratory in a space of nine months.
aBi Trust fund has helped in the production of plantlets for Robusta coffee, grown in lowlands by over 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.
The support from aBi, worth about Shs 2.6bn, helped in the purchase of laboratory equipment, upgrading of the laboratory and expansion of nurseries.
The scientists are using a pest-resistant variety developed by the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) that has difficulty in multiplication.
Farmers all over the country have accessed these coffee planting materials through the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), a government agency established 25 years ago, to improve coffee quality and market the cash crop.
“UCDA gives these [plantlets] to farmers at a subsidized price; it’s almost free,” says Naboth Edongat, the Royal Plants’ laboratory manager. “Farmers are then helped to establish mother gardens to get more plantlets.
Edongat also defends the plantlets, clarifying that they are not Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). In Uganda, the debate on Genetically Modified Organisms is a controversial one and 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.
Royal Plants and Nurseries Ltd, located about 250km outside the capital Kampala, has taken up the challenge to give Uganda’s coffee sector a lease of fresh air.
Through plant tissue culture, a biotechnology 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, although it is clear that with aBi’s support the revival of the coffee sector will sustain the hope it is steadily giving to the farmers, it is clear that revamping of the cash crop depends on the restoration of cooperative unions; training of farmers in good agricultural practices; and replacing old plants that are no longer productive.