Landlocked and reliant on Mombasa for exports, in 2020 Uganda produced over 5.6m bags of coffee. It is the largest exporter of coffee from Africa (although not the largest producer) Sudan remains the single largest market for export and other African nations accounting for over 20% of all exports.
Within minutes of landing at Entebbe International Airport it’s easy to see: Uganda is different to many of its neighbours. The airport, once the scene of the infamous “Operation Thunderbolt” has been rejuvenated. Bright, light and airy; the immigration officials are polite, efficient and respectful – this is a good sign for things to come.
Huge swathes of investment that has been pouring in to Uganda can be seen in the substantial infrastructure projects underway. Bypasses, ring roads and other traffic alleviating systems are being constructed at an extensive rate – long overdue perhaps, but welcome none the less.
Uganda has a flourishing small holder coffee producer network spreading throughout the country from the mountainous Mt Elgon to the East to the shores of lake Victoria to the south and Congolese border to the South West. This lush tropical nation is blessed with indigenous Robusta varieties, and the imported Arabica typical of East Africa – Bourbon, Kent and other modified varietals that are helping shape this country’s coffee future.
Visiting many of the Co Operatives in the country, one is faced with often repetitive questions from members – “how to improve their incomes”. From a purely commercial viewpoint the answer appears to be a simple one– grow more coffee.
Typical of East Africa, the blights of many diseases in the past, not least Coffee berry disease has lead to a farming method whereby spacing between trees is vital for air flow. This helps to alleviate micro climates that CBD can thrive in. But as a result, yields per acre are severely impacted. Tree spacing on many of these farms is enormous, and there seems to be no method to the planting at all. Tree positioning is haphazard at best leaving space for bananas and other cash crops to flourish – as well as pigs, chickens and the occasional dairy cow. This is subsistence farming at its most basic.
Uganda enjoys almost perfect conditions for growing coffee. The deep rich fertile soil is perfect for producing almost anything. Rainfall is plenty, sunshine is abundant, and the climate is temperate. No wonder the country is aiming to produce 20m bags – this should be an easy target to achieve. Although the timeline for the target has been shifted from 2020 to 2025. Perhaps this is even a little too optimistic – 2030 may be more reasonable.
Coffee trees are looking healthy and abundant – quality remains good. With only a handful of trees to look after, many producers have the time and dedication to ensuring each one is producing to full capacity.
Uganda has much to do to improve, but all things considered, it appears to be heading in the right direction. Infrastructural projects will speed up logistics, enabling produce to reach the market quicker and creating efficiencies in the supply chain. Land is abundant, and soils are healthy – the potential to produce is vast. Farmers are eager and willing to learn and increasingly becoming empowered to take control of their own supply chains. In our view, out of all East African countries we have visited, Uganda shows the most promise for the future.